In mid-September 2016, a group of Bio-economy Chair students – Jessica-Jane Lavelle, Maya Marshak, Ngaya Munuo, and Nick McClure joined Rachel Wynberg at the INSPIRE 2016 Green Medicine Symposium at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). In its third year, the symposium is a joint project of UWC and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). This year’s theme was Interfaces: Sciences, Humans and Plants.

The symposium brought together academics, students and practitioners from disciplines spanning chemistry, pharmacology, geography, history, political ecology, conservation and anthropology. Participants presented their experiences and research related to the use of plants as bioactive compounds and traditional medicine, and explored more deeply the relationship that plants and humans have with one another.

In the morning session, Dr Pascal Richomme from the University of Angers, France, spoke about his collaborative research deployed to provide clinical evidence of vitamin E present in the bitter kola nut, which is found in West and Central African countries. Vitamin E is responsible for prevention of allergies and immune system disorders. More talks on the search for plants with useful medicinal properties followed, providing insight into the way in which phytochemists relate to medicinal plant qualities. Dr Ahmad Cheikhyoussef from the University of Namibia presented ongoing research aimed at detecting the presence of different phytochemical classes and potential antioxidants in 37 medicinal plants traditionally used to treat mental disorders in Namibia. Professor Quinton Johnson from NMMU focused on the search for useful plant compounds through ‘reverse pharmacology’, a deeper understanding of the relationship between practitioners of traditional medicine and plants, and on the agency of plants – that is, the power plants have in shaping their relationships with humans and their environment.

In the second part of the symposium social scientists from various disciplines presented their work, exploring the social and spiritual relationships between humans and plants. Professor Diana Gibson from the Anthropology Department at UWC presented on the relationship between ‘traditional’ knowledge and medicinal plants. She problematised frameworks of interpretation and academic and scientific ways of thinking about plants as ‘objects’ or ‘things’. Dr Josh Cohen presented findings from his PhD research comparing the approaches of scientists and herbal medicine practitioners in Namaqualand towards acquiring medicines and useful compounds. Tihana Nathan presented an anthropological piece inspired by a multispecies lens. In her research she explored how a Rastafarian community in the Western Cape related to medicinal plants which they collected. She spoke of how plants were not treated as objects, but rather as living beings, with the potential for communication. Like Cohen, she explored plant healers’ understanding of human vitality or wellness in relation to the medicinal or energetic properties of plants. Both Cohen and Nathan referred to the idea of krag (power, vitality, strength) in relation to plants. This Afrikaans word is commonly used by kruiedokters or practitioners of bossiemedisyne (bush or plant medicine) to denote a vitality of the body (Green et al 2015). Within this medicinal practice plants are known to be able to bring healing through their interaction with krag.

Assoc Prof Rachel Wynberg presented on controversies surrounding trade in genetic resources and the use of traditional knowledge in South Africa’s lucrative rooibos trade. The object of her presentation was to bring conceptual clarity and holistic analysis to the on-going debate around access and benefit sharing. Focusing on the conservation of medical plant diversity, Dr Tim Hoffman from UCT’s Plant Conservation Unit discussed the changing use of natural resources in Namaqualand. Rupert Koopman from Cape Nature spoke about his organisation’s work to address the challenges associated with preserving the diversity of the Cape Floristic Region. The loss of low-lying, biodiverse areas to urban and agricultural encroachment poses a major challenge to conservation in the area. The floral kingdom is home to more than 9 000 species of plants, many which are already used in medicines and have been for thousands of years by the first inhabitants of the Cape, so the loss of species may mean the loss of potential medicines as well.

Maya Marshak presented her ongoing PhD research exploring the use of creative research methods to examine the effects of GM seed technologies on socio-ecological relationships on small-scale maize farms in KwaZulu-Natal. Melanie Boehi drew on her PhD in Environmental History to look at the ‘Politics of displaying plants and knowledge in the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden’ and the history of this from the garden’s inception in 1913 through apartheid and into the present curatorship. These presentations explored in various ways social relationships with plants through history and into the present.

Much of the presented research established the efficacy of traditional medicine in terms of western medical knowledge. Numerous presenters used reverse pharmacological techniques to investigate claims made by herbal medicine practitioners about specific plants, and generally found these claims to be upheld by empirical evidence. However, the interdisciplinary nature of the symposium also raised many questions around the interface between different types of botanical knowledge. For instance, it remains unclear to what extent the exchange of knowledge between practitioners of traditional medicine and researchers is equitable. Thus the need to engage more actors such as policy makers was emphasized. Each of us as researchers was reminded to carefully consider our own agency, the knowledge we create or learn and the implications thereof across different aspects of society.  While the symposium drew many participants from across different disciplines, it revealed the complexities of interdisciplinary conversation and the importance of fostering new ways of communicating with each other in these spaces. Finding common ground and understanding around the topic of human relationships with plants, a topic that spans disciplines but also ideological and epistemological stand points, is not a simple feat but is a cause that needs much attention.


Authors: Nick McClure, Jessica-Jane Lavelle, Maya Marshak and Ngaya Munuo.

Photo: Devil’s claw flower, Dave Coles.

Reference: Green, L., Gammon, D.W., Hoffman, M.T., Cohen, J., Hilgart, A., Morrell, R.G., et al. 2015. Plants, People and Health: Three Disciplines at Work in Namaqualand. South African Journal of Science. 111(9/10): 1-12.