Exploring Culture and Biodiversity

exploring culture and biodiversity 2Hosted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc), a two day workshop was held at the Stone Cottages at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. The aim of the workshop was to explore the challenge of conserving threatened flora while honoring the important role plants play in the lives and traditions of South Africans.
 For the first time, botanists and conservationists from across the country met to discuss conservation goals for South African plants.

Executive Director of BotSoc, Zaitoon Rabaney, expressed excitement at having the experts together. Their aim was to work together on a national strategy to tackle ways to conserve the country’s rich biodiversity and cultural heritage.

“They often work in isolation, sometimes on the same subject and with cross-cutting issues.” Said Rabaney. “Through this workshop they can start documenting and coordinating the knowledge of the Xhosa and the Khoi.”

South Africa hosts the richest temperate flora in the world with more than 20 000 species of indigenous plants, of which over 2 000 are used for medicinal or ritual purposes. The Red List of South African plants shows that 656 plant species are heavily traded and 9% are threatened with extinction. One in every four species of plants is of conservation concern, meaning it is either threatened with extinction or very rare. 

“There is a strong link between cultural and biological diversity with large numbers of indigenous species, particularly plants used for traditional medicine and in rituals by most ethnic groups,” said Domitilla Raimondo, SANBI’s Threatened Species Programme Manager.

Raimondo urged conservationists at the workshop to coordinate efforts to ensure the sustainable use of South Africa’s plants on which so many people depend. 

As a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), South Africa is required to develop a national strategy for plant conservation for implementation by 2020. “This will cover a wide array of conservation work, from describing and documenting plant diversity, to conserving plant species in their natural habitats, to ensuring that the use of plant diversity is sustainable while indigenous knowledge of South Africans is honoured and supported,” expressed Raimondo. 

Co-author of People’s Plants, Ben-Erik van Wyk was also in attendance at the workshop. His book, co-written with Nigel Gericke, is the most comprehensive research to date on South African indigenous knowledge and covers the traditional uses of 650 plants from various South African ethnic groups. Despite these examples, much work on documenting indigenous knowledge remains to be done.

Little research and documentation has been done of ethnic groups who have rich bio-cultural practices and who represent the most ancient cultural traditions in the world. An even greater challenge to conservationists is how to ensure that plants used for medicinal and ritual purposes are available for future generations. 

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