Wetenschap - 22 februari 2001

Taxonomists start inventory of African plants

Taxonomists start inventory of African plants

Last year saw the start of the PROTA project - Plant Resources of Tropical Africa. Plant taxonomists of Wageningen University and their African colleagues started the enormous task of documenting information on the thousands of useful plants in Africa.

The programme is a follow-up of the successful PROSEA-programme which focuses on the documentation of information on plant resources of South-East Asia, and which will end in 2002. Heading the PROTA-project is Dr Jan Siemonsma of the Department of Plant Sciences: "During the last fifteen years, about 7000 useful plants in South-East Asia have been documented. Twenty handbooks have been made and thousands of these have been sold. Our new challenge is the African continent."

Useful plants

The new project focuses on the region between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn; the rest of Africa not be included. Africa was chosen over South America because Wageningen University has many more contacts with African countries. Also, it is estimated that the targeted region in Africa contains about 7000 useful plant species. It will take about ten to fifteen years to document all of these. Documenting all useful plant species of South America would take twice as long, says Siemonsma.

He believes that the project will bring many benefits to the scientific world. "Information about useful plants such as vegetables, cereals and spices is available in a lot of countries but it is largely fragmented. Our goal is to make this information available and understandable for everybody." It will include information about plant characteristics, their types of use, and possible threats. In contrast with the PROSEA project, the African information will first be put in electronic form on the Internet, and will probably be accessible free of charge. A series of books and CD-ROMs will follow the Internet version.

Training programmes

Regional offices will be set up in six countries: Uganda, Malawi, Madagascar, Gabon, Ghana and Benin. This is important as a lot of information about plants is only available locally, in the form of grey literature not found in international journals and books. The regional offices will also initiate training programmes and other activities based on the information documented.

Hugo Bouter

Samples of plants from Africa in the part of the National Herbarium located in Wageningen. While much of the documentation of plants in Africa will be done locally for the PROTA project, many specimens are also stored in the Herbarium here. Photo Guy Ackermans