Collaboration and communication in the 'caatinga' of Brazil.
An extensive programme has been promoting the sustainable and innovative use of native plant resources to help local people in north-east Brazil. The region, an area about two-thirds the size of western Europe, is semi-arid and suffers from periodic droughts. It is also home to about one-third of the population of Brazil, many of whom are extremely poor. And yet, this dry and increasingly degraded environment is rich with potential: up to 20,000 plant species are thought to grow in the region but little of this local botanical wealth is currently being exploited. Some of the north-eastern flora has been catalogued but, in most cases, this information about the plants (and how best to use them) lies scattered in technical documents and research institutes. 'Local plants for local people' is the theme of this programme, known as Plantas do Nordeste (PNE). Now, with recent funding from DFID (Department for International Development), PNE is establishing an Information Dissemination programme which will collate available information in a coherent fashion and disseminate it effectively. It is hoped that the programme could provide ideas or pointers for similar initiatives elsewhere in the world, which aim to provide sustainable plant use for local benefit.
Around half of the natural landscape of north-east Brazil is covered by 'caatinga' forest, which is an impenetrable thorny scrub rather than tall green forest. During eight or nine months of the year, this scrub is almost entirely without leaves and the silvery bark of the branches and trunks are all that you see (Caatinga means 'white forest' in the native tupi-guarani language). Despite this inhospitable appearance, caatinga forest is rich in species many of which have still to be scientifically documented. More than 40 million people live in the region many of whom are descendants of immigrants from Europe or of slaves brought from Africa rather than indigenous peoples. Land use practices changed very little over the decades whilst population densities have increased significantly. For instance, tile and ceramics industries are fired with kilns using wood cut from native forest and some areas, it is argued, are now at risk from desertification. However, the PNE programme, which was set up in 1992 with the support and collaboration of Brazilian research institutes and NGOs from the region and the UK Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew has initiated a variety of projects which are helping local communities to manage, and in some cases rehabilitate, the native vegetation to provide, for example, medicinal remedies or fodder for their goats.
One PNE project has developed new techniques for sustainable use of the forest while improving meat and milk yields for small farmers who own a few sheep or goats. Brazilian development officers, led by Professor. Ambrosio Filho, have shown that by a combination of techniques to manage the caatinga (e.g. the re-introduction of species, selective thinning, coppicing and pollarding) farmers can make subtle but sustainable changes to the species composition and thereby improve both the quality of the fodder available and the continuity of supply during the dry season. They have also identified herb species of potential for use as ground cover during the wet season.
In another project, more than 500 species of plants in Ceará State have been tested in the laboratory for genuine pharmacological activity and to check for deleterious side effects. A store of knowledge has been built up by Professor Matos, a Brazilian chemist, which has provided the basis for books, web publications and leaflets that promote and describe the appropriate use of 50 of these species which have been shown to be effective and safe. Prof. Matos has also worked to promote the safe use of medicinal plant remedies through establishing "living pharmacies" in communities who are unable to afford pharmaceutical medicines. Medicinal plant gardens, with selected and approved plants, are established and members of the community are taught how to tend plants and how to produce teas, lotions and pills of greater efficacy. In several "favela" (slum) communities, children and adults have also been trained to grow the plants and produce remedies to generate extra income by selling products in wealthier neighbourhoods. Pharmacists working in hospices caring for malnourished mothers have been able to significantly reduce their costs by the successful use of living pharmacies. Until recently, the results from these and other successful PNE projects have had impact only in those communities participating in the trials. One of the major roles of the new Information Dissemination programmes is to disseminate information from these projects to benefit a greater number of people throughout the region. To this end, the new initiative has created a Plant Information Centre (CNIP) in the Federal University of Pernambuco and a Dissemination programme co-ordinated through a Brazilian development NGO (AS-PTA), both in Recife.
Whilst data on the rich biodiversity of the caatinga is being collated for the benefit of future generations, poor rural communities are already benefiting from knowledge gathered elsewhere in the region or beyond to unlock the potential of at least a few of the plants growing in the region.