Desert knowledge identifies plants with market potential

Indigenous Australian's from desert communities are being encouraged to use their traditional knowledge of native plants to identify, grow and market plants for use as food, medicine and other products for their long-term livelihood.

The University of South Australia is a key researcher in the South Australian study of the national Plants for People Project, which involves working with Indigenous communities to help them establish and manage business enterprises to commercialise native plant products, and develop community members’ skills in areas such as plant identification, cataloguing, classifying, propagating and growing native species.

The project is one of the areas being studied by the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre, led by the CSIRO in Alice Springs. UniSA and Curtin University are core partners in the Plants for People Project, along with Tjutjunaku Worka Tjuta Inc (TWT) and the Tapatjatjaka Community Government Council.

Associate Professor Brian Cheers, Director of UniSA’s Centre for Rural and Regional Development at Whyalla campus, is the team leader for the South Australian site, with other study sites in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Aboriginal people in the Ceduna region have accepted the invitation to be South Australian partners through a steering committee established through TWT at Ceduna and many of them will be community researchers in the project.

Selected arid-land plant species from all sites with market potential are being collected and analysed in laboratories at UniSA, Curtin University, Charles Sturt University and the University of Western Australia to determine their nutritional and medicinal properties.

“Our study will focus initially on nutritional, rather than medicinal, properties of the plants. We are working with the communities involved to enable them to document traditional knowledge of the cultural uses of local plants so that they can use the information on the nutritional and medicinal properties of plant species to develop a range of initiatives for their use, including community health. Each community retains full ownership of their knowledge and will decide which knowledge they make available for the project,” Professor Cheers said.

“We are committed to communities producing culturally and environmentally appropriate business development plans, and conducting relevant skills training programs with the aim of establishing at least one plant-based business enterprise in the Ceduna region.

“This project will enhance cross-cultural understanding and increase recognition of Aboriginal traditional knowledge, while ensuring that Indigenous communities own and gain the benefits of this knowledge,” Professor Cheers said.

Activities within the program could include field studies on plant distribution and ecology, establishing local herbariums containing specimens of selected plants, developing appropriate technologies for cultivating plants, laboratory evaluation for food and medicinal value, ecological restoration, and applying the knowledge and new technologies in health and training programs and business enterprises. One possible project being considered is establishing a ‘native plant trail’ in the region surrounding Ceduna.

Professor Brian Cheers is supported by UniSA team members Dr Susan Semple (pharmacy), Ian Gentle and Colin Weetra (Spencer Gulf Rural Health School), Joan Gibbs (natural and built environment), Dr Mary Oliver (nursing and rural health), and Martin O’Leary (Plant Biodiversity Centre/State Herbarium, Department of Environment and Heritage).

The national Plants for People Project has been awarded CRC funding of $448,130, with more than $1.5 million in-kind support from partner organisations.

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