Uses and conservation status of medicinal pants used by the Shinasha people
& Pierre Binggeli
Plants are an indispensable source of medicinal preparations, both preventative and curative. China and India are the leading countries in using medicinal plants. Their traditions of plant remedies date back to at least 7000 years1.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 80% of the world’s population relies on traditional medicine to meet their daily health requirments2. In Africa reliance on such traditional medicines is partly owing to the high cost of modern drugs and inaccessibility of modern health institution3. Also in Africa, traditional systems are more culturally acceptable and are able to meet psychological needs in a way western medicine does not4.
Today this huge traditional knowledge of medicinal plants is playing an important role in the development of new drugs. An example of drugs discovered based on information derived from an ethnobotanical investigation is aspirin from Filipendula ulmar, morphine from Papaver sominferum, ephedrin from Ephedra sinica5 to name a few.
The use of traditional Medicine in Ethiopia
As in any African countries, the use of plants in religious ceremonies as well as for magic and medicinal purposes is common in Ethiopia. This knowledge of traditional medicine has been passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next by herbalists and knowledgeable elders. 80% of the Ethiopian population depend on traditional medicine for their health care practices. However, as time goes on, the traditional knowledge is gradually worn away for reasons mainly attributed to environmental degradation and deforestation, which in turn brought about the loss of some species including medicinal plants6.
In1975 the ministry of health set up an office for traditional medicine, with the aim of conducting chemical screening of medicine and carrying out a census of traditional medical practitioner, as well as evaluating traditional medicine. However, little progress was made and interest in traditional medicine declined. The relationship between traditional and modern medicine in Ethiopia is not harmonious as the government has little regard for traditional medicine7. Whatever it may be, the Ethiopian Traditional Medicine Practitioners were established in 1987. At present according to the Association chairman the Association has a membership of 9000 healers, vendors and collectors. This includes not all parts of the country, but only a few areas. If all traditional medicine practitioners, vendors and collectors are registered in the country under the association, it is expected to be more than 80,000 in number.
Conservation of medicinal plant and knowledge on traditional medicine in Ethiopia
The widespread effect of over harvesting and subsequent medicinal plant scarcity in Ethiopia is very alarming. But the effort to counteract unsustainable harvesting of these plants has been almost non-existent. The attitude of the authorities towards the problems has been, to say the least, indifferent.
To a large extent the scope of this study has grown out of my initial innocence as a field worker attempting to understand the complicated set of phenomena pertaining to the relation between, on the one hand, over-harvesting medicinal plants and scarcity problems, and on the other, trying to solve these problems through the advice of the experts. My involvement in the literature review with the intention of developing a list of species thought to be traded in large volumes, in high demand, or become scarce, field work in collection of species -specific information on plants and animals in 1996; and involvement in Ethnobotanical study on different Ethnic groups of Ethiopia from 1998 to 1999, gave me the opportunity to appreciate the severity of medicinal plant harvesting and its impact on the biological diversity in Ethiopia. In the field it was observed that the majority of rural population depend on traditional medicinal plants and animals collected from the wild. As a result of destruction of forests for new settlements, expansion of farmlands, overgrazing as well as the excessive harvesting wild rare and endangered plant species, diversity of these plants and animals is being reduced. Today, there has been no significant effort to conserve these plants in Ethiopia. There is no co-ordination between government agencies and organization, which are dealing with environment, natural resources and agriculture.
Not only plants but also the extensive and potentially useful knowledge harbored by traditional healers tends to disappear unrecorded. Concern is being expressed not only about erosion of biological diversity, but also about erosion of indigenous knowledge. The usefulness of biological resources is better visualized, planned and realized when its traditional use is known and traditional wisdom are clearly understood.
Research status of medicinal plants in Ethiopia
Ethnobotanical studies have proved their worth in recording traditional knowledge on plants. Such studies also provide valuable information on the use, economic and cultural values of the biological diversity of a given place. However, there are limited attempts made to study indigenous knowledge on ethnobotany in general and on medicinal plants in particular in Ethiopia. They are limited in their scope, coverage and provenance. Nonetheless there are some studies in the form of listing of which plants are used for what purpose. There has not been a traditional of documenting the inherent knowledge in a form, which can easily reach the wider community or generation in the distant future.
The people of Ethiopia are diverse in their ethnic and religious backgrounds. The knowledge and use of plants are different from one social group to another. The quantity and species selection are also different. In general Ethiopians have rich in plant lore.
The Shinasha people
The Shinasha (Boro) people are one of the minority ethnic groups in Ethiopia. According to Ethiopian central statistics their population is estimated to be around 32,701. Their language Shinasha belongs to the North Omotic, Gonga language sub-family with Anfillo, Kafa and Sheka language and is spoken from the stretches of northwest to southwest Ethiopia.
The people live mostly in Metekel zone that is located about 650 km north west of Addis Ababa the Ethiopian capital city. Their livelihood is based on subsistent agriculture (ploughing land and rearing animals for domestic use). The Shinasha people are known for their use of traditional medicine among many different Ethiopian ethnic groups. However, ethnobotanically these people remain unexplored and no comprehensive account of their traditional practice is available. As is the case elsewhere in the country, both the traditional knowledge and the plants utilized by these people are under threat due to reasons mainly attributed to degradation, deforestation and overharvesting of rare species. This calls for an urgent action to collect and document the indigenous knowledge. The aim of the study was to compile and document the traditional knowledge and to gather information on conservation status of plants in use by Shinash people.
The study was carried out within the programme of the study of Ethnobotany of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia funded by the Ethiopian government and implemented by Addis Ababa University.
The ethnomedicine data was collected in Wambara, Bullen, Dibate and Dangur districts in September 1999. The districts were selected on the basis of population concentration of the people. The main method used to collect data were:
Initial list of medicinal plant species developed during the interview were analysed and refined with the aim of developing priority species for conservation. Twenty-five plant species used by TMPs were identified recorded. Of these plant species 10 were selected as conservation priorities. These plants are selected as priority species for conservation because their parts harvested in a destructive way, harvested in a large volume, sold in a high price or regarded as being difficult to acquire.
Six traditional medical practitioners (TMP1, TMP2, TMP3, TMP4, TMP5, TMP6) were asked to rank in order five medicinal plants selected according to species scarcity due to over harvested to treat common disease (Malaria, Tuberculosis, Bronchitis and pneumonia, hepatitis, tapeworm and gonorrhea) of the area.
Results and Discussion
Traditional medical systems practiced among Shinasha
In Shinasha, Traditional Medical Practitioners are categorized into herbalist, bone-setters, birth attendants and diviners. While herbalist primarily administers plant based medicine, all categories of TMPs are reported to use both plant and animal medicines. Shinasha people do have strong beliefs in the power of living elder’s curses, sorcery and herbalists. These traditional medical systems co-exist with in a single community of Shinasha and has not been affected by the presence of modern health care.
Fieldwork was undertaken in 1999. During this study10 number of healers were interviewed. A total of 25 plant species were recorded during the field survey. These species were reported to treat 15 human and livestock disease in combination and/or when singly used. Several preparation methods were used including pounding, boiling, infusion and ash depending on the type of medicine and disease.
The major health problems experienced by Shinasha people as with rural Ethiopian population, are infectious disease including malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia, tuberculosis and gastrointestine and treated by herbalists using plants. Disease of a spiritual nature is considered as the result of evil spirit entering the body and can be treated by diviners.
Plants identified and recorded during interview with practitioners
The majority of medicinal plants are obtained from the wild. Wooded grassland dominated by bamboo is the key source area for Shinasha TMPs. Animal species are valued in Shinasha traditional medicine. TMPs collect the medicine that they administer, except in the case of animals and their processed part, which are usually purchased from hunters. Although it is not the objective of this study, animal species that were frequently used are recorded and listed (see below) as it required an in depth survey.
Animals used for medicine by Shinasha TMPs
Information about the availability of these species was not possible to obtain; hence this is an area that requires further research.
Medicinal plants sold in the local market
Market in Shinasha is usually on Saturday. Each Saturday everybody comes with his/her goods to retail. There are no markets exclusively dedicated to sale of medicinal. However women were selling their medicine in addition to other goods which are primarily crops. These medicines are very popular to every body. Women vendors collected them by themselves, or had them collected by a member of the immediate family.
Medicines on the market
These medicinal plants sold in the market are used to cure simple ailments. For complex ailments Shinasha people prefer to seek medical treatment in private, and therefore visit home-based TMPs. Further more, it is believed that traditional medicine is more effective if administered in private. Home-based treatment occurs within the community to satisfy local demand for traditional medicine and exploitation for domestic use in the house, rather than for sell in the local market, constitutes the bulk of medicinal harvest in the region. According to TMPs, demand exceeds supply due to scarcity of some plant species. 15 plant species commonly administered by TMPs were recorded. These medicinal plants have multi-spectrum use i.e. each medicine used to treat more than one disease. Disease like tuberculosis, bronchitis, hepatitis, tapeworm and gonorrhea need to be treated by TMPs.
The charges for treatments vary considerably depending on herbalists. Types of disease, location of disease (internal/external) and accessibility of the plant also determine the price. As some herbalists reported, price they charge tends to be 20 Birr (USD 2.5) per visit for complex ailments. After full treatment and recovery from the disease they charge more either in cash or in kind.
Medicines administered by TMPs appear in a variety of forms. Powder, concoction and decoction are most encountered forms. These processed forms are dispensed by spoonful, cupful and glassful depending on the prescription. Liquid medicines are mostly freshly prepared when needed.
Ranking value for six practitioners based on the scarcity of plant species used to treat common diseases of the area (Malaria, Tuberculosis, Bronchitis and pneumonia, hepatitis, tapeworm and gonorrhea); (10, most scarce, 1 least scarce)
Direct matrix Ranking of 10 plant species on five use criteria (10, is the best, and 0 not used)
As the direct matrix ranking indicates above, the scarcity of medicinal plants is occur due to over harvesting for not only medicinal but also for other uses such as timber, construction and fuel wood. Most plants listed by interviewing practitioners have more ranking value for other uses than they use medicinally. For example Cordia africana ranked more for timber than medicine. Hagenia abyssinica used for timber and other house-hold implements and carvings, as a result the informants gave more ranking value than its use for medicine. Although Securidaca longipedunculata is not included in a ranking, but it is used as a soap by the local community. Securidaca longipedunculata is needed for two things. Firstly, Shinasha people uproot, wash and peel the root bark to remove the inner woody part. Then the peeled bark is pounded and stored or used as soap. Secondly, it used as a perfume. Clothes washed using processed root bark of Securidaca longipedunculata has good smell and people prefer it instead of using smell less soap they purchase from market. Species like Myrsine africana, Helinus mystachinus, Harrisona abyssinica are used for wall construction, traditional beehives and traditional grain storage (granary). Ximenia americana, Warburgia ugadensis are used for fuel wood and house construction. Ximenia americana is popular in using as a fumigant of milk pot. Though the rank of Rumex abyssinicus is not high compared to the other it is known in using food condiment. It gives to the food very attractive color and replaced use of Curcuma longa. Today nobody buys Curcuma longa from the market while Rumex abyssinicus is standing in the forest. Therefore, the scarcity of the medicinal plant is not due to pressure from over-harvesting for medicinal value but also for other utility value.
Desalegn Desissa, May 2000
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