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Grass roots project brings endangered plants back from the brink

posted 30 Jul 2012, 07:40 by Mpelembe   [ updated 30 Jul 2012, 07:41 ]

A United Nations-sponsored project in the harsh deserts of Egypt is helping save ancient medicinal herbs endangered by ongoing drought and unsustainable grazing practices.

Bedouin tribes of the Sinai have relied on the plants for hundreds of years, but it may take the award-winning project to conserve them for future generations.

In the mountains of South Sinai there are 19 endemic plant species not found anywhere else in the world. Many of these are highly valued by local Bedouin tribes who use them for medicinal purposes.
But a lack of rain, unsustainable harvesting practices and grazing by non-endemic livestock has put many of these species on the endangered list.

Khalil Soliman knows how useful these plants are to his people and how much of a loss it would be if they became extinct. On a remote mountainside he shows a journalist Il Keaida, a herb used to cure allergies.

Soliman now works for the Medicinal Plants Association (MPA), an Egyptian NGO which strives to save these plants from extinction and to promote sustainability so they can be used by future generations. At their greenhouses in St Katherine's the UNDP funded team is now successfully propagating 14 of these species. But Project Coordinator, Khalid El Said, says there was no literature to help them set up the project as no formal research has been done on the flora of this area. So the team is relying on local knowledge handed down over generations and since the project started in 2003 have built their own bank of online resources.

Because of the lack of scientific information available it took the team 18 months to successfully cultivate some of the plants. Many lessons were learnt along the way. The team realised early on the value of bringing soil from the area where the plant grows to recreate its microhabitat.

When the project started there were only 65 Rosa Arabica plants in the world, all of which were in the St Katherine's Protectorate. So far some 40, nurtured from seed in these greenhouses, have been transferred to the wild.

Propagation has been key to the successful conservation of the endemic species and with more than 500,000 seedlings successfully transferred to the wild the pressure on the plant populations has been greatly reduced.

The project also aims to facilitate research so that the plants can be better protected in the future if, for example, disease strikes.

'We built this greenhouse to protect the endemic species and to be a scientific base for researchers. So instead of making a trip to the wild habitat in the mountains, which can take several days, scientists come here to work with the plants,'' said UNDP Project Coordinator, Khalid El Said.

Researchers typically come from Egyptian universities and research centres, mainly agricultural, and are looking to take specimens for analysis and experimentation. Some go into commercial use in medicines for example.

But for the project managers all this work is worth nothing if local people aren't stakeholders in the process. As they see it the project must serve their immediate interests as well as the long term interests of the community.

To counter over-harvesting and the use of unsustainable harvesting techniques the project runs awareness programmes in the area, calling these plants the 'Green Gold of Sinai.' Programmes are run through mosques, churches and schools, aiming to embed a sense of pride in this generation and the next. They also re-enacted a local pact banning shepherding in particularly sensitive areas. Such pacts are agreed by the sheikhs (patriarchal tribal leaders), documented and enforced through local justice systems. And to compensate for the loss of income, and so make the pact sustainable, the MPA now supplies the shepherds with manufactured feed.

An important offshoot of the project was to create mini-farms on smallholdings in the mountain villages to grow the endangered plants as cash crops.

In the small mountain village of Il Kweis, Jamea Salem Suleiman grows Habak, a type of mint, in a five square metre plot at the back of her house. Her husband works as a camel guide for tourists visiting Mount Sinai, earning around 7200 Egyptian Pounds (USD 1200) per year. Suleiman sells her crop to the MPA, adding some 500 EP (USD 83) to the family coffers.

''It's a good idea, instead of going to collect it from the mountains. Also because there is so little rain these days there isn't enough Habak in the mountains. So we started to plant it at our houses and to irrigate it; it's a good project,'' said Suleiman.

For the project managers, stories such as Suleiman's are their biggest achievement. The UNDP funding runs out at the end of June, signalling the end of the project, but they are confident the MPA's activities will continue. The Medicinal Plants Association will receive funding from the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), under the Minister of State for Environmental Affairs, and they recently received prize money from the United Nations.

At the project headquarters in Cairo there is much to celebrate after the team won USD 15,000 at the United Nations Earth Summit 2012 in Rio de Janeiro (June 20-22) on top of USD 5,000 in April in the form of the UN's Equator Prize.

Project manager Dr Adel Soliman is in the last few days of his job here and although he is sad to say goodbye to the project that he calls his 'baby,' he is happy to leave on a high note.

''The project's biggest achievements are first and foremost the active participation of the local community in efficiently managing and protecting their natural resources. Another success was the propagation of the medicinal plants which took a lot of effort and years of trial and error because of the lack of research materials available,'' said Dr Soliman.

The money received from the UN is not tied to specific spending conditions but Dr Soliman says the main priority must be to increase sales of value-added products such as herbal tea and honey, both of which are successful cash crops that will help make the project sustainable.

''The organisation will continue to develop its products and encourage the local population to participate in the projects which, God willing, will greatly improve their livelihoods,'' Dr Soliman added.

At the Medicinal Plants Association shop in St Katherine's a small number of packaged goods are available to buy, but the potential of selling products like herbal tea and honey is as yet barely tapped. It will be the responsibility of Khalil Soliman and the team that remains on the ground to realise this potential. In a deprived area so dependent on a crisis-hit tourist industry, reliable income, like the endangered plants on the nearby mountains, is a rare asset and one worth nurturing.