Conservation in Conflict with Ethnobotanical Culture in Tanzania’s Kilombero Valley


Traditional knowledge on wild and cultivated plants in the Kilombero Valley (Morogoro Region, Tanzania)

Salinitro M, Vicentini R, Bonomi C, Tassoni A
J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2017 Mar 9;13(1):17 PubMed Central: PMC5345176

The Kilombero River floodplain of Tanzania, from Udzungwa Mountains National Park
The Kilombero River floodplain of Tanzania, from Udzungwa Mountains National Park [photo: Jens Klinzing, Wikimedia Commons]
Researchers from the University of Bologna and MUSE (Museo delle Scienze) investigated and recorded traditional knowledge about the use of wild and cultivated plants in villages adjacent to Udzungwa Mountains National Park in Tanzania’s Kilombero River floodplain.

Writing in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, the team reports findings from interviews with ten traditional local healers selected with the collaboration of Associazione Mazingira, a group affiliated with MUSE that runs environmental education projects in the area and maintains close contact with the local people.

Cajanus cajan
Cajanus cajan [Art: Francisco Manuel Blanco, Wikimedia Commons]
The traditional healers described 196 plant species used for ethnomedicinal and other everyday purposes like food, fibers, and timber, 118 of which the team could classify botanically. Species highly cited for medicinal purposes included Cajanus cajan (teeth and gums, otitis); Hibiscus surattensis (eye diseases, gastrointestinal diseases); Kigelia africana (pain and inflammation, gastrointestinal diseases); and Vitex doniana (weakness and fainting).

The authors note that forests in Tanzania are under severe threat, with deforestation in the Kilombero Valley in particular caused by competition for land by agriculture, teak and eucalyptus plantations, and charcoal production. In contrast to the lowlands, forests in the neighboring Udzungwa Mountains are protected along the entire range, increasingly restricting the access of local people to harvesting areas, to the detriment of ethnobotanical knowledge in the region:

“For years, local healers could bypass the restrictions for access to National Parks, but given the increasingly strict rules, they have lately been forced to change their places of collection with a serious impact on everyday life. In fact, the knowledge and experience of each traditional healer are deeply linked to the place where he/she learned and practiced plant collection over the years. There are now few forest areas in Kilombero Valley that can provide therapeutic plants. These are located far from the villages, and some of the collection methods, such as decortication [removal of a plant’s outer layer], could be extremely impactful when carried out in small areas, making the plants unusable after a few years….

“Since the founding of Udzungwa Mountains National Park, more than 24 years ago, there has been a depletion of the traditional medical culture, due to the forced abbandonement of familiar areas of collection, as well as the progressively more difficult transmission of knowledge to and training of young healers. Finally, the cost of traditional medicine is now starting to grow, causing a significant problem for people who have always relied on this method for their healthcare.”

The creation and subsequent management of the Udzungwa Mountains National Park has had the unintended consequence of reducing collection areas for plant species essential to the lives of people living in the Kilombero Valley, intensifying the harvesting pressure on the few remaining areas of unprotected forest and endangering ethnobotanical culture and knowledge developed over many generations:

“Harvesting practices like root excavation and stem decortication are causing a progressive depletion of many medicinal plant species. In addition, deforestation makes medicinal species harvesting areas increasingly scarce, forcing many local healers to abandon the practice. In the light of these facts, it is essential, in the immediate future, to educate traditional healers as well as common people to the sustainable use of the surrounding natural heritage. It seems also necessary to provide the populations with additional means to increase the forested areas, such as the distribution of seedlings for biomass production. Although some efforts have already been made in the studied territory, and in spite of a firm tradition in Tanzania of community-based forest conservation, the situation remains critical and the state of unprotected forests near these villages is deteriorating year after year. This situation, if not quickly reversed, may lead to an unprecedented environmental crisis and to the loss of much of the traditional ethnobotanical culture. In this context, the present study wishes to contribute, at least to some ex[t]ent, to preserving the knowledge present in the investigated populations, still deeply connected to nature, and to passing down this unevaluable tradition to future generations.”

In passing, the authors state that “no actions have been taken to solve problems related to plant gathering practices.” Might this area of neglect motivate some new initiatives to solve a perennial problem, how best to balance the aims of forest conservation with the rights and needs of indigenous people?

Read the complete article at PubMed Central.

The information on my blog is not intended as a substitute for medical professional help or advice but is to be used only as an aid in understanding current medical knowledge. A physician should always be consulted for any health problem or medical condition.

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