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The Role of Botanic Gardens in the Dissemination of Ethnobotanical Knowledge in Kenya

Contributed by Abel Barasa Atiti, National Museums of Kenya, P O Box 40658, Nairobi, Kenya.


Economic development in Kenya, which is and will continue to be largely dependent on the exploitation of plant resources, is at present unsustainable. Many of the plant resources are being mismanaged and cannot sustain their present rates of use. To this effect, biodiversity and the issue of the sustainable use of plant resources have become a primary and urgent concern for the Kenyan government. Botanic gardens have played a major role in the economic, cultural and scientific development of many countries in the world. They have an important role to play in conservation of plants, but conservation cannot succeed without education.

Kenya has few public displays and educational collections that can serve as botanic gardens. There is thus an urgent need to establish botanic gardens in every ecological zone of the country, which can then act as centres for environmental education. Already, plans are at an advanced stage to develop a botanic garden at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) site. The UK Overseas Development Administration (ODA), through the Plant Conservation Programme at NMK, is committed to funding the initial development stages of the proposed botanic garden. The botanic garden will attempt to address the issue of education for sustainability by teaching about the links between plants and local indigenous people.

Collection and Documentation of Ethnobotanical Knowledge for Education

Ethnobotanists in Kenya are playing a very useful role in rescuing disappearing ethnobotanical knowledge and returning it to local communities. The scope of the ethnobotanical knowledge to be collected and documented is very wide as it relates to all aspects of a community’s life, including agriculture, taboos, conservation, religion, myths and other plant uses.

Different local communities in Kenya have various uses for particular species of plants. Ethnobotanical knowledge is generally richer among the pastoral communities who depend a lot on the environment for their survival.

Educators in botanic gardens may employ basic methods of collecting indigenous knowledge from local communities though, in my view, the exercise should be left entirely to ethnobotanists and other researchers. Collection may be done through interviews, observations and guided tours. Basic guidelines, which may be followed for collecting ethnobotanical knowledge for documentation, are:

  • consumption uses of plants in different communities
  • cultural ceremonies that involve plants
  • customs, myths and beliefs that enhance plant conservation
  • cultural factors that threaten biodiversity.

It is perhaps important to highlight the efforts of NMK as regards the collection and documentation of indigenous knowledge in Kenya. Through its Centre for Biodiversity (CBD) an action programme has been developed that gathers, stores, analyses and disseminates biodiversity information required for sustainable utilisation of biological resources. One of the many objectives of the CBD is to document the indigenous uses of biological diversity and, where appropriate, promote them with the full participation of local communities.

The CBD has two main programmes that will be invaluable sources of ethnobotanical knowledge for botanic gardens in the country; the Biodiversity Database Programme and the Kenya Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge (KENRIK) programme. The Biodiversity Database will serve both as a provider and collector of ethnobotanical information for botanic garden education. KENRIK is perhaps the most important contribution of NMK to the collection and documentation of ethnobotanical knowledge. KENRIK identifies and records indigenous knowledge with a view to preserving cultural and biological diversity for future generations. It further promotes ethnobotanical studies, establishes databases, and carries out community-based research and conservation programmes. Already it maintains an indigenous food plants database with over 800 records of edible plant species in Kenya.

It is anticipated that the proposed NMK botanic garden will greatly utilise the ethnobotanical knowledge that is documented at CBD for environmental education programmes. The collation of indigenous knowledge for the purpose of environmental education is proposed as one of the main activities in the education policy of the proposed NMK botanic garden.

Ethnobotanical Approaches to Biodiversity Conservation

Although Kenya has a very diverse cultural heritage, each community has developed land use systems which include environmental strategies. Most local communities had in-built practices that enhanced conservation of biodiversity. Rationalised harvesting of plant resources ensured sustainable supplies, while over-exploitation was avoided. This does not however imply that human-induced environmental change and degradation did not occur, but it was modest compared to present-day changes.

Respect for ancestral spirits directly contributed to biodiversity conservation. For instance, plants that existed in shrines were protected, as trees were not felled there. The belief that ancestral spirits lived in caves and rock shelters among some communities (Odak, 1990) assured conservation of biodiversity where such physical structures were found. The landscape and trees in such sites were protected against destruction. Trees that were regarded as sacred or ceremonial were never used for any purpose. In many local communities, all big trees were respected and large forests were regarded as sacred.

Myths, taboos and superstitions were also an ideological mechanism of managing plant resources. In some communities, trees near water resources were never cut for any purpose, and if anyone contravened this taboo, the person was fined or punished by a council of elders. Among some tribes, Erythrina abyssinica was the basis of a curse and it was believed that the wood could never be burned for fear of attracting lightning. Myths and beliefs that promoted biodiversity conservation are still abundant in Kenya.

It is however disturbing to note that there is a serious tendency for people in Kenya, especially the elites, to abandon the traditional cultures in favour of western cultures. Many have adopted values, attitudes and tastes of western cultures to the detriment of the indigenous ones (Kipkorir, 1980). Consequently, in places where beliefs and superstitions associated with sacred sites have been abandoned, the sites have been degraded and the associated biodiversity damaged. Species of plants that were valued in indigenous cultures have been gradually abandoned in favour of exotic ones. Extensive cash-crop farms occupy lands that supported a wide variety of valued indigenous species (Gatheru, personal communication). One way of arresting this situation is to promote dissemination of ethnobotanical knowledge through botanic gardens.

The Potential Role of Botanic Gardens

The Global Biodiversity Strategy (WRI, 1992) lists deficiencies in knowledge and its application as one of the fundamental causes for biodiversity loss. The proposed NMK botanic garden will endeavour to disseminate ethnobotanical knowledge to the public, thereby reinforcing links between local communities and the environment (Martin, 1992). By incorporating ethnobotanical knowledge in its environmental education programmes, the botanic garden will help restore a sense of pride in local cultural knowledge and practices.

One major goal for the proposed NMK botanic garden will therefore be to facilitate the transfer and assimilation of ethnobotanical knowledge. This will promote integration of environment and development, and enhance awareness of, and concern for social and ecological approaches to education for sustainability. Generally, environmental education is not very well developed in Kenya. There is limited use of indigenous knowledge in developing training programmes and little consideration is paid to socio-cultural aspects and the interests of target groups. A major constraint is the shortage of funding and of basic teaching and learning resources and facilities. When they are established, botanic gardens will enhance both formal and non-formal environmental education. Non-formal environmental education has a long history as regards to the protection and conservation of sites of interest by the different cultural groups in Kenya. Sustainable development can only be achieved with the support and cooperation of an informed public.

Various approaches will be used in the dissemination of ethnobotanical knowledge at the proposed NMK botanic garden. These will include workshops, lectures, story-telling sessions and outreach programmes. Story telling and the compilation of folklore narratives that enhance biodiversity conservation will be a major educational activity at the garden. Cultural activities that involve use of plant resources e.g. traditional dances, drama, culinary and technology exhibits, will also be part of the educational programmes that will be developed to disseminate ethnobotanical information.

Outreach programmes to local communities will entail educating them about the need to respect and incorporate their values, knowledge systems and priorities in plant conservation and management. The use of newsletters and popular publications as a way of disseminating ethnobotanical knowledge will be pursued. Newsletters are a simple and inexpensive way of communication and they will provide a forum for exchanging opinions about plants conservation, ethnobotanical knowledge and community development. Efforts will be made to prepare indigenous information packages in local languages for local communities through seminars and workshops. Without doubt, botanic gardens in Kenya, when established, will play a major role in the dissemination of ethnobotanical knowledge for sustainable development.

Education for Sustainability

Different communities in Kenya have lived with, sustained themselves from, and conserved plant resources with respect for the environment. Through education at botanic gardens, understanding of cultures and ethnobotanical knowledge will be enhanced, thereby offering the needed options for future biodiversity conservation and development in Kenya. While the country has an extensive network of protected areas, conservation of plant resources outside these areas will depend on the goodwill of the local communities.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP, 1992) recognises the traditional dependence of many local communities on plant resources and the desirability of enabling them to share equitably in the benefits arising from the use of ethnobotanical knowledge. Education for sustainability at botanic gardens will sensitise the public to the importance of maintaining resource sustainability and will further promote utilisation, marketing and conservation of indigenous plants. With an educated population, it will be easier to protect sacred places and areas of cultural importance.

It will be very necessary that ethnobotanical knowledge disseminated at the botanic gardens is put to effective use by local communities. Applications of ethnobotanical knowledge learned at botanic gardens will include:

Construction of ethnobotanical nurseries

Local communities will be encouraged through education for sustainability to construct village ethnobotanical nurseries where useful species of indigenous plants can be cultivated.

The ethnobotanical nurseries will provide opportunities for the younger generation in the community to learn the traditional knowledge of their elders, particularly that of herbal medicine. They will also serve as demonstration plots where young people will be encouraged to plant indigenous species in afforestation, landscaping, soil conservation and urban park programmes.

Setting up herbal clinics

A large proportion of the Kenyan population still uses herbal medicine in their health care. Ethnobotanical knowledge learned at botanic gardens will be used to document traditional medical practices that may be applied in herbal clinics. This will ensure that herbalists are involved more fully in the management of areas that supply herbal medicines. Setting up of herbal clinics as a result of utilising ethnobotanical knowledge will further encourage agronomic and silvicultural practices in growing indigenous herbs and trees of medicinal value.

Establishment of community herbaria

Community herbaria can be effective tools in working with the younger generation in schools and villages (Martin, 1995). Students will be expected to apply basic herbarium techniques of pressing and drying plant specimens. This will encourage them to learn the knowledge of their elders, a traditional process that is rapidly dying in many communities.

Promotion of arts and crafts

Education for sustainability will enhance the rational use of plant resources in the production of baskets, textiles, woodcarvings and many other handicrafts. The aim of which is to minimise the overexploitation of plant resources.

Applications in forestry

Ethnobotanical approaches to plant conservation learned at botanic gardens will be applied in agroforestry, reforestation, selective logging and the sustainable harvesting of non-timber forest products. Suitable indigenous plant species will be used in agroforestry and in the ecological reconstruction of fragile lands.


As we approach the twenty-first century, the critical challenge for Kenya is to develop the botanic gardens that will be needed to educate people in the sustainable use of plant resources. The botanic gardens will deal with the dynamics of both ecological and social approaches to education for sustainability. They will be used to measure the true value of plant resources, widen the use of indigenous species and establish sustainable harvest-levels in the pursuit of protecting threatened ecosystems. Emphasising the understanding of ethnobotanical knowledge in botanic gardens will offer much-needed options for future plant conservation and utilisation. As educators in botanic gardens, we have an obligation to promote the dissemination of ethnobotanical knowledge for the sustainable use of plant resources and the protection of the environment. It is an objective that the proposed NMK botanic garden will be working hard to achieve.


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