Ancestors’ Knowledge Helps Keep These Kids ‘Strong’

By Anika Rice, Explorer Programs

Northeastern Madagascar’s incredibly diverse forests are home to rich local medicinal traditions. The Makira forest area in particular houses some 250 plant species that are used to treat more than 80 illnesses. Some experts estimate that the Makira watershed houses 50 percent of Malagasy floral biodiversity. Locals harvest and prepare these plants to treat everything from everyday fatigue and headaches to more serious ailments like malaria.

The Makira Natural Park is home to the Betsimisaraka and Tsimihety ethnolinguistic groups, communities that were historically free from major colonial influences. When Portuguese, Arab, French, and local regimes exercised control over the island, their rule did not reach as far as the forest interior within the park, allowing the local medicinal traditions of these groups to continue to thrive.

With support from National Geographic’s Genographic Legacy Fund, Makira forest community members have created a guidebook, or pharmacopoeia, to document each species’ properties, preparation, dosage, and treatment method. With generations of stories and information associated with medicinal treatment the pharmacopoeia holds a wealth of local ethnobotanical knowledge. The pharmacopoeia not only creates a resource for traditional medicine, it indirectly promotes conservation by demonstrating the immense value of the forest ecosystem.

Long-time Makira researcher and National Geographic 2014 Emerging Explorer Christopher Golden carried out the project with a local women’s group, skilled community healers, and a local research team called MAHERY (Madagascar Health and Environmental Research). Locally, the word mahery means “strong.”

Since 2004, the group has continually added to a species database, where information is gathered from individual households on how they use plants medicinally. With a Legacy Fund grant, the project expanded. The research team verified and organized the data, working closely with 25 communities in the Park, and two artists were enlisted in the herculean effort to draw each of —> Read More