Wednesday, May 19

Birds of a feather

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THEY were all wearing green except the Big Bird and the migratory ones. They had descended upon the city to discuss the techniques of preserving and protecting medicinal plants and herbs found in our forests or what is left of the jungle.They came from the north, south, east and west of Kuching. One flew in from the Land Below The Wind. The migratory ones hailed from India, Thailand and Indonesia. The rest were from the local species. A couple of clever birds from high up the academic tree sneaked in and flew away on the second day.

About 60 of them, of both sexes, they represented various organisations, — government and nongovernment — all keen to preserve and conserve the common heritage, the biodiversity.

They offered some 21 papers for us to read and quickly digest the contents thereof.

These were the participants of a meeting styled ‘Regional Workshop on Good Practices Related to Traditional Knowledge Documentation, Community Biodiversity Register and Farmer’s Descriptors’ from Oct 8-14 at the Telang Usan Hotel.

They spoke in tongues. On the screens they displayed beautiful pictures of landscapes, medicinal plants and herbs of various uses, ranging from treatment for asthma to that for malaria, from antidotes for snakebites to love portions.

Traditional knowledge Documentation

A Deputy State Secretary, Datu Abdul Ghaffur Shariff, officiating on behalf of the chairman of SBC, started the ball rolling.

He would like to know what that stuff was, in the pot of air panas, which his mother used to take while in confinement. And would Dr Rita Manurung, the big bird nestled in SBC at Semengoh, find out from the jungle around and document it, please.

The paper presenters used botanical names and scientific terminology to describe simple plants or their fruits. For instance, the humble mango is called Mangifera; rambutan is referred to as Nephelium spp; the glamour name of the durian is Durio spp. Kacangma is Leonurus sibiricus L.

The scientists present assured us that these terms would be more accurate in describing each kind of trees or plants or herbs or grasses or fruits. They are identified with their own class or family by strange names.

Although, the lay ‘seminarians’ have learnt a lot from this exercise, they should not try to be clever next time they stop to buy durians. The vendor will not be impressed. Just ask for the lulian from Selian or Biawak. But, if and when you bump into Dr Bhuwon Sthapit in New Delhi, you may ask how his Mangifera is growing.

Apart from the written literature, the participants exchanged information among themselves during tea breaks. That’s most educational. We shared secrets on the antidotes for poison from the Buntal Pisang, the delicious puffer fish; we discussed the cure for diarrhoea; we discovered that the oil from the humble Dabai is an excellent ingredient for soap making.

One delegate from Mulu, the Penan who presented his paper partly in Iban, revealed to me a secret during the lunch break, “Uncle, do you know that Tongkat Ali is not only an aphrodisiac but also good as a contraceptive?”

“Is that right?” I exposed my ignorance, adding, “On both counts, I don’t need the stick lah.”

My esteemed reader, you should have been there to enjoy the company of these homo sapiens, local experts on anything jungle.

Most of the participants from Sarawak are quite knowledgeable in identifying useful plants or grasses found in their respective localities. However, they had come to Kuching for a week to seek more information about those jungle products from their contemporaries in other parts of Sarawak.

From the foreign specialists they learned how to update written records of the various types of these products.

A lawyer lectured them on how to safeguard their intellectual rights over their collection of flora.

The experts from the various communities updated the audience with the progress of their projects, discussed the problems encountered and the means with which to sustain interest in them.

The reason for storing all information from verbal sources in films, diskettes, photographs and books is simply to prevent the loss of traditional knowledge possessed by the local experts before these oldies pass on, and as more and more forest areas are being cleared for development purposes.

What remain will be the records properly kept by SBC and by the individual locality or community concerned, for ease of reference by the students of botany or by some entrepreneur who may want to invest in the commercialisation of certain products.

Here the interests of the farmers are vital. They have identified and tended those useful plants and herbs, registered and recorded them and increased their numbers. Now they ask, “What is there in it for us?” Here lies the responsibility of the authorities to share the benefits with the communities concerned.

Seeing is believing

On the fourth day of the gathering, the able-bodied conservationists held their in-situ workshop at Kampung Kiding, 38 km from Kuching as the crow flies. To get there they had hopped on to four-wheel drives to the foot of the hill. Thence, up the Penrissen, they used two-leg drives (Walkswaggen) for at least two hours. It’s no kidding for the faint-hearted townies.

An accolade deserved

The creation of the Biodiversity centre as a depository of information on biodiversity in Sarawak was a farsighted move. I attended the first workshop of this outfit in the old Penrissen Inn on Nov 20 and 21, 2001, and I am impressed with the achievement of the center since, judging by its new premises and the state of the art facilities there.

The next task, the R & D, followed by commercialisation of the products studied, is a challenge for the SBC.

Meanwhile, let its vision remain: “To be the focal point and a world-class resource centre for Sarawak biodiversity inventory, monitoring, research, education, utilisation, management and conservation.”