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A Modern Herbal. Vol. 1: A-H

This article is based on five months of research in a ruralvillage in Nigeria. During this research numerous interviews of localtraditional medicine practitioners and others recognised by their communityas having valuable phytomedicinal knowledge were conducted. The central focusof these interviews was to identify how people incorporate medicinal plantsinto their lives and what changes their phytomedical knowledge is undergoing.This article identifies three main points: (1) that there is an abundance oftraditional phytomedical knowledge preserved by oral traditions in thisvillage, (2) this knowledge is endangered and action needs to be taken tohelp preserve it, and (3) the loss of traditions relating to the sustainableuse of medicinal herbs has resulted in the medicinal species themselvesbecoming threatened. Comparisons between the situation for modernAustralasian herbalists and village healers in the study community are madeand this article concludes with recommendations on how to mitigate the lossof both phytomedicinal knowledge and species globally.

A Modern Herbal. Vol. 1: A-H

Beyond conserving the herbs themselves, herbalists also have anobligation to society to preserve and develop traditional herbal knowledge.On many fronts we as a profession can be congratulated for having done astellar job at this as the rise of modern herbalism has seen scientificconfirmation and clarification of many traditional remedies. As a consequencephytomedicine in Australia (and throughout the developed world) has gained alot of credibility and recognition over recent decades (Bensoussan 2004). Oneof the most important battles the Australian natural medicine community isnow fighting is to get public health insurance rebates for alternativemedicine treatments, thereby making them affordable for poorer members ofsociety rather than a privilege of the rich (MacLennan 1996).

This article illustrates some of the problems that have arisenfrom this situation in an African village community. Similarities between theissues that herbalists in the study community face and the issues faced bymodern Australasian herbalists are apparent and thus the importance of issuesthat Australasian herbalists face can be seen as part of a larger, globalcontext.

Due to an increasing population as well as the relocation of thevillage, the farming methods of this community now rely on the application ofsynthetic fertilizers on permanently allocated fields, although nearly allthe village residents remain subsistence farmers. This study investigates thechanges in the traditional phytomedicinal knowledge of this community as aresult of these changes and the other effects of increasing modernisation andwestern influence in the region. By understanding the situation in thisvillage and identifying the similarities and differences between thechallenges faced by Australasian herbalists and the herbalists from Yelwavillage, the global significance of issues faced by Australasian herbalistscan be better conceptualised.

In this study 135 species of plants growing wild had recogniseduses and 77% of these uses were of a medicinal nature for either people (73%)or animals (4%) (see Figure 2). The uses to which these plants were appliedvaried between gender and tribe, and in some cases these uses were highlymystical. For example a common strategy employed to discourage the theft ofproduce from an unattended farm was to make coils of Pteridium aquilinum(common bracken) fronds and arranging several of them around the field. Thisis believed to cause sickness in any who steal produce. I have classified allsuch purposes under the heading 'Cultural'. This category alsoincludes ritual purposes such as use in wedding ceremonies or ceremonies tomark the birth of infants. In other instances this mysticism was somethingmore readily accepted by modern western herbalists. For example Emiliacoccinea (tassel flower) was indicated as an antimalarial but only for use inmen. While most western herbalists would be sceptical of this duality, manyothers (and probably quite a few who would be sceptical of such a directclaim as 'only for men') are subscribers to the belief that certainherbs have a greater affinity for treating conditions common to everyone incertain archetypes than others. Although very little is published in modernphytopharmacological reviews to this effect, western herbal traditionsinclude many such recognised affinities. For example in A modern Herbal MrsGrieve states of German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, M, recutita) thatit 'may be given freely to children, for whose ailments it is anexcellent remedy' while she recommends that English chamomile(Chamaemelum nobile, Anthemis nobilis) is 'especially for agedpersons' and 'for hysterical and nervous affection in women'(Grieve 1931). Thus I have recorded purposes such as this as medicinal,despite the cultural application of the medicinal plant.

This study has demonstrated that there is a wealth ofphytomedicinal knowledge continuing to be passed on through oral traditionsalone in rural regions of the developing world, much as Western phytomedicalknowledge was before it was set in type by the forbearers of the modernnaturopathic tradition such as Hildegard of Bingen, Nicholas Culpeper andmore recently Mrs. Maud Grieve. In indigenous societies this knowledge, whilestill extensive, is rapidly being lost. This is firstly as a result of thediminishing relative importance of herbalists in these communities (due tothe introduction of pharmaceuticals such as paracetamol and antibiotics); andsecondly because access to the medicinal plants themselves is often lost (asa result of local and global extinctions, the resettlement of villages andland use changes). Both of these factors have afflicted the Western herbalmedicine tradition in the past and we will never know how much invaluableknowledge has been lost. While the loss of traditional remedies from Africamay not have immediate consequences for us, the potential long term losses toour industry should motivate us to take the initiative in this matter.

However while documentation of the accumulated knowledge oftraditional healers in developing regions is necessary to preserve thecontent of oral traditions which are disappearing in a modern world, greatcare should be taken that this does not turn into an exploitative process(where the intellectual treasures of indigenous people are purloined)(Schuler 2004) but rather as co-operative research projects that respect andreward the skills of the indigenous healers.

In Australia and the Pacific Region the influence of developmentand modernisation on traditional healing techniques has already had asubstantial effect. However many communities still exist where traditionalmedicinal knowledge has been preserved (Maher 1999).

Grieve M. 1931. A Modern Herbal: the medicinal, culinary, cosmeticand economic properties, cultivation and folk-lore of herbs, grasses, fungi,shrubs & trees, with all their modern scientific uses. London: Penguin. 041b061a72


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