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Nature's choice: utilising wild plants in the Philippines

The Banaue Rice Terraces - but rice is not the only important crop in this part of the Philippines (WRENmedia)
The Banaue Rice Terraces - but rice is not the only important crop in this part of the Philippines

In the northern Philippines, the Cordillera region is home to the world-renowned Banaue Rice Terraces, which were carved into the mountains of Ifugao between 2,000-6,000 years ago by ancestors of the indigenous Batad people. Home to many tribal groups, the Cordillera region is also known for its rich diversity of indigenous plant species. Many are harvested from the wild and are valued as food plants and for their medicinal properties.

But degradation of the forests and watershed in the Cordillera region is leading to valuable biodiversity being lost. And, as the diet of the population begins to change and communities are growing more exotic vegetables, this rich genetic diversity of indigenous vegetables is at risk. Recognising the value of many of these species, researchers are working on ways to conserve and multiply these plants.

Food for free

At the Semi-Temperate Vegetable Research and Development Centre, part of Benguet State University, a recent study revealed that whilst the local people of the Cordillera depend on many edible wild species for human consumption, other wild species with potential nutritional value are frequently ignored and used only as grazing for livestock.

Over 49 wild species have been recorded in the 11 municipalities of Cordillera and the young shoots, tops, stalks, flowers, leaves, bulbs and fruit reported to be eaten as vegetables. Many of these belong to the Asteraceae (Compostitae), Solanaceae, Amaranthaceae and Brassicaceae families.

Gagattang is the local name for several thistle-like species - including Sonchus oleraceus L (common sow thistle) and S. arvensis (perennial sow thistle) - which, although rather bitter, are consumed by local communities. The plants are high in flavenoids and are also used to treat indigestion, fever and asthma. Puriket (Bidens pilosa), another popular wild plant, is rich in iodine and is reported to prevent goitre (enlarged thyroid). The young roots are also used to cure rheumatism and treat wounds and, in some areas, puriket is used in the preparation of sake (rice wine).

A rice alternative

Common sow thistle is high in flavenoids and used to treat a range of ailments (Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio)
Common sow thistle is high in flavenoids and used to treat a range of ailments
Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio

Although not valued by all communities, plants such as gagattang and puriket may become even more important to poorer households who are struggling to feed themselves, given the rising price of rice, the main staple. Many households are selling livestock to buy sufficient rice; particularly hard hit are those who work as hired labour.

"And yet," says Professor Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio of Benguet State University, "why should people go hungry or be forced to pay high medical bills when they have food and herbal treatments within their vicinities?" She reports that there are now 11 indigenous wild species commonly available in the local markets of the Cordillera region.

Increased attention to these plants could, of course, put them further under threat. To counter this, Lirio and her colleagues are working with local women to identify and document the range of wild species used as vegetables and medicinals. They aim to better understand the nutritional value of the wild species, raise awareness of them with the local people and identify the best approach for using and conserving the plants.

"The women are taking the message of how nutritious these vegetables are. This has worked to their advantage. With selling them, they are now getting some cash for their upkeep," enthuses Lirio. She adds that the women themselves acknowledge that if the plants were better promoted, food security in the region could be much improved.

Bringing the benefits home

Home gardening of some species is also an option and is already being carried out by families in Sagada, Mountain Province. Lirio and her group are also working with 47 women from the region in establishing a nursery of kalunay (Amaranthus gracilis) and papait (Solanum spp.) and other plants from the wild, to be used as food and medicines.

Neglected indigenous plants can be found on sale at markets in the Cordillera region (Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio)
Neglected indigenous plants can be found on sale at markets in the Cordillera region
Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio

Part of the researchers' work has been to document the species in a book, titled 'Indigenous Semi-temperate Vegetables of Cordillera'. Copies have already been disseminated to the municipalities of Mankayan, Sagada and Kabayan, including some farmers, but Lirio and her group are particularly keen that the book be incorporated into the local school syllabus. "If children grow up knowing how useful these indigenous vegetables are, it could change the way the current young generation view them as only a poor man's food," says Lirio.

The Cordillera is a region rich in cultural history but much of the Banaue Rice Terraces are at risk from neglect. It is unfortunate that the indigenous wild plants of the area could also be lost unless the work in raising awareness of these species is taken up and their nutritional and medicinal benefits once more truly valued, not just by isolated communities but across the northern Philippines.

Written by: Ebby Nanzala with contributions from Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio

Date published: May 2008


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