harvestingRaising the Dust Chapter Reflections

Chapter Eight: Footprints, Pathways and Pedals.

Part 2 – Harvesting practices


In last month’s article I described some of the difficulties people have when accessing and providing health care in my area of study, Mulanje Mountain, in the South of Malawi.  Traditional medicine is not only a more affordable health care option in my area of study, it is also more physically accessible for many people living in the villages and surrounding areas.  Last month’s article showed that although getting from place to place is difficult, it is an essential aspect of practicing traditional medicine as healers rely on the herbs and other medicinal plants they use to treat their patients and sometimes these can only be found in places that are further away.  In my study, I did not focus much on some of the other resources that traditional healers sometimes use in their practice, like fauna and minerals, because during fieldwork it was evident that my participants predominantly used plant (herbal) or spiritual medicine, most of which relies on the use of herbs.  Both the herbal and spiritual aspects of traditional medicine reflect the living, or animate aspects of traditional medical practices and beliefs.  This month’s article explores the impacts of plant harvesting practices on the traditional healers themselves, and their local environments.

Throughout Africa, traditional healers are inclined to harvest from quite vast areas and their practices tend to be quite varied. For instance, different parts of a plant are used for different things – bark, leaves, flowers, seeds, fruit and roots all have a purpose. I expected to encounter the use of bark as this is something I was quite familiar with growing up in South Africa. A lot of the trees I observed along my many walks displayed fresh bark ‘wounds’ as well as healed scars. Some mango trees in the village had as many incisions as the mahogany[i] trees growing in the forest.

Bark harvesting

Image 1 – Bark harvesting of local trees

It surprised me to see just how much the traditional healers in my area of study used roots in their practices and a walk up the mountainside on any given day would reveal the scratching and chopping into the exposed roots on the forest floor.

root harvestingImage 2 – Harvested roots in the local forest

During my walks I noticed that sometimes, in the case of a small herbaceous plant, the entire plant had been removed, while at other times small incisions had been made in a living tree which continued to grow.  For example, on one occasion while walking through a damp part of the local forest I noticed that a number of incisions had been made in a clump of moss growing on a stump along a shaded part of the path.  Here, although whole plants had been removed with a sharp implement, the colony was left to recover.

moss harvestingImage 3 – Incisions in clump of moss growing in damp area of local forest

My research participants described collecting plant materials from varied locations and one participant said that “even those bushes which has got indigenous shrub are also quite important for traditional medicine”.  Another said that she gathers medicine in her local forest and in other areas that are “just very close along the road”.  Plants can be harvested from high up in the mountain and from river banks.  Sometimes a whole plant might be uprooted and other times very little might be taken from it.  Obviously the nature of these harvesting activities has an impact on local plant populations and some healers said that they were having to go further and further to get what they need. Others said they could find what that needed nearby.  Some healers reported that they transplanted the plants they needed from other places where they were known to be plentiful into their gardens and their local surrounds.  Others exchanged plants.  Last month I explained that some healers sent vendors to places that were still abundant in medicinal resources and this was either a family member, friend or paid vendor.  When supplies are short, local healers do also rely on purchasing from local herb vendors.

In Malawi, traditional medicines do not seem to be being traded in the same enormous quantities as they are in places like South Africa and harvesting patterns seemed to be consisted with the scale of trade in the area.  In other words, healers seem to take what is needed for local use.  When the resources needed to practice traditional medicine do become scarce, then traditional healers must travel further and further.  One of my participants, who lived near to Nessa village, said that the number of medicine trees in the area was slowly diminishing, that they were not “famous” anymore, they were “just small”. By ‘just small’ she meant that the remaining population no longer provided her with a reliable supply.  Another interview participant in this same area said, “here we have no trees of medicine down there.  So then [we] must go to Bondo. They are going to end now at Bondo[ii]. They are Finish”

Traditional medicine plants become scarce in certain areas for a number of reasons besides unsustainable harvesting practices.  Some factors are external and others are due to aspects of local practice.  All of these influences are variable.  Plant populations can be affected by weather, seasonal factors, local agricultural practices (like mono-culture cropping and deforestation) and other environmental conditions like fire.  The various impacts are not felt in isolation, but act together and can have geographic and political implications.  For example, one person I interviewed said that he knew of healers who came from Zomba, a place well outside of my study area and took large quantities of “branches, barks and roots”.  He lamented the loss of local plant populations saying, “this tree is now, we can see that it is now vanishing”.  Not all my participants saw things in this way though and on the other side of the mountain, some of the healers in his group said, “not too many” healers came to Nessa from other places.  He said that when they did, he viewed it as a chance to exchange both knowledge and resources.  He said visiting practitioners “don’t know how the medicines are in the forest” so they aren’t able to go there without someone who does and this can be of benefit to him, as he can exchange goods.  Furthermore, if no-one is around to escort the visiting healer into the forest, they often buy from local healers, generating much needed income that way.  This participant said that when he started out in the 1990s, he spent a lot of time in the city of Blantyre and would return to Mulanje Mountain to get what he needed and so it did not surprise him that many healers were still coming into the area to collect what they needed to keep practicing in the city.

Others agreed that it was local healers and other local conditions that were constantly putting pressures on local traditional medicine resources, not some healers who were visiting the area now and then.  There really were no definitive findings for me on how the varied traditional medicine harvesting practices were impacting the local environment and this is consistent with other research.  Due to the complex interrelationships between people and their local environments, what might be seen as a natural benefit in one place might be looked at as a serious threat in another.  This is how life is and my study was no different.  In every crisis there is opportunity and in every opportunity, there is always risk.

Despite that many of my interview participants rely extensively on the forests and surrounds of the Mozambique landscape, none of them mentioned any potential or actual threats to the environment across the border.  After a protracted civil war in Mozambique, the forests and other natural features of the country have not only been left intact, thy seemed to have flourished.  The war is over and Mozambique is known to be rich in all sorts of resources so it will be interesting to see how ongoing mining and harvesting practices will impact the availability of traditional medicine resources in the future.  I feel it will be more heart-breaking than “interesting” though.

At the time of my study, the policing of the border seemed to be quite random.  One participant said she had no problem collecting considerable amounts of materials saying, “we took the visa from here, going.  We took the letter from the village headman and we show all the policeman.  No problem”.  I think this is because of the close proximity between Nessa village and Mozambique.  Some people have close familial ties and others have close spiritual and ancestral ties with the area in that they may have learned from a spiritual healer across the border or that their direct ancestors may have come from Mozambique.  In contrast with the easy passage many of the participants on the Nessa side of the mountain experienced, those on the Phalombe side of the mountain had a lot more trouble when they tried to cross the border.  Some of the Phalombe participants said they were made to pay substantial fines if they were intercepted with medicinal resources.  One participant from this side of the mountain said that he “feels that he is a stranger there” adding that he was not treated kindly.  Another participant agreed that while it is not unheard of for healers on the Phalombe side of the mountain to travel to Mozambique, where they do have “a chance of collecting some herbs”, they do not feel a sense of connection to Mozambique in the same way as the Nessa traditional healers might.

While there were no definite harvesting impacts, one of my participants insisted that there were circumstances that significantly impacted the state of the local environment.  He is a herbalist and he singled out spiritual healers, or “those who we can say … do practice something like for ‘mzimu’ spirits”.  He explained that spiritual healers work in groups, suggesting they were partly responsible for the loss of local medicinal plant resources.  He said: “they just dream something and say it.  They talk to others that I have a dream at night, I had a dream, and we have to go somewhere at the mountain”.  He explained that when announcements like this are made, it generates a lot of interest from other spiritual healers who get together, under the guidance of the person who has had the dream, and they go off into the forest as a group.  My interview participant explained that when that group gets there, they enthusiastically gather up roots, leaves and bark and “you find that the whole tree is dug up and if one goes there and have a need of that tree, you will see that tree is not there”.  According to this participants “this is the main problem in traditional [medicine] practices”.  Another interview participant’s view contrasted however, in that he said that ancestral influences actually protected resources since the ancestors could guide harvesting practices that were better for the people and the land.

Some researchers have found that these type of harvesting practices, where entire plants were removes, do not necessarily threaten particular areas, and in fact may even increase diversity and enhance supplies of particular resources.  For example, in her study in neighbouring Tanzania, McMillan (2008) found that removing an entire plant, rather than many bits of many plants could open up areas for multiple species to germinate.  From all of this inconsistency, I got that local harvesting practices are varied and diverse, plant populations fluctuate according to a number of local and outside factors, there are no hard and fast findings, but that harvesting practices are interesting and the impacts of them will continue to influence the spiritual and material landscape in the years to come.  I ended the part of chapter eight relating to harvesting practices with the following paragraph;

The main influences on local stocks fluctuate, so it is difficult to draw any clear conclusions or predict future directions. What can be assumed is that traditional medicines are still available in the fieldwork area, with some resources being abundant and others having become scarce at different times. Medicinal plant resources have partly become scarce due to the high number of practitioners harvesting from the local area, both those who live around the mountain and those who come to it from outside. Group harvesting practices and the high demands for herbal medicine, in both the local area, and further afield, are additional reasons for the current pressures on some plant resources. In order to manage the issue of changing availability, interview participants have adapted their ways of accessing resources based on their knowledge of the local environment, moving around constantly and sourcing a variety of herbal medicines over a wide area. Extending the harvesting area and expanding the scope of practice creates the basis for a richer knowledge with deeper ecological interconnections.

In terms of how this section of the chapter relates to holistic healers all over the world, I think that the connections are quite profound.  Here in Australia, for example, we do not tend to harvest the products we use to treat ourselves and our clients.  Inevitably, they come to us packaged and from other places around the world and we need to ask ourselves what kind of harvesting practices have been followed in bringing our herbs and other plant, animal and mineral based medicines to us.  Have they been harvesting ethically?  Have they been picked in such a way as to protect populations?  Are the practices that have allowed us to receive these nicely packaged resources sustainable?

In next month’s article, I will look into part III of my Footprints, Pathways and Pedals chapter as I discuss the referral pathways used by my participants when treating people in their homes and villages.


Dr Theresa Jones (PhD) is an intuitive counsellor, incorporating holistic principles and energy healing in her practice, Inner Sense Intuitive Counselling Services. You can contact her on 0458268605

[i] They were identified by a local forest guide as ‘mahogany’ trees but he added ‘but I am not sure’.

[ii] Bondo is another village in my area of study and while it was not that far from Nessa, it is still a good walk. Last month I explained how having to walk had benefits but it was also time consuming and separated healers from potential patients back in their own villages.