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As Malawi’s forests fall, what’s the future of traditional medicine?

PART OF HUMANITY—Traditional medicines have been in use in many societies around the world for centuries

MORE THAN JUST WOOD—Forests like these are not just about trees, but also people’s livelihood

By Charles Mpaka

Fainesi Soko-Tembo is 94 years old.

She was born at the time Malawi did not have the convenience of public and private healthcare system as seen in the country today.

Yet, there were health issues she had to deal with; and forests provided the cure – even for conditions as complex as pregnancy.

Born in 1927, she delivered all but the last born of her 10 children either at the traditional birth attendant or by herself.

For these babies and herself to survive the throes of pregnancy, child delivery and life afterwards, she relied on barks, roots and leaves from the natural forests in her Kandodo Chisi village in T/A M’mbelwa in Mzimba District.

Role of folk medicine

In many societies around the world and for as long as humans have walked the face of the earth, biodiversity has been a rich source of folk medicine.

This medical potency has not gone unnoticed by the Big Pharma who have tapped into pharmacological properties of shrubs and trees in the wild to produce some of the ‘civilised’ drugs the world has used in management of major health conditions today.

Cortisone, developed from wild yams, provides an active ingredient in pills used for birth control.

Quinine, the world’s first anti-malarial drug, was developed from phytochemicals extracted from the bark of a tree; so is artemisinin, another antimalarial, which was also derived from wormwood plant.

The list is endless.

Even in the face of modern health care system, the role of traditional cures in societies has not died. In January 2015, the World Bank reported that 80 percent of developing countries relied on traditional medicine for their basic health care.

But it also reported that this industry was under threat as up to 20 percent of the 50,000 known medicinal plants –which were the basis of more than 50 percent of all medications—were at risk of extinction because of deforestation.

Feeling deforestation impact

Frank Manyowa, a herbalist, was born in a family where the trade in traditional medicine has passed on across generations.

Now president of Malawi Traditional Healers Umbrella Organisation, he has seen firsthand how biodiversity loss has affected access to forestry medicinal materials.

In his practice, he has used products from trees such as muwawani and mdyoka to treat various health conditions. Now these trees are hard to find in Malawi, he says.

“They are falling to deforestation and general biodiversity loss. For us to get many of these herbs these days, we now have to travel to Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia—which is very costly,” he says.

Trees such as mkongomwa, mvumo, mulala, mbawa, mkalakati, mtondo, mlombwa, naphini and muwanga have been sources of traditional medicine for ages in the country; now, they are among the plant and fungi species listed in the National Parks and Wildlife Act (2017) as endangered largely due to deforestation.

In Nsanje District, Matandwe Forest Reserve is an ecosystem for a species of a wonder plant that is used to remedy multiple health conditions.

Jateorhiza Palmata, known as thabalaba in local language, is a creeper that produces tuberous roots which are used to treat abdominal pains, stop pregnancy related vomiting, increase men’s sexual prowess and help in deworming.

Further studies say the tuber also treats tumours and increases blood level and body immunity against diseases. It also remedies headaches, coughs, cholera, chronic sores, and is treatment for colon cancer and sexually transmitted sexually-transmitted diseases.

In a measure of its high value, one study estimates that between 2009 and 2016, up to 420 tonnes of the tuber was harvested from the reserve for the export market.

The study, conducted by a team of experts from Mzuzu University, Department of Forestry and Kyushu University in Japan and published in International Journal of Scientific Research in Agricultural Sciences in August 2016, says the 420 tonnes translates to 7,969.6 hectares of the plant cleared in seven years.

“It is doubtful if a large population still exists that can sustain the international trade,” says the study titled ‘Socio-Economic Importance, Abundance and Phytochemistry of Jateorhiza Palmata (Lam.) Miers, a Medicinal Plant in Nsanje, Malawi.’

Apart from being under threat due to this commercial over-exploitation, the plant is also at risk as the rivers and streams in which it flourishes are being degraded by deforestation of the reserve.

Declared a protected area in 1929, the reserve is collapsing due to charcoal production, illegal logging, pit sawing, mining of precious stones and encroachment for agricultural land, according to the District Social and Economic Profile (2017-2022).

These are the very factors that are driving the loss of between 30,000 and 40,000 hectares of forest every year in Malawi.

Missed messaging

However, despite the loss of forests and availability of modern healthcare conveniences, belief in traditional medicine remains strong in Malawi, Dorothy Tembo-Nhema, an environmentalist with Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), says.

“Previously most people were dependent on traditional medicines for various ailments, but as the years go by with increased exposure to modern lives, and with improved awareness, and increase in hospitals, most people combine traditional and scientifically proven medicines,” she says.

She observes, however, that campaigns against deforestation in Malawi have been missing out on emphasizing the value of forests as a pharmacy of traditional medicine.

“It is high time we pick it up, because with the rates of deforestation, one day we may not have access to these trees for our medicine,” she says.

Conservation efforts

On his part, Manyowa says in their work, traditional healers do not destroy trees and shrubs that power their trade.

“But we are seeing a rise in some commercial interests who have intruded in our field and are plundering resources to process and package herbal medicine which they sell in the cities. That worries us,” he says.

To secure some of the medicinal plants, member associations of traditional healers are managing some forests in Dedza, Lilongwe and in Blantyre. The objective is to ensure that they have a sustainable supply of resources.

“Our effort is still inadequate; we need more resources to protect those forests from invasion,” Manyowa says.

Government is also conserving genetic resources of different species at the National Plant Genetic Resource Centre, agricultural research stations, botanical gardens, academic institutions and Forestry Research Institute of Malawi.

According to the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (2015 – 2025), the Malawi Genetic Resource Centre gene bank has over 2,513 accessions from 32 species. Of these, 2,344 are seed samples and 169 are vegetative materials collected from all districts of Malawi.

Up north in Mzimba District, Soko-Tembo says deforestation has not affected her that much in terms of how she accesses the herbs she has used in her life.

Where trees have been cut, she goes to the roots under the stumps, she says

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