When the last tree dies, no job for female herbalists


“When the last tree dies the last man dies”, this is a common saying in Ghana, normally used to encourage afforestation and the protection of trees, especially the endangered ones. However, its meaning and relevance are largely ignored because of destructive human activities, such as illegal gold mining, poor farming practices, deforestation, bush burning, and over-exploitation from logging and harvesting, among others.

These activities are threatening essential local tree species, such as Xylopia aethiopica (Guinea pepper), Monodora myristica (African nutmeg),  Aframomum melegueta (grains of paradise), Swietenia macrophylla (Mahogany), Khaya senegalensis (African mahogany), Pteleopsis suberosa (Pteleopsis), etc., putting them at the risk of extinction.

The forest is home to millions of plants and animals and also serves as a source of useful plant medicines and other natural products. Forests are home to 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Animals, in particular, need everything the forest provides to survive. When there are changes in their habitat as a result of climatic changes, they migrate to other areas where they can adapt. The depletion of forest reserves and the loss of trees and other vegetation can cause climate change, desertification, soil erosion, poor crop yields, and flooding.

According to the Forestry Commission Report (2022), more than 4,700 hectares of Ghana’s forest reserves have been wiped out due to activities such as small-scale mining, which has rendered many farmlands and forest reserves unproductive, and denying some residents of their livelihoods – affecting the practice of herbal medicine.

Herbal medicine is the oldest and most widely used healthcare system in Africa and the world at large. In Ghana, for example, it is conservatively estimated that about 60 to 70 percent of the population uses medicinal plants for their healthcare needs. According to a World Bank Report (2015), about 80 percent of developing countries rely on traditional medicines for their basic healthcare needs.

Also, the economic impact of herbal medicine cannot be underestimated. For instance, an estimated 951 tonnes of crude herbal medicine were sold in Ghana’s herbal market (2010), with a total value of around US$7.8million (Tinde et al, 2012). This can help reduce the unemployment rate as the Ghana 2022 Annual Household Income and Expenditure statistics of the Ghana Statistical Services shows that two out of every three unemployed individuals are females.

Besides, there are over 25,000 herbal medicine providers in the country, with over 55 government hospitals with herbal medicine departments. It further supports the theme of the 2022 Medical Superintendent Group’s annual general congress (AGC): ‘Leading Hospitals into the Modern Era: Integrating Herbal and Orthodox Medicines’. The call for integration will also provide employment and livelihoods for practitioners in the country.

This call is also paramount because, African herbal medicine practitioners provide holistic healthcare, which focuses on the spirit, body and soul. Through the ages, herbal knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation through families, and from teacher to apprentice.

In most African traditional homes, the knowledge, method of preparation, and preservation of plants and species are passed on to trusted members of the family; and in some cases, through an initiation, with women largely regarded as better keepers of traditions and customs. The use of medicinal plants varies from one community to another and is often prepared specially for an individual depending on their illness or condition. African traditional medicine practitioners specialise in areas such as traditional birth attendance (TBA), bone setting, healing, child health, and internal medicine, among others.

Women are usually considered the primary users and marketers of plant medicine and they also specialise in conditions related to women’s reproductive system and children, such as pre-and post-natal care, menstruation, child nutrition, fevers, dermatological conditions, and diarrhoea. The act of healing using plants has, therefore, become a means through which women gain some financial independence, as the sale of dry or fresh herbs is as lucrative an enterprise as the prepared medicines.

For instance, although little is known about Elizabeth Blackwell (1707-1758), she is documented as the first British female herbalist and author of ‘A Curious Herbal’ in 1735, which illustrated medicinal plants and became a source of reference for Physicians and Apothecaries. Revenue from the sale of her book was used to pay fines levied against her husband Alexander Blackwell who was in prison for two years.

In Ghana, women and girls are involved in collecting edible forest plants, medicinal plants, fodder for animals, and fruits. These activities enable them to supplement the family diet and earn extra income for their households.

In addition, because of their role in plant gathering, they have highly specialised knowledge of the forest, the trees, biological diversity and conservation practices. In light of the foregoing, it is obvious that the economic impact of deforestation on women, and indeed families, can be huge. This means that any strategy and plan aimed at mitigating the devastating impact of deforestation should include women.

Indeed increasing women’s participation in community forestry institutions improves forest governance and the sustainability of resources. I will, therefore, conclude that when the last tree dies, there will be no job for female herbalists, and this will further worsen their economic dilemmas.

>>>the writer is a Senior Procurement Manager at the Ghana College of Pharmacists. She can be reached via [email protected]

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