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Ethnobotany - the Scientific Vehicle for ESD: A Case Study from Paraguay

Contributed by Didier Jaques Roguet, Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques de la Ville de Genève, C.P.60 – CH-1292, Chambésy, Switzerland


Applied floristics is a new science dedicated to the application of botany and taxonomy for sustainable development in the North and in the South. About ten years ago, Geneva’s Botanical Institute started a new challenge working on applied floristic projects in Europe (mediterranean and alpine areas), and in particular in the tropics (Ivory Coast, Madagascar and Paraguay). A cooperative process was developed with the local population (including pickers, sellers, users, teachers, healers, students, farmers, and health promoters) and environmental education became one of the best tools to convey the Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques de la Ville de Genève (CJB) messages on conservation and sustainable development.

The Project

This congress provides a good opportunity to present one of CJB’s projects, Etnobotanica Paraguaya, an integrated ethnobotanical scientific project on the medicinal plants sold in the markets of Asuncion (Paraguay). For us, it is a case study in restitution using environmental education.

Etnobotanica Paraguaya is a small project financed by the the City of Geneva Fund for Development Assistance. It focuses on the registration, taxonomical formalisation and restitution of ethnobotanical data on traditional knowledge related to the medicinal plants sold in Asuncion’s markets (Paraguay). Thematical environmental education is the principal vehicle of this restitution process.

Plant Use in Paraguay

In order to understand the circumstances in Paraguay and the strong cultural connection with medicinal plants it is necessary to know that:

  • Supposedly, every Paraguayan consumes medicinal plants daily, either for the taste or to sweeten the bitterness of the maté (infusion of leaves from Ilex paraguariensis, the paraguayan holly) or téréré (cold maceration of ground leaves from the same plant, drunk with cold water), the national beverage, of which a Paraguayan can drink up to 4 litres a day.
  • Approximately one quarter of the surface area of the market is dedicated to the selling of fresh, dried or conditioned medicinal plants; sales of produce in the streets are generalised.
  • More than 500 different medicinal species (approximately 10% of the flora of Paraguay) have been collected by undertaking more than 40 investigations in the markets of Asuncion.
  • 15% of all these plants are not native to Paraguay and can be considered as exotics, many of them originating from Europe during the colonial period.
  • The collection and sales of medicinal plants in the wild often makes a vital economic contribution to the small farmers or the people living in the suburban areas of Asuncion.
  • The knowledge concerning the picking and uses of the medicinals is very ancient in Paraguay, in particular among the poorer classes of the population who only have restricted access to the allopathic northern medicine due to the lack of economical means.

This data makes Paraguay unique; a country or a geographical entity which uses plants with medicinal powers, in a preventative way, on the largest possible scale i.e. daily.

The likely epidemiological and preventive values due to the regular consumption of these plants, and the socio-economic power generated by their commercialisation, pushed us to make traditional ethnobotanical investigations, in particular in the markets of Asuncion. Our informers are the Yuyeras, the sellers of medicinal plants (from the root yuyos, medicinals), but we have also made enquiries with Curanderos, the traditional healers, with pickers from the field and with private laboratories which transform and condition the plants (there are more than 60 laboratories in Asuncion).

An ethnobotanical herbarium and a living plant reference collection have been established and are maintained in the Botanical Garden of Asuncion. For determination and taxonomical research, part of the herbarium is in Geneva. Composed of more than 750 specimens, duplicates will be returned to Asuncion in the near future when appropriate conservation conditions are established.

These two phases are of primary importance but it is the restitution process, the third step of the project, which interests us more in this presentation, because it involves the educational aspect. Our approach needs to involve thematic environmental education, and this will be used as a vehicle for achieving restitution.

Our restitutional action is based on two main principles:

  1. the informers decide on the educational techniques to achieve restitution (such as training courses, posters, publications, school materials, etc.);
  2. the data collected will always be used in an ethical way.

Restitution Process

This restitution process has three principal components:

Short term environmental education work,

Focusing on medicinal plants, occurring in the Botanical Garden of Asuncion, through the CEAM (Centro de Education Ambiental de la Municipalidad) and the Centre of Environmental Education of the City of Asuncion. It consists of courses and workshops on medicinal knowledge of living plants, toxicity and measurings, the problems of misuse and self-medication, family planning etc. These courses are primarily aimed at sellers of medicinals, teachers, and healthcare and environmental promoters from the different districts of the capital city. There is potential to decentralise the educational activities by developing a small, mobile interactive exhibition presented in a bus.

Public Heathcare Training

A middle term project of public healthcare training has been organised within the city and also in the countryside with the small farmers. Seminars, courses, publications, and posters based on the taxonomic knowledge of medicinal plants, their toxicity and the importance of measuring when applied, are conducted. A great part of the programme also includes the ethnobotanical valorization of traditional heritage, represented by the popular medicine that strengthens local communities, inside and outside the cities. The topics addressed are very diverse: toxicity and measuring, family planning and uses of abortive plants, complementarity between traditional and allopathic medicines.

Applied Floristics for Agronomic Development

The long term project of applied floristics for sustainable agronomic development has several aims to:

  • bring to the forefront species endangered by overpicking;
  • multiply, select and domesticate some of these species with a market in view; and
  • propose alternative cultivations of these new crops for the small farmers in cooperation with the relevant bodies (NGOs, Farmer’s organisation, Swiss Red Cross).

Use in the Alps

Our project is not revolutionary, it applies thorough ethnobotanical techniques, using the same methodology previously used in the Alps (European mountains) i.e.

  1. evaluation of the traditional knowledge through ethnobotanical investigations;
  2. scientific and taxonomic formalisation;
  3. restitution through targeted training and education.

Its originality comes from the educational component in relation to public healthcare and agronomy. This pedagogical dimension is very important because it gives meaning to the scientific research work (taxonomy and ethnobotany) by permitting its application in a sustainable development process.