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The best definition of sustainability is perhaps relative to the purpose for which it is intended.As such, different stakeholders and authoritative organisations, such as the United Nations WorldCommission on Environment and Development (WCED), Food and Agriculture Organization ofthe United Nations (FAO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Wildlife Fundfor Nature (WWF), and the 2002 World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD), all definesustainability in their own terms. However, there is a consensus among these definitions that pointsto the exploitation of resources today in a way that ensures that the same resources are available forposterity.
Therefore, sustainable use of medicinal plants in this context is slyly defined as the exploitation of medicinal plants today in a way that ensures their availability for future generations. Concerns over sustainable uses of resources have led to 140 countries to subscribe to what is known as the United Nations 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). These goals are particularly important in the face of incessant climate change. Reports indicate that global temperatures have risen by 1.1°C between 1901 and 2020, and this has a negative domino effect on both aquatic and terrestrial life. The consequent rise in sea levels had devastating effects on all sea life, including the world’s coral reefs. A spike in temperatures has also led to a rise in sea levels, floods elsewhere, and severe droughts, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. This means that plants that do not adapt well to changing conditions, especially some endemic species, may eventually be forced into extinction.
The world’s current known plant species total about 391,000 (Chapman, 2009), with about 28,187 possessing medicinal properties or being used as herbal medicines (Willis, 2017). Furthermore, about 25% of medicines used in the world are derived from medicinal plants (Mohd and Iqbal, 2019). This 100 billion USD herbal industry is a huge business, with an estimated annual growth rate of 15% (Mohd and Iqbal, 2019). It is plausible that this industry grew further during the Covid19 pandemic due to an increase in the use of herbal interventions the world over. In the advent of this pandemic, there has been a paradigm shift in societies where young people previously shunned the use of medicinal plants for treatment of various ailments.
The WHO (2022) estimates that over 80% of the world uses traditional medicines, and most of these medicines are plant based. Although comprehensive data on the regional uses of medicinal plants is scarce and inconclusive, about 90% of Germans are thought to use herbal medicines while this figure was estimated at 72% in South Africa (Williams et al., 2013; Willis, 2017). As much as 70,000 ton of medicinal plant materials are thought to be consumed in South Africa, and this market puts food on the tables of close to 134,000 people and rising (Williams et al., 2013). The continued rise in the use of traditional medicines potentially means that wild populations are being depleted and will continue to do so unless some conservation measures are taken. Monoculture, human development such as expanding cities, habitat degradation, alien species invasion, among other factors are all contributing to declining species in the wild. The destruction or burning of the Amazon rainforest is particularly worrisome, as some species will be lost forever,
and their potential applications will be lost with them eventually. It is not very clear, yet if efforts to conserve biodiversity, Stop Global Warming, among other initiatives, are exerting a positive effect on biodiversity conservation. However, in South Africa, for example, two species are now extinct, 82 species are reported as threatened, and 100 species are of concern (Williams et al., 2013). But efforts are being made to ensure the conservation of medicinal plants with records indicating that 1,280 medicinal plants are protected from overexploitation in the world (Willis, 2017). Such efforts could go a long way into the conservation of these important plants. Perhaps one of the main problems with regard to the efforts facing medicinal plant conservation is the disconnect among the stakeholders along the value chain. Medicinal plant harvesters/traders care less about conservation, because their aim is to put food on their tables, while herbalists and traditional healers and their peers may not readily accept conservation measures such as species protection.
These stakeholders view plants as their God-given right and therefore cannot be regulated by any government or organisations of authority. This disconnect can be bridged by engaging these stakeholders with governments, researchers, as well as local traditional authorities. The arguments that are often raised by traditional healers and herbalists, among others, point to the fact that the plant that is in the forest is more potent than the one that has been cultivated. And yet, research has proven that conditions can be manipulated to ensure that the plant that has been cultivated and that in the wild are equally potent
. Therefore, in the face of these medicinal plant conservation issues that the world faces, threats of extinction, due to biotic and abiotic factors, with overharvesting from the wild taking the centre stage, and climate change playing a significant role, it is critical to find ways to mitigate against potential species extinction. Sustainable uses of medicinal plants need to be entrenched in the minds of all stakeholders before more species are added to the list of those that have become extinct. Therefore, this book is dedicated to exploring ways in which medicinal plants can be exploited without driving them towards extinction and robbing the future generations of this green gold.