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Friday, December 2, 2022

The Herbal Wealth of Sao Tome

The tropical rainforests of Sao Tome and Principe have been ranked as the second most valuable forest in Africa by international scientists

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: Sao Tome and Principe, a twin-island republic off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, is distinctive in many ways. It is Africa’s second smallest and least populated sovereign state, as well as one of the most distant and least visited.

The tropical rainforests of Sao Tome and Principe have been ranked as the second most valuable forest in Africa by international scientists. They’re considered one of Africa’s most valuable biodiversity hotspots. UNESCO has designated the entire island of Principe as a Biosphere Reserve.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj
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Sao Tome’s biological diversification offers a dazzling array of ecosystems while being cut off from the African continent. Primary forests, mangroves, inland water, coastal, and marine environments are among the country’s natural ecosystems. Plantations, Savannahs, and shady woods are examples of secondary ecosystems.

Sao Tome and Principe is one of the world’s few countries with significant levels of endemism in bird and plant species. The islands’ small size, remoteness, insularity, and diversified ecosystems all contribute to high endemism rates.

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These elements have piqued the interest of international academics and botanists in using Sao Tome as a natural laboratory to build scientific models of evolutionary biological ideas.

Over half of Sao Tome’s 60 bird species are unique to the island, according to researchers. This ‘Eldorado’ also contains 166 highly valued endemic plant species, 46 of which are found on Principe Island and the remainder in So Tomé.

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Sao Tome and Principe boasts an exceptional wealth of medicinal plants, which has long supported traditional medicine for the local population.

Several maladies, such as flu, diphtheria, stomach and skin ailments, respiratory disorders, dysentery, seasonal bacterial infections, and so on, have traditionally been treated with the 300 species of herbs and plants.

Traditional medicine in Sao Tome isn’t known by a specific term like Ayurveda in India or Indonesia’s Jamu system. Unlike Ayurveda, which is based on structured and scientific principles, traditional medicine in Sao Tome is based on loose set of unwritten regulations. It does, however, have a dominating role in their society, not just because of respect for elders and herbal doctors, but also because of an intrinsic conviction in its efficacy.

For many islands, traditional herbal therapy remains the most common type of medical care since it is both accessible and affordable.

On the island, allopathic treatments are insufficient and expensive.
The notion that Sao tome’s herbal plant richness could one day be economically employed to mass-produce traditional allopathic medications and innovative pharmacological formulae, however, concerns the older generation and politicians.

Will SaoTome allow the exploitation of its herbal wealth for the mass production of allopathic medicines in the country or will it adopt an ecosystem-based approach for the preservation and sustainable use of its medicinal plants? Only time will tell.

However, it is undeniable that as more people in Sao Tome turn to allopathic medicine, the traditional type of healing is steadily dwindling.

This phenomenon can be attributed to the gradual economic upliftment and disinterest of the newer generation to imbibe the critical knowledge from the older generation. But there is a realization in Sao Tome that efforts should be made to create a synergy between traditional knowledge of medicine and scientific medical advances.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Indian Ayurvedic practitioners would evince a keen interest in learning more about the herbal treasure of Sao Tome and its medicinal tradition.

In this context, it is pertinent to note that India and Sao Tome have signed two Memorandums of Understanding to cooperate and promote traditional and alternative health care systems and herbal plant trade. There are a large number of medicinal plants, particularly those found in the tropical region, which is common to India and Sao Tome and Principe due to similar geo-climatic factors.

Sao Tome could lean on the ancient and more established system of Ayurveda, which will enable it to develop a structure, deepen research and scientifically document its herbal resources.

Such cooperation will also create sustainable and rational exploitation of its medicinal resources, while still being able to preserve its traditional knowledge and present itself as an alternative to allopathy. For India, cooperation with Sao Tome in this sector presents exciting possibilities and an opportunity to further enrich the ancient Ayurvedic traditions.

Also Read: The Quaint Fishing Villages of Sao Tome

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