Ghana’s Medicinal Plants, the ‘First Aid’ for Communities, Are Under Threat

Forest communities in southwestern Ghana use 70 species of medicinal trees to treat up to 83 ailments, according to a recent study. These plants contain high levels of bioactive compounds with pharmacological benefits, but many are also threatened by factors including overharvesting and agricultural expansion in the area that drives large-scale deforestation. Due to a lack of access to Western medicine and cultural perceptions, traditional medicine is the primary source of treatment for many forest-fringe communities.

The authors say government-led conservation programs and preserving traditional knowledge is important to conserving these medicinal tree species.

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From the article:

The study, published in the journal Heliyon, found that the communities on the fringes of the Asukese Forest Reserve and Amama Shelterbelt Forest Reserve use 70 species of medicinal trees from 33 taxonomic families. The top five pharmacological effects they attribute to these trees are anti-inflammatory, anti-malarial, anti-microbial, anti-bacterial, and reproductive boosting properties.

“Herbal medicine is like the ‘first aid’ of rural communities and the only aid in some remote areas,” study co-author Michael Asigbaase, a lecturer in the Department of Forest Sciences at Ghana’s University of Energy and Natural Resources. “There are herbalists in all communities. In fact, in some cases, they have been able to help people who could not find help via clinics and hospitals.”

The study authors interviewed 88 respondents from four communities, including the Indigenous Akan-Bono people and northern tribes like the Kusaasi and Waala to understand their use of medicinal trees in the region. The findings were evaluated using five parameters, including an Indigenous knowledge index that assessed community knowledge of plant properties, healing effects, varieties and side effects. The rest of the parameters looked at how often medicinal properties were cited in scientific literature, the species and plants’ part value, and their use within families.

For remote local communities in Ghana, medicinal trees are the primary source of treatment, given that they’re easily accessible to communities living on the fringes of forests. Despite recent advances in Western conventional medicine, the dependence on traditional medicine in many countries in Africa is due to the relatively high cost of the former, limited health service coverage and number of health professionals, and the cultural normalization of traditional medicine...

Despite their widely acknowledged medicinal value, these trees are also used by community members for other purposes. These include making charcoal for fuel and as timber for construction and carpentry — uses that pose a threat to the conservation of the tree species. Wider threats like agricultural expansion, logging, mining, urbanization and climate change also contribute to the loss of medicinal tree species through deforestation, the study noted.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, the current deforestation and forest degradation rate in Ghana is 135,000 hectares (333,600 acres) every year. Another study by Asigbaase and several colleagues involved in the Heliyon paper, and also conducted near the Asukese and Amama forest reserves, shows that seven of the cited medicinal plant species are vulnerable to extinction.

Overharvesting of these plants, which are primarily sourced from the wild, is among the top drivers of the loss of medicinal plants in the study area. According to the perception of residents interviewed for that study, medicinal plants will become locally extinct in a decade.

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