While working as a herbarium assistant at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (London, United Kingdom) I was invited to travel to the Congo (Brazzaville) in order to help with a vegetation and plant species survey in and adjacent to the Dimonika Reserve (located in the Mayombe Hills). The results of the survey showed that the forest that is currently not part of the Dimonika Reserve (it is separated by a road by the Niari River), is very valuable from a conservation point of view. This forest is both species-rich and relatively undisturbed. For instance, it is rich in Tieghemella africana Pierre, an IUCN listed endangered species as well as other red data species listed by the IUCN.
The forest and grassland mosaic on the West side of the Niari River represents an example with scientific and conservation value, of how the forest has expanded and the grassland has diminished since the end of the last ice age.
Having previously worked as an ethnobotanist in Cameroon to document Somié village plant uses, I decided it would be of interest to conduct a short and very basic ethnobotanical investigation with the local tradipractitioner Tati Boungou Luc as this would help initiate an ethnobotanical valuation of forest plants as well as to ascertain the level of transmission of knowledge for medicinal plants found in Sounda village.
The forest around Sounda is important to the people as they use timber as building material and go hunting. Also, some powerful medicinal plants come from the forest. People also do slash-and-burn style farming between forest plots.
However, sadly, the saying of : “can’t see the forest for the trees” is gradually applying to young people’s attitudes towards the forest as they see how logging is becoming an industry, and therefore a reliable source of income.
A middle-aged local once told me that there is a forest fairy that lives in Sounda and they call her Sounda la Belle. You can see her on misty days above the waterfall and then the trees turn a certain kind of green and the air is different around them. It is a specific spot and can be seen from the village. Her appearance is taken as a good omen (mostly around the time when the sardines are plentiful in the river). Obviously, without the forest and the canopy and humidity around it, such apparitions would also disappear, and, as the healer said, maybe then, the sardines would also get less or not come at all….
Another story of a “spirit forest” was told to me by the tradipractitioner: there is a sacred patch of forest about 1-2 hours drive from Sounda. There, it is said, in one particular part of the forest all the trees are enchanted and if you go there strange things can happen to you, like you might get lost or fall asleep or other things. People are scared to go there or to cut down trees as they are spirited. People who migrate into the area don’t know these customs so they might not be as respectful with the forest and, as the tradipractitioner said, this could cause misfortune for the whole village.
He also spoke about the fact that there are some very powerful medicines that come from specific areas of the forest, but unfortunately it takes a long time to get there and collect. He believes this is one of the reasons why young people don’t really want to be his apprentice. The more forest is cut down, the further he will have to go and some of the strongest medicines will then be even harder to come by.
The notion that medicinal plant knowledge was in decline amongst the youth living in the village was also communicated to me very early on during my stay. This loss of knowledge is perceived as detrimental and is attributed to negative influences of school education and the church as well as the attraction of the youth to a more globalised life style based on material values.
Although many locals are happy when roads get built through their village because they can access hard to reach areas of the forest in order to start little farms or hunt, little to no information exists to determine the conservation status of these resources. For instance, much of the work in Sounda has largely focused on trees used as timber and leads me to believe that more plants are endangered than assumed. Unfortunately, lack of funding to conduct botanical expeditions coupled with lacking infrastructure for local herbariums that are struggling to preserve dried specimens, makes conserving medicinal species in the Congo very challenging, making my time spent in Sounda even more worthwhile.
I am always struck by the fact that species rich forests like many in subsaharan Africa are located in countries with inadequate infrastructure for conservation and rampant corruption. Most local people are of the impression that the richness and generosity of the forest cannot change, that somehow she will restore herself and continue giving. The pressures of poverty coupled with the effects of globalisation, such as mobile phones and internet, create new desires that can only be met with money. So the younger generation starts to see the value of the forest in terms of money and that often clouds the appreciation of non timber forest products such as medicinal plants.
People are also often fooled about the use of their medicinal plants and told that the little pills they get at health centres or the market come from certain plants in their area. But mostly the medicinal plants used in medication are exported to India or other countries with labs and facilities to make the medicine, and rarely can poor people in the country of the plant’s origin afford those medicines. In the meantime, they forget the traditional uses and preparations for the plants as the healers are struggling to find apprentices.
The greatest help from the international community would be to set up working infrastructures to keep the plants in the country, an effort that Jamaica is currently making, especially when it comes to the medicinal Marihuana market and the so called nutraceuticals. The documentation of traditional pharmacopoeias is undoubtedly a very important task that should be done by trained locals and be an ongoing effort which would then also identify certain species that are becoming rare and reinstate a different value for them.
In African countries where mining operations rely largely on foreign as well as local populations, there needs to be more mediation between immigrants and locals, in order to convey the importance of certain trees. In Sierra Leone immigrants who came to work for a mining company cut down two of the only three remaining trees of a particular species because they needed to build dwellings. The mining company should have built them shelters or given them some materials.
Poverty also drives the population to deforest more areas with slash and burn methods, and it might be a good approach to not only educate people about the importance of certain species but also give them incentives to cultivate those on their plots of land. Again, this could only come from local chiefs or government, but the international community could invest into this.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Réka Komáromi is a freelance ethnobotanist based in Berlin, Germany. Since 1988 she has been an associate for the Institute of Ecotechnics, travelling on many expeditions with the RV Heraclitus. In 2009 she completed her MSc in Ethnobotany (University of Kent, Canterbury) which examined ethnobotanical knowledge of the Mambila community in the Cameroon-Nigeria borderland. Since then Réka has worked as a herbarium assistant and plant collector for the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. More recently, through the Institute for Ecotechnics, she helped establish an Amazonian ethnobotanical collection in the herbarium located at Southern Cross University in Australia. When not plant collecting, she lectures on psychoactive and spiritual plants and is currently involved in researching Rastafari uses of plants for spirituality.