Africa, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT-SENEGAL: Researchers Turn to Schools to Protect Rare Plants

Adel Arab

MBOUR, Southern Senegal, May 28 2003 (IPS) - Frustrated by years of fruitless campaigns, researchers are now turning to the last line of defence: schools – to protect Senegal’s endangered medicinal plants.

”We must create botanical gardens, which include endangered plants, on school grounds,” says Sidi Diallo, a teacher at Mbour secondary school.

Mbour is a coastal town, located some 90 kilometres south of the capital Dakar, where the project to protect the endangered medicinal plants was launched a few years ago.

”We have planted a hundred endangered species in our school garden,” says Diallo, adding that ”students run the garden and keep it safe.”

”Our goal is to educate the community about endangered medicinal plants through school children. We want the children to grow up aware of the value of the plants,” says Badji Abba, the school’s principal.

The message is getting through. Ndiate Kane, a 16-year-old student from Mbour Secondary School, says ”after spending a lot of time in our botanical garden, I have learned how to look after plants and have more respect for nature now.”

The revolution, which began in Mbour four years ago with the assistance of Enda Third World, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), is sweeping through Senegal.

In the countryside, the threat to medicinal plants, which have been used for centuries to treat illnesses, is blamed on drought, poor soil quality and overuse of some plants.

”That is what is happening with the baobab. In villages, some people use its fruits to relieve diarrhoea, its leaves to season millet, its branches to feed cattle, and its wood to cook food,” says Boubacar Cisse Fall of Enda Third World’s medicinal plants team.

In the cities, patients, who cannot afford drugs in the pharmacy, resort to medicinal plants, overusing them. Among them are acacia Italica, which is a laxative, and fagara Xanthyloidef, which is used to remedy sickle-cell anaemia.

In the Moustapha Beydi School in Fatick, some 155 kilometres southwest of Dakar, students are involved in protecting endangered plants. ”One of them is cade which requires a lot of water. And because of climatic changes, it is dying out one by one. A few years ago, we devised a plan to save the plant,” explains Abdou Karim Ndiaye, a teacher at the school.

The oil extracted from the cade tree is used to treat skin disease. This species also helps regenerate soil. ”Since the disappearance of the species, the soil has suffered and crop yields have deteriorated. Today, our countryside is almost deserted because young people have left for town to look for work,” says Ndiaye.

”We’re encouraging the children to get more interested in protecting the environment by offering theoretical courses and hands-on workshops to familiarise them with our species,” explains Siment Tchou, another teacher at the school. ”We have started a nursery and we are working with the Centre for Traditional Medicine in Fatick to teach children how to grow medicinal plants.”

Students are also involved in protecting a group of islands in the Saloum Delta, 120 kilometres south of Dakar, which is threatened by higher sea levels. ”Every year we lose 50 centimetres of land,” explains Rahim Ba, of the Gardens of Africa, a non-governmental organisation. ”The problem is caused by global warming and people who steal coconut trees without replanting them, which causes erosion.”

A coconut tree fetches 30,000 CFA (about 53 U.S. dollars) in the local market.

The islanders use coconut fruits to treat certain maladies, and the tree – which is endowed with extensive network of up to 5,000 roots – to hold the soil together.

In the Saloum Delta, Ba teaches plant and environmental management. ”Tomorrow, these pupils will be the leaders of these islands,” he points out.

”It’s a big challenge to involve children in the protection of plants and our deteriorating environment,” says Fall.

Medicinal plants provide 80 percent of Senegal’s health needs.

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