Conserving medicinal plants in Ghana

George Owusu-Afriyie

George Owusu-Afriyie describes how BG-BASE, a database program designed to manage information on botanical collections, is helping to conserve medicinal plants in Ghana.

In Ghana, traditional healthcare practices rely almost entirely on herbal medicines. Even in urban areas where modern synthetic drugs are readily available, many people continue to use traditional herbal remedies as these are less expensive. However, the high demand for medicinal plants, which are collected from the wild, is gradually exhausting some local species populations.

Increasingly, herbalists are turning to botanic gardens with requests to harvest medicinal plants from their collections or to obtain information about threatened species. In Ghana, in response to the growing demand for medicinal plants in the 1990s, one of the country's most important botanic gardens, the Aburi Botanic Garden (ABG), decided to look into the possibility of setting up a medicinal plant project.

The ABG was founded in 1980 with a national mandate to explore wild plant species in Ghana with a view to identifying those suitable for agricultural development or for export to overseas markets. Today, the Garden's mandate emphasizes its role in the conservation of biological diversity and in promoting sustainable methods of developing Ghana's plant resources.

The medicinal plant conservation project

Following discussions with officials of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), the ABG decided to launch a project to promote the sustainable use and conservation of medicinal plants in Ghana. Two joint applications for funding were submitted - one (with BGCI) to the National Lottery in the UK, and the other (with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, UK), to the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species. Both were approved in 1999.

Project activities, which started in 2000, included the development of a 50 acre medicinal plant garden at Aburi, where 1361 seedlings were planted in 50 separate plots, separated by walkways. The garden has a nursery, including a lath house to provide shade for tender young seedlings, where plants are propagated for distribution to communities and individuals interested in developing their own medicinal plant gardens.

One of the project's priorities was to develop the capacity of ABG staff to manage information about the plants in the collection, in particular the newly planted herbs. All new seedlings were clearly labelled with their scientific name, family, local name and accession number, and the data were stored on a computer using BG-BASE.

BG-BASE

BG-BASE is database application designed to handle the information management needs of organizations that hold collections of biological materials, such as botanic gardens, zoos, herbaria and horticultural societies. BG-BASE is now used by more than 160 organizations in 26 countries worldwide.

With this program users can document and manage information about their collections, including taxonomic data, bibliographic references, images and geographical information. Instead of having separate databases for each of these types of data, BG-BASE incorporates all of them in a single system. All data are stored in a format that is fully compatible with international data standards for species collections, such as the International Transfer Format for Botanic Garden Records (ITF 1).

BG-BASE can be used on stand-alone computers or as part of a local area network (LAN). Based on feedback from users, the software is regularly updated and improved at two development and support centres, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (UK) and BG-BASE, Inc., in Topsham, Maine (USA).

The medicinal plant database at Aburi

At Aburi, the entire medicinal plant collection is now managed with the help of BG-BASE. The database contains detailed information about each accession, including scientific name, local name, taxonomic classification, place of origin, date of acquisition, and location in the garden. It also records which species are currently under cultivation in the plant nursery.

The database has not only helped ABG staff to manage the medicinal plant collection but has also made information about the collection more easily accessible to visiting researchers. Since its inception, the database has been consulted by thousands of visitors, including botanists and herbalists from China, Germany, the Netherlands, Nigeria, South Africa, Switzerland, the United States and Zimbabwe. ABG staff also use the database to prepare presentations, complete with statistics and graphics, for conferences and in its outreach work, promoting the conservation and sustainable use of medicinal plants at schools and in rural communities.

The Aburi Botanic Garden is committed to keeping the medicinal plant collection open to the public, so that visitors can stroll along the walkways and read the labels to learn about the plants on display. Thanks to BG-BASE, however, it is actually much easier to find information about the medicinal plants conserved and propagated at Aburi by consulting the garden's database.

George Owusu-Afriyie ( georgeoa@idngh.com ) is Director of Aburi Botanic Garden, Ghana.

For further information about the 'Sustainable use and conservation of medicinal plants in Ghana' project (completed in 2002), visit www.unep-wcmc.org/species/plants/ghana/content.htm .
For information about BG-BASE, visit www.bg-base.com .

30 June 2005

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