African and European researchers have launched an ambitious international 'information mobilisation' project to disclose the existing knowledge of useful plants of Tropical Africa.
The PROTA project (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa), based in Kenyan capital Nairobi, has been prepared by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, Agropolis in Montpellier, France, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the UK and six African institutes: Makerere University (Uganda), FORIG (Ghana), NHBGM (Malawi), PBZT (Madagascar), CENAREST (Gabon) and CNSF (Burkina Faso).
From 2003-2012 the researchers will survey and critically review the existing knowledge on an estimated 7,000 useful plant species, and compile this information in a database that will be the source for an Internet site, CD-ROMs and a 16-volume handbook.
A unique feature of the project is that it will also handle less-accessible 'grey' literature and will make the reviews widely available for users in education and research.
The project focuses on promoting plant resources as a basis for sustainable land-use, and is committed to the conservation of biodiversity and the rural development of tropical Africa.
More than 50 per cent of the African population lives beneath the poverty line, with a great majority in rural areas. In total, the project will cost about €16 million, about €1.6 million per year. The funding for the first year is almost ensured with contributions of the European Commission, Wageningen University and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
PROTA will be co-ordinated by a Network Office Africa, located at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi, and a Network Office Europe at Wageningen University. The six regional offices are hosted by institutes all over tropical Africa.
At the first PROTA international workshop held in Kenya last week, Dr Shafqat Kakakhel, deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), welcomed the initiative.
"Africa holds more than 25 per cent of the world's biodiversity. It is a tragic paradox that marginal agriculture forms the greatest threat to biodiversity, while diversity could be on the basis of sustainable development. The diversity of the crops of today is at the basis of the food security of tomorrow," said Kakakhel.
The PROTA Project limits itself to the African countries and islands between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, and excludes Morocco, West Sahara, Tunisia, Algeria, Lybia, Egypt, South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. A long basic list of plant species of tropical Africa has already been compiled. From this list it can be concluded that tropical Africa is especially rich in medicinal plants and timbers.
At the workshop in Kenya, a precursor handbook was presented to facilitate the discussion between contributors and users of the information. With a few adjustments, this format was embraced by the participants. The precursor will also be used for fund raising. It deals with 39 sample species from 16 commodity groups, for example West African okra, Ethiopian cardamom, the stimulant qat, crambe (vegetable oil), African rice, the fruit marula and the medicinal sausage tree. Information on these sample species is also available on the PROTA website.
PROTA is a logical successor of the successful PROSEA Project (Plant Resources of South-East Asia), which has almost completed a 20-volume handbook on the 7,000 useful plants of south-east Asia. This handbook has resulted in numerous derived education and extension materials, which are being used by the local population. The work on this handbook, started in 1985, will be completed in the spring of 2003. The project has received wide acclaim by the international scientific community.
"Compiling the information on the plant resources of tropical Africa is maybe an even bigger challenge. PROTA covers 47 countries and even more languages. Without the experience in south east Asia it is doubtful whether we would have had the courage to formulate such an ambitious programme for Africa. The present famine has to be relieved immediately and by concerted international action, but in the longer term famine has to be avoided. May PROTA make its contribution to this long-term perspective," said Dr Jan Siemonsma, head of the PROSEA Publication Office in Wageningen and one of the initiators of PROTA.