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Safeguarding health and culture

Traditional healers collaborate with scientists to catalogue Maroon medicinal plant use

Traditional healer harvesting bark for medicinal preparation (Dr. Michael B. Thomas)
Traditional healer harvesting bark for medicinal preparation
Dr. Michael B. Thomas

The Maroon people of Jamaica have depended on medicinal plants ever since the 18th century when their predecessors, who came originally from present day Ghana, escaped the lowland slave plantations and found refuge in the island's mountain chain. Despite rapid change and exposure to outside cultures over the last three centuries, Maroon communities have continued to use both local and introduced plants as medicines. Now, following seven years' collaboration by local herbalists and ethno-botanists, a study documenting over 85 plant species used by the Maroons has been published. Plants featured in the 144 page Medicinal Plants of Portland, Jamaica, are commonly used to treat a range of complaints from the common cold and diarrhoea to sexual dysfunction and even cancer.

Preserving and extending knowledge

The documentation project, which has been carried out by the Portland Environmental Protection Association (PEPA) and scientists from the Centre of International Ethnomedicinal Education and Research (CIEER), in collaboration with Maroon herbalists, has succeeded in preserving traditional knowledge and enabling a wider environmental education programme. Copies have been distributed to primary and secondary schools throughout the parish of Portland, along with a supporting teacher's manual and curriculum guide which includes place-based educational activities. The initiative is helping the next generation of Maroons to learn about and appreciate their cultural heritage. Teachers and other members of the community have praised the publication for its impact on cultural preservation.

Beyond the publication, the research team has also collaborated with scientists at the Institute of Jamaica Herbarium to assist with the botanical identification of each of the species collected by the herbalists. A complete set of specimens has now been given to the Institute, with a duplicate set deposited in the University of Hawaii Herbarium.

Cultivation and marketing of medicinal plants

Common medicinal plants collected on a plant collecting foray (Dr. Michael B. Thomas)
Common medicinal plants collected on a plant collecting foray
Dr. Michael B. Thomas

Dr. Michael Thomas, Director of CIEER, and Summer Austin, a PhD student and lecturer at the University of Hawaii, began the documentation process in 1999. According to Thomas, Maroon healers usually cultivate herbs in a home garden in addition to gathering them in the wild. Commonly grown plants include fever grass, tambrick, ginger and aloe. Tropical fruits, including mango, avocado, guava and breadfruit, are also grown in Maroon villages for both food and medicinal purposes, enabling quick and convenient access to the medicinal properties of various parts. While some healers sell raw materials such as leaves, fruits and roots, potted plants or root cuttings, they more frequently market herbal products made from the plants, including tonics sold in small plastic bottles. In other cases, patients buy raw materials complete with detailed preparation instructions. There is also some trade in certain plant varieties between healers.

According to Summer Austin, the study represents only a small portion of the plants the Maroons use. All proceeds from sale of the publication will go directly back to the healers, and Austin further hopes that the research will serve as a baseline for further documentation and Maroon cultural preservation. To that end, funding is being sought for a second publication. The study has also stimulated the development of a non-profit organisation, Surfing Medicine International. This has a global mission to foster international relationships between traditional healers, surfers, and ethno-ecologists to develop sustainable medicinal plant resource centres in coastal communities.

Written by: Treena Hein

Date published: January 2007

 

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