Photograph by Adrian Jackson
When Grace Gobbo walks through a Tanzanian rain forest, she doesn't see only trees, flowers, and vines. She sees cures.
For centuries, medicinal plants used by traditional healers have been at the heart of effective health care in this verdant African nation. With expensive imported pharmaceuticals unaffordable for most of the population, holistic cures often provide the only relief for illness. But today, both the lush landscape and indigenous medical knowledge are disappearing. Gobbo hopes her efforts to preserve natural remedies and native habitat will help reverse the trend.
Gobbo works as an ethnobotanist with the Jane Goodall Institute's Greater Gombe Ecosystems Program, but her specific interest in medicinal plants bloomed late. Growing up in a Christian family with a doctor for a father, Gobbo dismissed traditional healing as witchcraft. Then coursework in botany exposed her to evidence she couldn't ignore. "We studied cases where a particular plant successfully treated coughs," she recalls. "Laboratory results proved it stopped bacterial infection."
Intrigued, Gobbo began interviewing traditional healers in her own area who described their success using plants to treat a wide range of ailments, including skin and chest infections, stomach ulcers, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, and even cancer. To date, she has recorded information shared by more than 80 healers, entering notes and photographs about plants and their uses into a computer database.
"Before now, these facts existed only as an oral tradition," she explains. "Nothing was written down. The knowledge is literally dying out with the elders since today's young generation considers natural remedies old-fashioned." Gobbo wants to capture and preserve the irreplaceable facts before they are lost, and convince young people to appreciate their value.
Tanzania holds extraordinarily rich plant diversity—about 10,000 different species—due to a varied terrain spanning coastal, forest, mountain, and lake ecosystems. In some regions up to 40 percent of plants are endemic, found only in Tanzania. Tragically, all are at risk.
"Our forests are highly degraded because of farming, mining, and other development," Gobbo observes. "Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of the country's economy, and more than 98 percent of people use plant products for fuel. In the past, people harvested only what they needed. Now the enormous pressures of population growth and poverty drive them to put commercial interests over conservation. Environmental initiatives haven't been able to counteract the destruction. As a result, traditional healers must travel further and further to find plants that used to be plentiful."
Despite great challenges, Gobbo remains optimistic. "I believe in people. I think if they learn and understand the value of the environment, they will make better choices. If they knew the plants they cut down could help their children recover from illness, they might reconsider. Loggers might give healers a chance to collect tree bark at the same time wood is harvested. We're working hard to bring information about sustainable agriculture and forest management to the public, and show them how to apply it."
Gobbo also hopes to create a cultural center to reintroduce and re-energize youth about indigenous culture, crafts, and knowledge such as traditional healing. "I remember listening to stories my grandfather told us around the fire at night," she notes. "I loved those moments. I want to give young people a place to explore their heritage and learn from their elders." At the same time, she realizes it will take new media to reach a new generation, and dreams of bringing the holistic healing message to TV, computers, and film.
But the real key, Gobbo feels, is more government involvement. "School curriculums should incorporate indigenous knowledge. Environmental education has already begun; medicinal plants and remedies could be a natural part of that," she says.
"In this part of the world, modern medicine is not enough; most people can't afford it. Traditional healing has so much potential. Local communities are comfortable with this approach; it just needs to be more accessible. But the longer we wait, the more knowledge disappears. We need to act now, and act fast."
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In Their Words
It's so rewarding to help people understand the value of conservation, sustainable agriculture, and holistic remedies. Seeing them protect the forest and find relief through these treatments are my best moments.
Ethnobiologist Grace Gobbo travels Africa to learn about the healing powers of plants that could help the world.
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