by Tanya Alexander

    Bioprospecting Unearths Remarkable Project In The Middle East

    Above: Carla Eskow and Keith Williams, background from left, worked with a group of their students at CNA-Q to create From Acacia to Ziziphus: Arabian Plants to Nourish the Body and Earth. The group of students include, front from left, Intisar Abdulla, Sara Bilal, Maria Bakhsh, Asma Zahid, Aisha Ghani, and Sahar Al Kaldi.

    When Canadian instructors Keith Williams and Carla Eskow submitted a research project funding proposal to the Qatar Foundation in the Middle East, they had no idea it would grow beyond their projected 25-page paper into a 73-page hardcover book with international distribution.

    From Acacia to Ziziphus: Arabian Plants to Nourish the Body and Earth is a beautiful reference guide with colour photos of each plant profiled – some 21 species. It provides a summary of each plant, including where it grows, what it needs to thrive, its appearance and physical composition, and its medicinal and environmental properties. It also provides a scientific profile and references to scientific studies undertaken on each plant.

    The project, led by Williams, a Biology instructor, and Eskow, Environmental Health Technology instructor at College of the North Atlantic’s (CNA) Middle East campus in Qatar, was titled Bioprospecting Qatar’s Plant Genetic Resources and encompassed research to explore connections between healthy environment and healthy communities. They began in June 2008.

    “We started by identifying some of the key environmental and health challenges faced by Qatar, and we did this by reviewing government documents such as the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan and National Health Authority documents on causes of death,” explains Williams.

    “We came up with ways in which plants could be used to treat some of those problems. For example, some plants are anti-cancer while others have the ability to sequester polyaromatic hydrocarbons from oil spills.”

    As Williams and Eskow point out in the project’s synopsis, the development of the oil and gas industry in Qatar (which holds the world’s largest natural gas field and the third-largest reserves of natural gas and has the second-highest GDP per capita in the world) and the ensuing urbanization and industrialization of the country over the past 60 years have had a profound influence on the population’s health. This shift has resulted in the increased incidence of “diseases of affluence,” those that result from an increase in wealth.

    “For example, in 2003, 65 per cent of the Qatari male deaths and 70 per cent of the Qatari female deaths were due to cardio-vascular illness, diabetes, malnutrition, neoplasms and traffic accidents…” state Williams and Eskow in the synopsis.

    Before the urbanization of Qatar, the paper continues, the population’s diet was one consisting of camel milk, meat, dates, and wild plants. These wild plants have significant medicinal properties and – therefore, made considerable contributions to the well-being of the people of Qatar, and they can again.

    Plants are still playing a role in modern pharmaceuticals, but, recently, the popularity of natural medicines is bringing Qatar’s plant life back into the light.

    “Nutraceuticals, which are chemical compounds with health stimulating effects isolated from natural sources and herbal treatments, are enjoying a popular global resurgence as their efficacy is increasingly validated by scientific study (Wildman, 2006),” states the synopsis.

    It seems the time was ripe for this book. Also, the one-year project enabled a group of six students to participate; they helped collect data on a total of 170 of Qatar’s 310 documented plants. Williams and Eskow developed a worksheet for students to evaluate the most beneficial plants in treating diseases such as cancer, HIV, diabetes, heart diseases and fertility issues. Other plants were chosen for their ability to significantly offset the effects of environmental challenges such as pollution, climate changes, and soil and habitat destruction. Plants that scored highest in treating these problems made it to the book, along with some other noteworthy flora.

    One such plant, profiled on pages 14-17, is the Calotropis procera. Among its many valued attributes is its capacity to be used as a biofuel, its antioxidant and anti-diabetic qualities, its cancer-combating properties and the fact that it contains enough latex rubber and fibre to make a variety of organic products such as bags, fishing nets and robes. It also is comparable to wood in the manufacturing of pulp and paper. As an added bonus, the plant is attractive enough to be used as ornamental horticulture for one’s home or garden.

    Upon the completion of the project one year later, the group gave a formal presentation to a variety of stakeholders in associated fields, including petroleum, medicine and architecture. One such company was the GHD Group, one of Qatar’s largest consulting firms, and a member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. They offer a range of services including urban development, engineering and environmental services, among others. Manager Tony Russell attended the presentation and was impressed with the research and the book.

    “The innovative combination of outcomes [in the book is] very relevant for our rapidly developing urban environments, providing cultural and ecological identity along with all the positive effects local plants provide,” says Russell.

    “It’s important to realize the contribution local Qatar plant species effectively deliver in terms of traditional medicine benefits, healthy food alternatives for humans and sustainable forage food and shelter for local fauna, plus the vital role local plants have in preventing desertification.”

    As Qatar’s oil and gas industry thrives and its population (some 1,500,000) continues to grow, so will its urbanization. It is the hope of Eskow and Williams that the knowledge found in their book and amongst the valuable traditions of Qatari people will once again be tapped to also build on the health of the Qatari nation.

    Tanya Alexander

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