The value of indigenous knowledge of biodiversity and the urgent need for its documentation are widely recognized. An enormous amount of knowledge about biodiversity and its uses has been accumulated among indigenous peoples and has been transferred orally across generations. People’s knowledge forms a valuable resource in managing environmental degradation and in the sustainable use of natural resources.

In Africa, indigenous knowledge of flora and fauna is inadequately documented and is fast becoming lost. Indigenous knowledge can help close the gaps in knowledge about biological ecosystems. Farmers have a wealth of knowledge that needs to be captured and considered as part of all research and education efforts. This will ensure that programmes and projects respond to communities’ basic needs. Research and education efforts are often top-down, while indigenous knowledge and practices not taken into consideration.

Evidence from development practitioners show that traditional practices and knowledge have contributed to sustain the environment by protecting natural resources and maintaining agricultural productivity without any recourse to external agricultural inputs. This includes for example the management, conservation and domestication and development of traditional crop species and varieties by local farmers. Traditional knowledge, crops and farming practices offer opportunities to adapt agriculture to climate change. Traditional crop varieties are preferred by local communities over modern ones because they are technically and financially affordable, have better nutritional value, can resist to various diseases or are better adapted to local conditions and are more likely to survive environmental stress and climatic variability.

In Africa more than 80% of the continent’s population relies on plant and animal based medicine to meet their health care requirements. Since ancient times plant medicine is an important part of the health care system in Africa. The heavy reliance on plant medicine in Africa is attributed to their relative accessibility, low prices, local availability, acceptance by local communities, and the low number of dispensaries and doctors for health care needs especially in rural areas. In addition many Africans residing in rural areas are located far from hospitals or clinics, and transport facilities are often not available.

For the most part the plants and animals used in traditional medicine are collected from the wild, and in many cases, demand exceeds supply. As Africa’s population grows, demand for traditional medicines will increase and pressure on natural resources will become greater than ever. The African biological resources provide a wide range of natural products such as medicinal and food extracts, among others. Many of these products are collected for subsistence use but some of them have served as an important source of innovation for the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, cosmetic and agrochemical industries.

Africa is endowed with rich and highly diverse biological resources. These resources provide a wide range of natural products such as those derived from bio-prospecting, intermediate products (e.g. natural dyes, colorants, oils, biochemical compounds, medicinal and food extracts, etc.) and final products (e.g. timber, handicrafts, nuts, fruits, perfumes, medicines, etc.).

The development of traditional knowledge systems, covering all aspects of life, including management of the natural environment, has been a matter of survival for the local communities who generated these systems. The oral and rural nature of traditional knowledge has made it largely invisible to the development community and to modern science. Indigenous knowledge has often been dismissed as unsystematic. As a consequence, it has not been captured and stored in a systematic way, with the implicit danger that it may become extinct.

Conserve Africa has been working in partnership with NGO members in the management and conservation of medicinal plant biodiversity in Africa. Conserve Africa’s NWFPs and medicinal plants programme consist of the following specific objectives:

  • To create awareness about the need and value of NWFPs, medicinal and food plants;
  • To support community groups, traditional healers’ associations and individuals to run conservation programmes, especially for endangered species of medicinal and food plants;
  • Identify and document medicinal plants considered as threatened or as of high priority to local communities;
  • Promote the propagation and domestication of medicinal plants at local community level through the establishment of nurseries;
  • Recording and promoting traditional knowledge pertaining to medicinal plants uses, management and conservation.