Sustainable utilisation of Devil’s claw

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In order to achieve sustainable development of Namibia’s natural and socio-economic environments, there is a need to improve access to existing knowledge and to generate new knowledge. Local communities have an opportunity to use their traditional knowledge to stimulate investment in the devil’s claw plant, which could encourage private-sector development and economic growth.

Devil’s claw is a wild herbal plant found in two varieties, namely Harpagophytum procumbens and H. zeyheri, that grow mainly in the Kalahari sands of Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. To a lesser extent the plants are also found growing naturally in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Appropriately named because of the sharp and hooked form of its fruit, devil’s claw has been used by Africans as a traditional medicine since time immemorial. Since the 1960s it has been exported as dried raw material to be processed and used in the treatment of rheumatism and arthritic type ailments. This is because of the analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties of compounds found in the plant’s tubers, which grow underneath the ground as secondary tubers from a main taproot. The tubers are harvested from the beginning of March until the end of October, when the plant grows vines above the ground and as a result is easy to locate.

The demand for Devil’s Claw on the international market has increased considerably over the last ten years, from 180 tons in 1975 to an estimated 600 tons in 1999. The increase in demand has had both positive and potentially negative effects on this natural resource. While creating more income opportunities for people involved in the harvesting and trade of the plant, the high demand has, however, also greatly increased the pressure on it.

As a result several number of concerns have been raised, including the possible over-exploitation of the plant.  According to Dave Cole, a consultant at the Centre for Research Information and Action in Africa, Southern African – Development and Consulting (CRIAA SA-DC), based in Windhoek and responsible for organising the Regional Devil’s Claw Conference in February this year, over-exploitation won’t lead to extinction of the plant in Namibia. One of a variety of reasons is that although devil’s claw is being heavily exploited, especially in communal areas, at least fifty per cent of the land where the plant grows is privately owned and not harvested.

Another reason is that several structures are already in place to protect the plant, including the fact that devil’s claw is protected under the Nature Conservation Ordinance of 1975. Consequently permits are needed to harvest and trade in the plant. While there are currently no quotas or similar regulations in place regarding the amount of devil’s claw harvested, people who have permits are required to report to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) on where and how much they harvested, as well as how much they have sold. The amounts and where devil’s claw was harvested can thus be monitored. Three years ago the MET made the permit system more accessible, and amended it with a request to people to practise sustainable harvesting by not digging up the tap-roots and covering the holes so the plant can grow the following year and continue producing.

However, it is difficult for the MET to monitor the harvesting of devil’s claw, since a lot of it takes place in remote areas. Nonethe-less, to remedy this, the MET and the Namibia Devil’s Claw Working Group are jointly conducting the Namibia National Devil’s Claw Situation Analysis, NNDCSA. This involves doing a countrywide resource survey of plants in both commercial and communal open-access areas, and doing a socio-economic study to better understand how the devil’s claw trade works in terms of who harvests where, what incomes are being derived, and what problems people are experiencing. A third component of the NNDCSA will be to look at a devil’s claw business plan for Namibia, so that Namibians can benefit more from the sale of devil’s claw. This will include a survey of international markets and demand, and looking at the structures needed to facilitate and improve trade in the product.

While middlemen are necessary to facilitate trade and harvesting, measures need to be put in place to ensure that harvesters receive a fair share of the price, since they do most of the hard work. Harvesters look after and ensure devil’s claw is harvested sustainably, and therefore need to be adequately recompensed.

Through CRIAA SA-DC, NNDCSA will train the MET’s regional officers to conduct the resource surveys and monitor the harvesting and trade of the plant. In addition, the NNDCSA is bringing certain important issues to the forefront, such as imposing a harvesting quota for a particular season, should this be necessary. This is of particular importance should the resource be placed under further pressure as a result of people requesting permits to harvest.

The NNDCSA will also address the issue of the current lack of scientific data on this valuable medicinal plant. The results of the research will provide one of the first comprehensive analysis of devil’s claw in Namibia, enabling important strategic policy decisions to be made with respect to resource management and utilisation, trade and market-related factors and further research needs.

MET personnel based in the selected survey areas will be conducting the bulk of the resource and socio-economic surveys, with support from CRIAA SA-DC officers, who will conduct additional specific surveys and verification exercises.

The NNDCSA is being funded by the International Development Research Centre based in Canada. The Namibian Government, through the MET, is also providing considerable additional funding.

The analysis commenced in January 2002 and is scheduled for completion by September. The overall co-ordination of the NNDCSA is the responsibility of the Devil’s Claw Working Group, while CRIAA SA-DC is responsible for the overall implementation.

The report and the results of the findings of the NNDCSA will be made available to key stakeholders. In addition, the results will be disseminated and feedback sought through a national devil’s claw stakeholder workshop, which will be convened on completion of the NNDCSA, and at which the preliminary findings of the surveys will be presented.

The workshop is also expected to provide an opportunity for feedback and other inputs from participants, which will then be incorporated into a final document.

This article appeared in the 2002 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.



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