For many years the importance of wild plants in subsistence agriculture in the developing world as a food supplement and as a means of survival during times of drought and famine has been overlooked. Generally, the consumption of such so-called 'wild-food' has been and still is being under-estimated. This may very well be the case for Ethiopia, a so-called 'biodiversity hot-spot' and known as a centre of origin for a significant number of food plants (Bell, 1995).
Click on the Field Guide button to the left to explore a practical field guide to wild-food plants in Ethiopia, giving a general description and information on edible parts, preparation methods and palatability.
Rural people of Ethiopia are endowed with a deep knowledge concerning the use of wild plants. This is particularly true for the use of medicinal plants (Abebe and Ayehu, 1993) but also for wild plants some of which are consumed at times of drought, war and other hardship. Elders and other knowledgeable community members are the key sources or 'reservoirs' of plant lore. Wild-food consumption is still very common in rural areas of Ethiopia, particularly with children. Among the most common wild plant fruits consumed by children are, for example, fruits from Ficus spp, Carissa edulis and Rosa abyssinica plant species.
The consumption of wild plants seems more common and widespread in food insecure areas where a wide range of species is consumed. The linkage has given rise to the notion of 'famine-foods', plants consumed only at times of food stress and therefore an indicator of famine conditions. Local people know about the importance and the contribution of wild plants to their daily diet as well as being aware of possible health hazards such as stomach irritation occasionally occurring after consumption of certain wild plants.
Nevertheless, whereas the rich indigenous knowledge on the medicinal use of wild plants has been relatively well documented, research, particularly concerning the socio-economic, cultural, traditional, and nutritional aspects of wild-food plants still lacks adequate attention. In the case of Ethiopia little, if anything, has been systematically documented on this subject. This should raise even greater concern when looking at the frequency of recent famine events in the country and the extent to which subsistence agriculture is still the norm.
In parts of Southern Ethiopia the consumption of wild-food plants seems to be one of the important local survival strategies and appears to have intensified due to the repeated climatic shocks hampering agricultural production and leading to food shortages. Increased consumption of wild-foods enables people to cope better with erratic, untimely rains and drought for several consecutive years without facing severe food shortages, famine and general asset depletion as in other areas of Ethiopia (see also Mathys, 2000). The key to this strategy for survival is the collection and consumption of wild plants in uncultivated lowland areas such as bush, forest and pastoral land as well as the domestication of a great variety of these indigenous plants and trees for home consumption and medicinal use in the more densely populated and intensively used mid- and highlands. Southern Ethiopia, particularly Konso, Derashe and Burji special Woredas and parts of SNNPR (Southern Nations, Nationalities & People's Region) may still be considered part of these so-called biodiversity hot-spots in Ethiopia.
Konso people, for example, still have and use a well-developed knowledge concerning which wild-food plants can best provide a dietary supplement in periods of food shortage. Konso people, well known for their hard labour and sophisticated agricultural system (Lemessa, 1999b), have been stricken by drought since 1996. In this period they have faced repeated significant harvest losses and even complete crop failures. Nevertheless, until June 1999, most Konso people managed to cope with these harsh climatic conditions and survived by increasing their consumption of wild-food plants. Damaged, reduced or even lost crop harvests have been partly compensated by the collection of wild-foods. Unfortunately, three severe years with only meagre harvests and yet another harvest failure in 1999, was just too much for many people in Konso, an ecologically fragile area, despite the people's incredible efforts to protect and conserve the local environment.
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