By Ginger Mauney
In the field there is often a fine line between what can kill you and what can cure you. It can be found in the shape of a leaf, in the time of year when a plant becomes too toxic for grazing or when the pith of a plant can provide moisture but you would wilt very quickly if you ate the leaves. Understanding the diversity of Namibia’s plant life, and promoting the conservation and sustainable use of this valuable resource, are the aims of the National Botanical Research Institute (NBRI), a division of the Ministry of Agriculture.
Over the past fifteen years significant changes have been made at the NBRI to diversify functions internally and to reach out to people in various regions and fields to achieve its aims. Each section of the NBRI, including the vegetation ecology unit, gene bank, plant-product development, botanical library, Namibian Tree Atlas, botanical garden and a new economic development section, has a common mission to research, conserve and create awareness of indigenous plants.
From inventory to taxonomy, from protected areas to plant use, the work of the NBRI encompasses everything within the world of Namibian plants. The Institute is furthermore often responsible for Namibia’s involvement in international treaties regarding plants. For example, the NBRI is currently involved in identifying important plant areas in the country as one of sixteen goals laid out in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation.
One such area is the southern Namib. Here the NBRI launched a project to contribute to the restoration of disturbed areas after land clearing and mining. Staff from the NBRI and environmental consultants removed plants that were threatened by mining operations and brought them to Windhoek to be propagated. The plants were subsequently transplanted to areas without disturbance. First findings were very encouraging and now the NBRI is considering expanding this project to other areas where plants may be moved rather than destroyed.
Last year, after seven years of negotiating, Namibia became a signatory to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. This is a global initiative to conserve and use gene plasma for future economic development.
Prior to the signing of the treaty, the NBRI was already active in collecting and preserving gene plasma. Currently 3 000 gene-plasma samples from Namibian cultivated and wild plant species with economic potential are stored within the NBRI’s gene bank.
Utilisation of the gene bank, particularly within the crop improvement sector, is important to the NBRI and potentially vital to the country. Its positive effects can be seen in the mahangu fields of northern Namibia. From the gene bank, mahangu (pearl millet) accessions have been used to breed a long-bristled variety for use in areas where loss of grain to birds is a serious problem.
On collecting trips, the germ plasma of two species of wild relatives of rice growing in the Kavango River and near Ruacana were collected. Rice is one of three crops that provides close to 60% of the world’s food, so providing these samples for international research could be important to the world’s food supply and potentially contribute to Namibia’s economy.
The NBRI has a newly created Plant Pro-duct Development Section that works towards the promotion of new products from our indigenous plant species, ensuring that development takes place in a responsible and sustainable manner. The NBRI is closely involved in the development of the use of Hoodia, a succulent patented as an appetite suppressant. The Institute will soon host the EU-funded Succulent Cultivation Project, addressing the potential income-generating opportunities of succulents such as Hoodia for communities especially in southern Namibia.
Devil’s claw is another indigenous plant that has proven medicinal properties for treating rheumatism and arthritic type ailments, yet its future could be threatened by unsustainable harvesting, for instance when the entire tuber is pulled out of the ground, leaving nothing to regenerate. The NBRI conducted devil’s claw germination trials to find methods of germination that don’t require specialised equipment or treatments in the field. The results of these trials were encouraging and most have been adopted by CRIAA (Centre for Research Information Action in Africa) in its work with local people and devil’s claw in the Omaheke Region.
Namibia also recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa to develop a bilateral bio-prospecting programme that will screen Namibian plant species for certain medicinal properties. They are confident that this will unlock new possibilities for the commercial exploitation of Namibia’s plants.
If numbers are anything to go by, there is a lot of potential. The NBRI’s National Herbarium recently completed the computerisation of almost 85 000 specimens. Information from this section is often provided to veterinary services and farmers, helping them to identify potentially poisonous plant species in the case of stock losses due to suspected poisonings. It is also used to compile the Red Data list that identifies species at risk of becoming extinct. This list is used by conservationists, researchers and policy makers to set priorities, develop management and recovery plans and implement habitat-restoration efforts.
The ecology section at the NBRI is actively involved in the Agro-Ecological Zoning Project that examines soils and vegetation. Its work has implications for the effective use of land and land management planning in Namibia.
The Tree Atlas Project is one NBRI initiative that is nearing completion. After five years, 219 registered atlassers contributed more than 91 600 observations. This information was compiled in a book mapping the present distribution and abundance of large woody tree species in Namibia.
From its base in Windhoek, the NBRI runs the adjacent National Botanic Garden of Namibia, providing a study area for the flora of Namibia and an outdoor environmental education facility. Proclaimed in 1996, the garden is currently open during government office hours only, but there is a great deal of interest in extending the hours. The Botanical Society opens the garden the first Saturday of every month to present guided tours, and groups such as the Bird Club link walks through the garden with bird watching.
The Desert House, a new addition to the Botanic Gardens that houses examples of succulents, grasses and other plant species native to Namibia’s deserts, will open later this year.
Dr Gillian Maggs-Kolling, head of the NBRI, has shepherded the Institute through the changes and accomplishments of the last fifteen years. She sees encouraging young people to become involved in botany as an important future objective of the NBRI. “We are currently involved in careers week and science week at schools. We also have many school groups coming through the Botanic Garden. Nevertheless, we need children to take a far greater interest in the plants around them. They need to understand that there can be a close relationship between a useful plant and one that is toxic. We want them to know and appreciate botany as part of their lives.”
As work done at the National Botanical Research Institute shows, the conservation, preservation and use of plants is an integral, interesting and potentially lifesaving part of life.
This article appeared in the 2005/6 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.