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Since the International Convention on Biodiversity in 1992 conservation biologists, ecologists and conservationists have devoted considerable attention to the conservation of biodiversity. With this has come the realization that solutions to biological problems often lie in the mechanisms of social, cultural, and economic systems. This shift has emphasized the relationship between biodiversity and human diversity, or what the Declaration of Belem (1988) calls an “inextricable link” between biological and cultural diversity. The term biocultural diversity was introduced by Posey to describe the concept denoting this link. To date this concept has been used only in reference to “indigenous people” who, as part of their traditional lifestyles, use biodiversity to sustain their cultural identity. Our research, however, demonstrates that Xhosa people (amaXhosa) living in an urban context in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa continue to use wild plants for cultural purposes and often access these through commercial trade. We suggest that recognition of the cultural and spiritual values associated with wild plants would greatly enhance biodiversity conservation efforts. Recognition of the significant role that wild plants play in fulfilling cultural needs for urban Xhosa people would go a long way towards achieving this.


The 1992 International Convention on Biodiversity stressed the vital role biodiversity plays in the ecological health of the planet. Since then scientists and environmentalists have paid greater attention to the conservation of biodiversity. As a result, biologists, ecologists, and conservationists have come to realize that solutions to environmental problems often lie in the mechanisms of social, cultural, and economic systems (Mascia et al. 2003). This shift in emphasis has resulted in increased attention being directed towards the relationship between biodiversity and human cultural diversity. Many of the planet's areas of highest biological diversity are inhabited by indigenous and traditional people, providing what the Declaration of Belem (Posey 1988) calls an ‘inextricable link’ between biological and cultural diversity, termed biocultural diversity by Posey (1999). Although there is a growing use of the term in current literature, there has been little critical reflection on precisely what it refers to. In particular, people at all levels of acculturation to their national societies may have knowledge and use of the “natural” environment. Therefore, to take full advantage of the term ‘biocultural diversity’ for conservation efforts, key concepts related to it, such as ‘indigenous’ and ‘local’ people, must be defined to include peri-urban and urban contexts (Cocks 2006). The reason is that increased urbanization does not necessarily imply a loss of traditional cultural values related to biodiversity use. For example, Cocks and Wiersum (2003) estimate that in peri-urban resettlement areas in South Africa, 50% of the available wild plant species are used to fulfill religious, ritual and spiritual requirements rather then serving purely a utilitarian function in the household. Such continued adherence to the fulfillment of rituals and cultural practices in southern Africa often goes unnoted (Bank 2002; Beinart and McGregor 2003).

Furthermore, those who use the concept of biocultural diversity must fully understand the relationship between humans and the environment, including the way people use the resources available to them from biologically diverse environments. In this regard it is important to recognize not only the spiritual values of sacred sites and plant and animal species as has been commonly documented (Laird 1999; Posey 1999), but also the use of wild harvested resources for spiritual, ritual and religious purposes. For example, we refer to the trade of traditional grass brooms within urban centers in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. The brooms are given to a bride as a wedding gift. The ceremonial presentation of these gifts is symbolic of traditional Xhosa culture and symbolizes respect for the ancestral faith in the newlyweds' home. The broom is also used to apply protective medicine (amayeza) to the home by ritually splashing an infusion of plant material against the walls and roof of the house (ukutshiza) (Cocks and Dold 2004).

We do not yet fully understand the reasons for the continuing use of wild plants in urban areas in southern Africa. Many studies have documented the economic value of the trade in medicinal plants within urban contexts (Cocks et al. 2004; Dold and Cocks 2002; Mander 1998; Williams 2004; Williams et al. 2000) and the problematic relation to biodiversity conservation through unsustainable harvesting (Cunningham 1991, 1997; Dold and Cocks 2002). However, there has not been much research on why urban South Africans continue to purchase “medicinal plants” on such a massive scale. There are a few qualitative accounts of the continued adherence to culturally inspired uses of medicinal plants (Hammond-Tooke 1989; Hutchings 1989), but there have been no quantitative analyses of such usage among the Xhosa living in cities. This research begins to qualify and quantify amayeza plants used in an urban context. In the medical and anthropological literature, the term amayeza is usually translated simply as “medicinal plant,” in relation to the treatment of physical ailments and their respective causes. We however suggest that amayeza refers to well being and healing practices in the broadest sense of the word, including nonphysical spiritual, ritual, and religious functions, which helps explain the reasons for its importance in “non-traditional” settings.

Aims and Research Methodology

Several studies show that the use of and trade in medicinal plants in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa is poorly understood. The aim of this research is to explain why Xhosa people living in urban areas continue to use wild plants. We document the uses and assess the value of the most frequently traded plant medicines regarding their physical and nonphysical use and evaluate the significance of these plants to a sample of urban users stratified by income as defined by cluster analysis. Furthermore, we suggest that the cultural value attributed to many plant species could be used as an argument to support the conservation of biodiversity as well as cultural diversity.

The following questions are posed: What are these plants used for? What is the significance of these plants to the users? What socioeconomic factors influence the urban use of ‘medicinal’ plants?

Information on the urban use of medicinal plants by Xhosa people was collected during two studies, in King William's Town and East London, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. The Xhosa people are of Nguni descent and are concentrated in the Eastern Cape Province, with a large rural population in the former Homelands of Ciskei and Transkei and the urban areas in the province. IsiXhosa is the second most commonly spoken language in South Africa, with about 7 million primary speakers (constituting just over 17% of the total South African population).

The first study, completed in 2000, documented the urban trade of wild plant species including the quantities and market values of each (Dold and Cocks 2002). This survey was conducted in six urban centers in the Eastern Cape Province, including King William's Town, Port Elizabeth, Queenstown, Uitenhage, Umtata and East London. Two hundred and eighty-two questionnaires were answered by key participants in the medicinal plant trade, including medicinal plant street traders, medicinal plant store owners (African chemists), traditional healers, and clinic patients. This study showed that approximately 525 tonnes of plant material, comprising at least 166 taxa and valued at approximately US$4 million, are traded annually in the region. Details of the economic value of the 60 most frequently traded plant species are provided by Dold and Cocks (2002), but the uses of these plants are given, categorized, and discussed for the first time in this paper (Appendix 1). This elaboration of data detailing the use of the medicinal plant species was gained through additional in-depth interviews with key informants (traders and collectors) and specialist users (traditional healers, diviners and herbalists) over an extended period.

A second study, completed in 2004, constituted a survey amongst medicinal plant users living in King William's Town and East London. Five hundred and thirteen households were interviewed to document their use of medicinal plants over a period of one year. Data on household composition and economic status were collected from 302 of these households. A summary of the household profiles is provided in Table 1. Cluster analysis techniques were used to identify wealthy and poor households. The households were found to cluster statistically into three groups, identifiable as poor, middle income and wealthy clusters. Variables used to cluster the households included assets such as a motor vehicle, television, or refrigerator; the size of the house (number of rooms); construction type (brick, zinc, wood); number of household members; and income (employment, pension, state grants). A summary of the main socioeconomic conditions of the different categories of households and their statistical comparisons are provided in Table 2. Where the variables were categorical, a Chi-Squared test of independence was used. For numerical variables, we used the Kruskal-Wallis test to determine significant differences in locations among the three groups.


Socioeconomic profile of the households surveyed (n = 302 households).



Socioeconomic conditions of the households interviewed.


The Role of ‘medicinal’ Plants—Amayeza Yesixhosa

Directly translated, amayeza yesiXhosa means ‘Xhosa medicines’ and comprises plant-based medicines for both physical illness recognized by Western biomedicine and afflictions recognized by Xhosa people as being caused by the supernatural (Kropf 1915; Soga 1931). For most indigenous non-European South Africans, good health requires not only a healthy body, but also a healthy environment, because it is possible to absorb harmful elements from the environment that can cause misfortune and ill-health (Ngubane 1977). For Xhosa people, good health, disease, success or misfortune are seldom considered to be chance occurrences, but are often the result of active intervention by individuals or the ancestors (izinyanya) (Bührmann 1986; du Toit 1998; Gelfand 1957; Hirst 1990). Indigenous South Africans take measures to protect themselves by strengthening their own resistance and that of their family members to withstand harm. It is important to establish and maintain a form of balance with one's surroundings (Ngubane 1977). A number of ritual activities are engaged in to maintain health. Communication with the ancestors is of foremost importance and using medicines, remedies and wearing protective necklaces are further health strategies (du Pisani 1988). Certain forms of ritual purification such as a ritual body wash (ukuhlamba ngeyeza), use of a purgative (ukugabha and ukucima), spraying (ukutshiza), fumigating (ukugxotha) or a steam treatment (ukufutha) as counteractive and protective measures often involve the use of plant material (du Toit 1998). Some illnesses (ukufa kwamaXhosa) are perceived as only being treated with traditional Xhosa medicine (amayeza yesiXhosa), although symptoms may be relieved simultaneously with patent medicines (Cocks and Møller 2002).

In accordance with the above discussion, the nonphysical uses of amayeza were assigned to four broad categories, namely spiritual cleansing, luck, protection against evil spirits, and sorcery. Amayeza used to treat physical complaints, such as fevers, headaches and high blood pressure, are generally called umkhuhlane and refer to physically caused illness (Kropf 1915). Medicines to treat these conditions are considered potent and effective and therefore do not require ritual action (Ngubane 1977).


Species Traded in Urban Markets and Their Uses

The 60 most frequently traded plant species in urban markets in the Eastern Cape are listed elsewhere (Dold and Cocks 2002). Analysis of their uses reveals that 52 of them were sold for more than one use. Forty-eight species were found to have nonphysical functions, with 27 being used exclusively to treat ailments and afflictions related to ukufa kwamaXhosa. Forty were used to treat 33 physical ailments.

Thirty of the plant species traded in urban markets are administered as emetics (iyeza lokukugabha) and enemas (iyeza lokukucima), used either routinely as a preventive health measure or at the onset of illness symptoms. It is often believed that a cure or relief is to be found only through ritual purging and cleansing of the body, internally and externally. In agreement with Pujol (1993) and Leclerc-Madlala (1994), we find that purging in all its forms is often the first course of action in the quest for a cure for illness. Purging is often accompanied by washing with an infusion of plant material (iyeza lokuhlamba) (29 species) as a protective measure against afflictions caused by the ancestors, sorcery and evil spirits (umgqwaliso), and nonphysical afflictions such as “dirty blood” (igazi elimdaka), presumed to be caused by the supernatural. Similar infusions are sprayed and sprinkled (ukutshiza) on the walls, roof, and floor of the home and the cattle byre (9 species) with a traditional grass broom (Cocks and Dold 2004), also as a protective measure. Plant material is burnt as incense to fumigate (ukugxotha) the home and the body by inhalation (6 species) and boiled to steam the body and face (ukufutha) (13 species) as a protective measure, and in preparation for rituals honoring the ancestors. Charm plants, often living, are positioned in and around the home and cattle byre as protective agents (intelezi) or are carried on the person (ikhubalo) to ensure positive results in, for example, sporting events, court cases, exams, business transactions, and courting (9 species). Specific plants are used in various ways to facilitate communication with the ancestors (ubulawu), most often during rituals (3 species). These data clearly demonstrate the importance of what has been called “well-being enhancing” medicines (Cocks and Møller 2002).

Urban Household Use of Amayeza

The urban household surveys in King William's Town and East London indicated that 67% (n = 513) of the households interviewed had made use of amayeza within the past year. In total 64 plant species were used: 17 had multiple uses, 45 were used for nonphysical purposes, and 26 were used to treat physical symptoms.

A total of 674 use occurrences during 2004 were recorded of which 45% (306) were for nonphysical problems and 55% (367) for physical symptoms. Forty-five percent (306) of the amayeza utilized were purchased from urban vendors. Of these, 58% (175) were used for nonphysical purposes while 42% (128) were purchased to treat physical symptoms. Thirty-two percent (215) were collected from home gardens and 19% (132) from surrounding natural vegetation. The remaining 4% were not given a location. Of the collected amayeza, 34% (119) were used for nonphysical purposes and 66% (228) for physical symptoms.

The highest level of amayeza use was recorded amongst households that were classified as poor, followed by middle income and wealthy households (Table 3). Subsequently, a statistical relationship was established between wealth and the use of amayeza. The use of amayeza was significantly influenced by the household heads' occupations and their level of education, and the household heads' gender and age was only slightly significant (Table 4). Households using amayeza were predominately headed by a male (46% of the households using amayeza). Forty-seven percent of the household heads' using amayeza were between the age of 30 and 59 years old, employed in low and medium skilled occupations (23%) and with secondary levels of education (36%).


Influence of wealth on household use of amayeza in King William's Town and East London in 2003. Yes/No indicates whether or not a respondent reported amayeza use in the last twelve months.



Household demographic factors affecting urban use of amayeza in King William's Town and East London in 2003.


Poor households utilized the highest percentage of amayeza for nonphysical purposes (50% of 84 households), followed by middle income households (47% of 98), and wealthy households (44% of 119). Although wealthy households showed few differences regarding nonphysical use of amayeza it was found that 7% of the middle income and 7% of the wealthy households used amayeza for protection against sorcery whereas no poor households did. A higher proportion of the poor (26%) and middle income (29%) households made use of amayeza for spiritual cleansing whereas only 15% of the wealthy households reported this use.

Discussion and Conclusion

An analysis of the trade survey data reveals that the majority of amayeza species are sold for more than one use (52 species), including both physical ailments (40 species) and nonphysical ailments (48 species), those being perceived to be of supernatural causes. Of the 60 most frequently traded amayeza species, 50% were used for purging and 48% for ritual washing of the body, where both practices use infusions of plant material. These ritual applications are requirements for the treatment of and protection against sorcery, for communicating with the ancestors, for counteracting evil forces, for spiritual well being and as good luck charms.

Although it is widely acknowledged that some urban indigenous Africans make use of traditional medicine, the urban household survey reveals that as many as 67% of urban dwellers in the study site used amayeza during a one-year period. The majority of the 64 amayeza plants used by these households addressed nonphysical afflictions. Due to the large diversity of plant species required for nonphysical purposes, many of these plants had to be purchased at informal medicinal plant markets supplying the urban demand. Clearly urban dwellers, particularly those from poor households, are prepared to spend cash to obtain these resources. This demonstrates that elements of traditional worldviews related to health care and well-being are still strongly adhered to in urban areas. A smaller percentage of plants were grown in home gardens, and were used primarily to treat physical ailments such as the common cold and coughs. Some plants were also collected from natural vegetation in neighboring areas.

The highest level of amayeza use was recorded amongst poor households, followed by middle income and wealthy households. The reason for this may be twofold: pharmaceutical medicines are often not within the financial reach of poor households, and wealthy households, being financially and socially more secure, are less likely to encounter misfortune requiring protective amayeza. In contrast, the middle income and wealthy households use amayeza to treat symptoms associated with sorcery, indicating that with an increase in wealth members of the household experience the threat of witchcraft, most often attributed to jealousy, more frequently than do poor households.

Despite less use of amayeza by wealthy households, still more than half of the wealthy urbanized households used amayeza, indicating that Xhosa beliefs and practices are still retained by these households. This study demonstrates the significant role that wild plants play in providing health services and a feeling of ‘well-being’ among urban groups. Furthermore, both Cocks and Wiersum (2003) and van Lieshout (2002) show that children and youths in the study area expected to continue using wild plants for physical and nonphysical Xhosa-specific ailments in the future.

Dold and Cocks (2002) found that 93% of the amayeza species traded in the Eastern Cape are harvested unsustainably. Consequently, Dold and Cocks (2002) recommend giving high priority to 34 species for conservation management, as wild plant stocks are being depleted to dangerously low levels. Three species are listed as IUCN Red List species as a result of their over-exploitation for the amayeza trade (Victor and Dold 2003). These three species are used to treat ukufa kwamaXhosa afflictions, thus indicating that such practices are also potentially threatened by the loss of these species.

If a goal of biodiversity conservation includes managing change in dynamic environmental systems (Infield 2001), conservation programs need to take into account ever changing cultural circumstances (Cocks 2006). In our view it is of paramount importance that biodiversity conservation programs develop campaigns that emphasize the link between cultural and biodiversity conservation. Biodiversity conservation programs must take cognisance of the multitude of cultural values that affect biodiversity, as these factors are an integral part of the newly emerging socio-economic group in newly emerging socio-economic conditions. This message needs to become the central thrust in biodiversity programs. Conservationists need to be made aware not only of the link between the loss of the natural habitat and cultural practices, but also of the options for incorporating cultural values in novel biodiversity conservation approaches. It is believed that the implementation of such educational campaigns would have far greater success then species-focused conservation approaches, which are perceived to benefit only the elite and not the ordinary person in the street. Highlighting the significant role that amayeza species play in fulfilling ritual and spiritual practices amongst the Xhosa they would go a long way towards achieving this.


The South African Netherlands Program for Alternative Development (SANPAD) and International Foundation of Science (IFS) are acknowledged for funding. We thank Dr. Freerk Wiersum for comments and suggestions on the manuscript, Lindsey Bangay for her assistance with the statistical analyses, Nomtunzi Sizani and Mike Ntwanambi for assistance in the field, and, in particular, the amayeza traders of King William's Town-siyabonga.

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Appendix 1


The 60 Most Frequently Traded Plants In Order Of Frequency And Their Uses. (frequency Refers To The Number Of Respondents Who Listed The Plant Species Amongst Their Top Ten Most Commonly Sold Plant Species.) Botanical Nomenclature Follows Germishuizen And Meyer (2003) And Xhosa Orthography Follows Dold And Cocks (1999). Voucher Specimens Are Lodged In The Selmar Schonland Herbarium (gra). Appendix 2 Lists Plants In Alphabetical Order By Genus.


























Appendix 2


Index Of Most Frequently Traded Plants (by Genus).




Published: 1 March 2006
biocultural diversity
medicinal plants
South Africa
Xhosa people
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