March 26, 2015

Indigenous Landscapes Provide Foods and Funds in Obalanga Subcounty, Uganda

Samuel Ojelel, Makerere University Esezah Kakudidi, Makerere University

The subsistence farming communities in Obalanga are reliant on their indigenous landscapes for a wide array of services. The communities benefit from provisionary services (e.g. food), regulative services (e.g. local climate moderation), supportive services (e.g. soil fertility) and cultural services (e.g. recreation) from these landscapes. These interactions are pertinent in terms of the adaptation and coping strategies for community households in the face of changes of nature, such as climate change. The reliance on wild edible plants is one of the strategies that communities resort to in times of nature or man-induced episodes of food shortage.

In this particular case study, a survey was conducted to assess the use of wild edible plants by subsistence farmers in Obalanga subcounty.  The overall goal was to examine the indigenous knowledge pertaining to the identity and use (modes of consumption, marketability, preservation, preparation and conservation) of wild edible plants. The respondents were stratified into three classes, i.e. children (under 18 years of age), adult males and females (over 18 years of age). The consent of adults and assent for children to participate in this study was sought before commencing with the research. Semi-structured interviews using a checklist of guiding questionnaire, focus group discussions and guided field visits were used to collect the data.

Wealth of Indigenous Knowledge

The results indicated a wealth of indigenous knowledge pertaining to plant identity (51 plant species). This knowledge had a strong positive correlation with the age and gender of an individual, i.e. children knew the least number of plants, and adult females were familiar with spice/sauce plants, while adult males were familiar with snacks. This trend is common in most communities but the concern is the escalating loss of indigenous landscapes due to farming, charcoal and firewood collection. It is therefore plausible that the loss of the indigenous landscapes eventually culminates to the loss of indigenous knowledge pertaining to wild edible plants. This will narrow the communities’ ability to adapt and cope with unprecedented situations like famine caused by drought or political insecurity.

The local sovereignty of the community is equally lost if these landscapes vanish together with the plant diversity therein. All these scenarios necessitate the documentation and storage of this knowledge so that it is available for all future generations. Unfortunately, no record of such attempts was recorded in Obalanga.

Tamarindus indica tree species. Photo by Samuel Ojelel.

Tamarindus indica tree species. Photo by Samuel Ojelel.

People consumed wild edible plants mainly as snacks, while eating as pure sauce was limited. The use of wild edible plants (vegetables) as spices was popular in Obalanga. This latter observation shows that communities do not only depend on the staple sauce foods (e.g. cowpeas, green grams, beans), but the spices from the wild such as Corchorus spp. also make a vital component of plant-based food intake. However, despite the reliance on wild edible plants as either snacks or spices, no deliberate effort to plant these plants was noted.

Wild edible sales face obstacles

It was also noted that some of the wild edible plants such as V. paradoxa, T. indica and M. indica are marketed within and outside of the community. This creates employment opportunities and boosts household incomes for the actors involved. However, the products are sold with very minimal value added amounts, which makes the sales prices significantly low. The other obstacle is the inadequate skills and knowledge on preserving the products, which limits trade to only fruiting seasons. Some plants such as Afromomum alboviolacuem and Sclerocarya birrea are not within Obalanga but are marketed in other parts of the country. This opportunity can be exploited to enhance household incomes as a means of stimulating support for landscapes conservation.  Seed collection and germination trials for valuable wild edible plants such as A. alboviolacuem could go a long way in bolstering the availability of the wild delicacy. It is also important to highlight that these plants have a broad tolerance to the unexpected changes in the environment and would fit very well in this era of climate change and its associated effects.

The community was aware of the challenge to their natural landscapes and certain conservation measures were alluded to. The use of by-laws, agro-forestry, fire protection, homesteads and public place tree preservation (e.g. schools, churches, business centres) were among the major forms of conservation mentioned. The by-laws were only targeting three species i.e. V. paradoxa, T. indica and M. indica. They regulate the indiscriminate cutting of these trees for woodfuel, construction and farmland clearance. This legislation stems from the nutritional, economic and cultural value of these species.

Vittaleria paradoxa tree. Photo by Marco Schmidt.

Vittaleria paradoxa tree. Photo by Marco Schmidt.

Reasons for stewardship and research

The survey results led to the conclusion that subsistence farmers indeed exhibit boundless interactions with their landscapes, not just as farmland, but also as sources of wild edible plants and household income. The wild edible plant knowledge was disproportionately distributed among the children, adult males and females, with the least knowledge among the children subset. Wild edible plants have the potential to boost household incomes if value is added and traded under the organic products umbrella. This study therefore highlights the need to (i) systematically store indigenous knowledge pertaining to the wild edible plants e.g. through botanic gardens, documents etc. (ii) collect seeds and conduct germination trials for possible cultivation of selected wild edible plants with high economic potential, (iii) conduct market surveys to explore the value chains of the marketed plants for better incomes and (iv) strengthen the conservation of the existing landscapes for continued provision of services to the community.

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Wild edible plant species utilized by a subsistence farming community in Obalanga sub-county, Amuria district, Uganda
S. Ojelel is a Teaching Assistant and a post-graduate student of MSc. Botany with research interests in Bio-energy, Plant Ecology, Ethnobotany (edible plants) and Conservation.
Dr. E. K. Kakudidi is an Associate Professor of Ethnobotany and Plant Taxonomy with vast teaching and research experience.