As societies, traditionally we tend to view exotic plants as being more valuable than native plants, or as having more useful properties. That’s why my homeland, New Zealand, now looks very much like British countryside and why much of California is infested with teasel from Europe and eucalyptus from Australia. It’s also why much of Indonesia has many invasive legume trees that are helpful for soil but for which more appropriate local species exist. And that’s one of the keys—for most of these “helpful” and “useful” plants that so often become serious weeds—native versions, or species, exist. It’s just that they are undervalued and underutilized compared to exotics.
Maybe you have heard of the term “invasive species”, which can refer to plants or animals. Western societies spend billions of dollars every year trying to control these invasive species and mitigate their impacts. Indeed, the damage they cause to eco-systems and the losses to agriculture are staggering.
Perhaps a term more familiar to us is “weeds”. A weed is usually defined as a plant that causes problems by growing where it is a nuisance or a pest. The most serious weeds are invariably introduced species of plants that have become far more widespread than originally intended and become established in the wild.
Native plants have an important place in each society’s cultural identity, in a similar way that language and place are often intimately linked. As LEAD Asia grapples with the issues surrounding cultural identity, the preference for non-native plants and the impacts these have on cultural identity is really important. When a society devalues its native resources in favor of imports, this can have a significant impact on how native resources are managed and valued, over time contributing to a significant shift in the communities’ cultural identity.
My Ambai (Indonesia) friend Martinus had a love for his people, for his land and for learning. Martinus taught me much about the local plants and their uses, how they grew, what ate them, where to find them. One day he was in town and so came to visit. He saw my native plant nursery and “restored” native rain forest habitat along one side of our yard—I had tried to recreate a portion of the rainforest there in the middle of town. He was very impressed as I gave him ‘the tour’.
Finally, he pointed to where I had planted some Selaginella ferns. They were native and even useful for treating conjunctivitis, but were considered “rubbish” plants. He said, “I see you’ve got some Selaginella ferns growing there too. Want me to pull them up for you?”
“No, thanks, Martinus”, I said. “I planted them. They are part of the plants that God placed here where you live—they’re here for you to use or to just enjoy. I like them in my rainforest garden.”
I didn’t think any more of it until almost a year later when Martinus came back to town again to visit. As we walked around the garden he again pointed to the Selaginella ferns. At first I was confused, because it was as if he had forgotten our conversation many months before, but then he said, “Ah look! I see you have some Selaginella ferns! I really like those ferns,” he continued. “They’re just small and grow anywhere in the forest, but did you realize that they are plants that God created and put here in Papua! He put them right here where we live! That makes them pretty special to me. Yep, I really like them.” I knew something important had happened there but I struggled to grasp what it was at the time.
Martinus taught me about how we can be forces for good in the lives of other people, even without realizing it at the time. It was just a little thing but represented the beginnings of a transformation in how a society sees and values their resources. Martinus, unfortunately, is no longer with us—tragically a stroke claimed his life several years after this. But my dear friend and his ideas, his values, and his beliefs about creation still influence the lives of many Ambai people.
As an environmental consultant I get to hear, almost on a daily basis, of similar stories of people learning to understand and articulate their cultural identity and how to care for their environment–God’s creation–in wise and sustainable ways. It may be by simply avoiding a possibly invasive plant in favor of a native alternative, or by choosing to create a simple single-house wastewater treatment system rather than just expelling the untreated sewage straight into a river. It may be in the form of a community choosing to set aside an area of the coral reef as a no-take protected area where fisheries can replenish, or a local elementary teacher trying to help his children value God’s creation in their local village setting.
Invasive plants and their impacts is just one of the pressing environmental problems that LEAD Asia and our partners are confronting, and hopefully, helping and empowering local communities to deal with in effective ways, for their health, their livelihoods and the health of their land. In November this year, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we will be holding a four-day Community of Practice event focusing on language, education, development and the environment. Please support us in this work however you can. Come and share your stories or encourage others to do so, learn and share your experiences, skills and knowledge and remember us at this time. To register now, click here.