Preserving Traditional Forest Medicine for Future Generations

By Anika Rice, Explorer Programs

Northeastern Madagascar’s incredibly diverse forests are home to rich local medicinal traditions. The Makira forest area in particular houses some 250 plant species that are used to treat more than 80 illnesses. Some experts estimate that the Makira watershed houses 50 percent of Malagasy floral biodiversity. Locals harvest and prepare these plants to treat everything from everyday fatigue and headaches to more serious ailments like malaria.

The Makira Natural Park is home to the Betsimisaraka and Tsimihety ethnolinguistic groups, communities that were historically free from major colonial influences. When Portuguese, Arab, French, and local regimes exercised control over the island, their rule did not reach as far as the forest interior within the park, allowing the local medicinal traditions of these groups to continue to thrive.

With support from National Geographic’s Genographic Legacy Fund, Makira forest community members have created a guidebook, or pharmacopoeia, to document each species’ properties, preparation, dosage, and treatment method. With generations of stories and information associated with medicinal treatment the pharmacopoeia holds a wealth of local ethnobotanical knowledge. The pharmacopoeia not only creates a resource for traditional medicine, it indirectly promotes conservation by demonstrating the immense value of the forest ecosystem.

Long-time Makira researcher and National Geographic 2014 Emerging Explorer Christopher Golden carried out the project with a local women’s group, skilled community healers, and a local research team called MAHERY (Madagascar Health and Environmental Research). Locally, the word mahery means “strong.”

Since 2004, the group has continually added to a species database, where information is gathered from individual households on how they use plants medicinally. With a Legacy Fund grant, the project expanded. The research team verified and organized the data, working closely with 25 communities in the Park, and two artists were enlisted in the herculean effort to draw each of the plants by hand for the pharmacopoeia’s illustrations.

Watch a video featuring Chris’s field work in Madagascar:

Each community owns physical copies of the book as an archival and educational resource. The books are housed in a common room or library, or with the community secretary for all to use. Having household or community copies facilitates the transmission of the information in parent-child and healer-apprentice interactions. Digital copies of the ethnobotanical guide are also available to ensure that it is preserved indefinitely.

With an ecosystem containing plants found nowhere else in the world, the sophistication and particularity of the Malagasy pharmacopoeia has no match. Like in many other unique indigenous communities, when local knowledge is lost, recovering it can prove nearly impossible. The Malagasy pharmacopoeia documents are an important sliver of traditional knowledge that are now in an everlasting and accessible form.

The Genographic Project Legacy Fund, funded by a portion of the proceeds from Geno 2.0 DNA Ancestry Kits, helps to revitalize indigenous languages and cultures around the world. For more information visit the Legacy Fund website.

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.