Soo-Rang Lee
Ph.DResearcher, Korea National Arboretum

Examples of ethnobotanical uses from indigenous people (Bateq tribe) in Malaysia © Korea National Arboretum
The indigenous medicine man and Bateq tribe way of life

Ethnobotany is an area of scientific studies investigating practical uses of indigenous plants by people in a particular culture and region, which are inherited through traditional knowledge ( The term was first conceived by John William Harshberger, but the area really became well known by Richard Evans Schultes beginning with his Amazon expedition (Balick 2012). The use of plants as food sources and medicines date back to origin of human life, although the type of uses was not sophisticated as the modern forms. Overtime it has evolved into many forms in diverse cultures by local peoples. Since the first uses, people have learned to identify and classify the plants and understand the features and roles of plants. All the priceless knowledge has improved the uses of plants, and the knowledge has passed on across generations in the local cultures, which makes usage of plants even more sophisticated.
Over the past thousand years, plants have become the essence of human lives as food sources and remedies for health problems largely contributing to several other necessities of life. According to the WHO, about 80 percent of the world’s population rely on plant-derived medicines for their healthcare. For example, Aspirin was developed from the Roman knowledge of using willow bark to treat fever. More recently, the
antiviral medication, Oseltamivir, also known as Tamiflu was derived from Chinese star anise. All these examples and statistical values exactly show the importance of plants and the need for conserving ethnobotanical knowledge.

The Convention on Biological Diversity was opened in 1992 and entered into force the following year. To further promote the fair and equitable benefit-sharing with indigenous peoples, the “Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity“ was adopted in 2010. Since then, the traditional knowledge protection, including ethnobotanical knowledge, has been guided under Article 5(5) and 7. Although the protection of traditional knowledge is not merely in perfection under the Articles, particularly concerning the ambiguities on beneficiaries and the scope of genetic materials, awareness on the issue already exists in many parts of the globe, and the conservation efforts will continuously be made.

Malaysia is one of the biodiversity-rich countries located in the tropical zone surrounding the equator. The county is also rich in ethnic diversity having over twenty tribes, including three major ethnic groups, Malays,

Malaysia Sabah Borneo traditiona handicraft © rumandawi,

Hand made bamboo baskets from Sarawak Borneo isolated on a black background

Chinese, and Indians. The earliest indigenous people of Malaysia, known as Orang Asli, consists of eighteen local

tribes, which are grouped into three major groups (Senoi, Negrito, and Melayu Asli). Approximately 150,000 Orang Asli live in the most undeveloped rural area surrounded by diverse plant species that can be tools for living. Indeed, these people are the master of ethnobotanical knowledge, especially for medicinal uses of plants. Recently,

according to Ong and Azliza ‘s study (2015), Acanthus ilicifolius and Eurycoma longifolia have long been applied to treat diabetes in thirteen Orang Asli tribes. Apart from these two plants, Orang Asli peoples make use of over twenty plant species for treating diabetes alone (Ong and Azliza 2015). There are also about eighty local ethnic groups inhabiting throughout Sabah and Sarawak with ample ethnobotanical knowledge. Native Malay peoples often rely on superstitious people and believed in mystical powers. Even now, many native Malays tend to see a sorcerer or a shaman, who commonly prescribes herbal remedies instead of visiting hospitals with trained doctors.

Plants used in cosmetics and traditional tonic and condiments © Korea National Arboretum (A&B) Averrohoa bilimbi (C) Daun ari (murraya koenigii) (D) Plantago major

Throughout the human history, plants have been staple food sources in all cultures. In Malaysia, besides the primary food source, rice, there are many types of food that utilized various plant materials. Sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) is one of the most common sources of starch used in many dessert. Native Malays also frequently use bamboo shoots, fern shoots and coconut. Interestingly, in many native Malay tribes, the food made out of plant parts are served in containers also made from leaves, shoots, and barks of plants.

Apart from the medicine and food, there is a wide array of applications for plants in over a hundred of local tribes in Malaysia. Plants are widely used for making dyes, various daily supplies and cosmetic products, yet unfortunately the knowledge is not well documented and archived. For example,

Malaysian traditional medicine mostly using wild plants is not as well recognized as the other Eastern disciplines partly due to lack of detailed documentation. Today, some small villages are lost in contact because of the physical disconnection by big artificial barriers such as highways. Coupled with the unpredicted harmful effects of industrialization like the artificial infrastructures, the risk of losing the priceless knowledge becomes very high.

To conserve ethnobotanical knowledge, documentation and archiving is of great importance. Thus far, such kind of effort has remained rather scarce. Although reports of ethnobotanical cases and research on the practical uses have been

Ethnobotanical plants of Malaysia © KNA

carried out periodically, most of those were done primarily in pharmaceutical area. Recently, a great research cooperation team consisting of a Malaysian botanist, Prof. Rusea Go (University Putra Malaysia), a Korean plant taxonomist, Prof. Nam-Sook Lee (Ehwa University) and many botanists from Korea National Arboretum devoted over 10 years of their time and efforts to archive the invaluable ethnobotanical knowledge of Malaysian peoples. The book describes the plants in use by diverse Malaysian tribes with detailed applications. However, the book could only archive small fraction of the enormous ethnobotanical knowledge in Malaysia. There is still much of work that has to be done before many of those precious heritages are gone missing in many regions particularly for those biodiversity rich countries.

Cited literatures
Nam Sook Lee, Sang Mi Eum, You Mi Lee, Ruea Go. 2019. Ethnobotanical plants of Malaysia. Korea National Arboretum, Pocheon, Korea
Balick M. J. 2012. Reflections on Richard Evans Schultes, the Society for Economic Botany, and the Trajectory of Ethnobotanical Research. Medicinal Plants and the
Legacy of Richard E. Schultes. 2012:3
Ong H. C. and M. A. Azliza. 2015 Medicinal plants for diabetes by the Orang Asli in Selangor, Malaysia. Studies on Ethno-Medicine. 9:1, 77-84.