Renewable Natural Resources
Renewable natural resources are those which can be recycled, reproduced or regenerated. These include crops, wild plants, animals, water, air, etc. Centuries of intensive human use, settlements and other land clearings for various developments have greatly changed the original landscape and thereby destroyed our natural resource base to a great extent. Moreover, the unsustainable use of the world's natural resources, not only to meet the increasing demand but also to quench his greed, is also depleting the biological resources at an alarming rate. As per the current estimates, the world population has crossed the mark of 6 billion; and is expected to be doubled in less than 50 years. Unless population is controlled and sound resource management policy is implemented throughout the world, majority of human beings below the poverty line, particularly in the third world, will face a difficult life in the coming decades.
The population growth rate of Saudi Arabia is one of the highest in the world. As per the current circumstances, the existing population of 20 million is expected to be doubled by 2040. The rapid growths of human population and economy of the oil rich countries in the Arabian Peninsula and particularly of Saudi Arabia during the last three decades are projected to continue in the coming years. This growth has accelerated and often put pressure on the Kingdom’s renewable resource base. Since large tracts of vegetation rich areas are to be transformed for meeting the increasing demands of the industrial and agriculture sectors and for the urban development, the small remaining pockets of natural area are vital for future generations. The following paragraphs depict the current status of the wild plant heritage of Saudi Arabia and portray some of the untapped economically important plants.
Although Saudi Arabia is a large country, covering an area of 2, 250,000 sq km, the floristic elements are limited to a few thousands, in contrast to the rich floras of East African, West Asian and Mediterranean countries. Yet, the prevailing hospitable climate and topography of some parts of the Arabian Peninsula have indeed allowed the entry of many plants from neighbouring countries. However, populations of most of these wild plants on the Peninsular side are in a highly degraded state due to a number of reasons such as the unpredictable climate, lack of sufficient precipitation, meager regeneration, overgrazing, poor agricultural practices, unsustainable gathering of fuel wood, etc. Recent estimates show that Saudi Arabia contains about 2243 species in 142 families, of which 20% of plants are endangered, about 25% are rare and about 2% are endemic.
Ever since the beginning of civilization, the basic needs required by man like food, clothing and shelter are fulfilled by plants. Economically important plants of Saudi Arabia are very few. Nevertheless, each plant we see around us contains some form of chemical compounds which could be used for the manufacture of some products. Bedouins, the nomadic community of Saudi Arabia, are basically farmers and known for their hardiness and endurance are the real sons of the desert. They are will acquainted with the extremes of the arid land life. For existence and necessity, these nomadic communities had to move from place to place for better pasture land for their herd and to avoid the extreme climate. During such constant movements they were forced to use the natural resources which were available around their dwelling places. But the use of these plants were localized and restricted. The value of one plant in an area largely depends on the skills or culture of the tribal people. A plant used for medicinal or food in one region does not have the same effect or perhaps believed even poisonous in another region. According to one survey conducted on Saudi plants, 98 of them were used or considered edible by Bedouins. Out of these only a few plants such as Malva parviflora, Eruca sativa, Portulaca oleracea, Corchorus olitorius, Lactuca saligna etc. are widely used in these days. Edibility of certain plants such as Tripleurospermum auriculatum, Rumex vesicarius, etc., is also well known to many people. There are only a few plants which can be eaten whole, either raw or cooked, whereas in most other plants the edible part is either root (Emex spinosa, Scorzonera papposa, Orobanche cernua), stem( Foeniculum vulgare, Sisymbrium irio) or leaves (Launaea nudicaulis, Scorzonera papposa).
There is another group of plants which is also important to nomadic communites. Acacia gerrardii, Ziziphus spina-christi, Tamarix aphylla, Maerua crassifolia, Acacia raddiana, Juniperus procera etc. were very prominent for the construction of traditional mud houses and tents. Wood of most of these plants are very hard, durable and resistant to termites and water. People used to collect a kind of gum from A. Seyal for confectionery and for the manufacture of ink. Salvadora persica is another important plant whose value is widely accepted throughout the world. The compounds present in the wood and root of this plant are acting as a dentrifice and mouth cleanser. A few tooth pastes containing these compounds are also marketed under the trade names, “Meswak” and “Fluroswak”. The resins obtained from species such as Commiphora erythraea, C. kataf, C. myrrha, etc. were a major source of “bdellillium” for the manufacture of perfumes. Acacia spp., Haloxylon persicum, Calligonum comosum, Juniperus spp., Ziziphus spina-christi, Maerua crassifolia, etc. are well known throughout Arabia for their excellent, long and clear burning firewood.
In ancient times, Bedouins used various types herbal plants for curing many ailments. Traditional use of these herbal medicines are still in use at least in some quarters. Artemisia sieberi, Rhus tripatrita (cough), Citrullus colocynthis, Senna italica (Digestive disorders); Cynomorium coccineum, Artemisia judaica (Colic); Capparis spinosa, Peganum harmala, Ochradenus baccatus (Aches in joints, limbs); Anastatica heirochuntica (to ease the pain of delivery) etc. are some of the common medicinal plants used by 'Bedouins' in Saudi Arabia.
Rangelands constitute about 70-80% of the total area of Saudi Arabia. These areas are important for the grazing of wild and domesticated herds. Important pasture plants of the Kingdom's range lands include Acacia spp., Anabasis setifera, A. articulata, Artemisia sieberi, Astagalus spinosa, Acacia spp. Haloxylon salicornicum , Rhanterium epapposum, Indigofera spinosa, etc.
Some of the economically important plants of Saudi Arabia
Leaves of Hyphaene thebaica, when they are green and fresh, are used to make baskets, mates, etc. The fibre obtained from its leaves was of great value in the past. The baskets and mats made from leaves of this palm were believed to be long lasting, than the baskets made with the leaves of Date palm. Although not as popular as before, the items made from Hyphaene thebaica can still be seen in the markets in and around Jizan. The outer layer of the unripe, green fruit is edible which children of the Tihama region often eat.
The fruits of Ziziphus spina-christi are edible and are a crucial source of nourishment in the past. People engaged in honey production widely cultivate these trees in their premises, as it is important bee forage. Its foliage is also browsed by livestock during extreme dry season. The powdered leaves of this tree have been widely used as a hair wash in Eastern Saudi Arabia and elsewhere and have been considered very effective in strengthening the hair roots and softening hair. The wood was one of the important timbers in the past for the construction of houses and for the manufacture of utensils. Elsewhere in Arabia, remedies prepared from the leaves were prescribed for the removal of impurities from the intestines and were said to be effective for the skin.
Avicennia marina, a popular mangrove tree seen along the Red Sea coast and Arabian Gulf coast, grows in dense stands in many parts of coastal region, particularly in the southern Tihama and Farasan Islands. It is one of the ecologically important and highly productive littoral biotopes. Mangrove trees grow in extremely hostile conditions such as high salinity formed soils. They not only safeguard the land from erosion but also create more land by gradually pushing the sea back. Besides land protection, the habitat of Avicennia marina and Rhizophora mucronata present in the Farasan Islands are important because it provides breeding and nursery grounds for a variety of organisms. Many terrestrial and aquatic animals find refuge under these trees. The pneumatothods that stand erect above the water are an ideal site for the breeding of a number of fish, particularly of crabs, shrimps and prawns. It is also believed that Avicennia marina is known for its capacity to remove pollutants from water.
Dracaena ombet, though not as popular as D. cinnabari of Socotran island and D. draco of Canary Islands, is also important for the local community. Apart from the resin of this plant, the fibre extracted from the leaves is also used to make ropes and threads. Its trunks were also used for making beehives.
Moringa peregrina is a deciduous trees with pendulous branches. Fruit is a 30 cm long capsule. Oil obtained from its pods is being used by local people for cooking or for burning. In other countries, extraction from the pods is being used in perfumery, and to treat ailments of stomach, leprosy, pustules on the face and for the relief of itching.
Cissus quadrangularis is a perennial climber with succulent quadrangular stem and 3-lobed serrate leaves. Livestock browse the new leaves and growing shoots when hungry but the attractive berries, which look so tempting and succulent, are not edible. In Oman, the plant was allowed to grow up and over the roofs of houses and animal shelters in order to have a firm matting cover above the grass thatching.
Pandanus odoratissimus is a large shrub with sword-like leaves. Trunks and branches often with stilt (aerial) roots. Leaves thick, toothed, more than a meter long. It is cultivated in many parts of southwestern region, mainly in the premises of houses. The inflorescence is very aromatic and is being sold in the market. In other countries, where it is cultivated commercially, oil obtained from its male flowers.
Mats, Baskets, etc.
Saudi Arabia’s renewable natural resouces are very meager and fast disappearing. There are at least a few organizations in the world to make people aware of the potential use of the economically important plants. One such agency is the Kew-Database on economic plants at the Royal Botanic Gardens in England. The main motto of the Database is to store the details about the lesser known economic plants of the arid and semiarid tropics and promote the use of such plants for the development of the people of those areas. In Saudi Arabia, the National Commission for wildlife conservation and development (NCWCD) provides leadership in a partnership effort to help people conserve, improve and sustain our natural resources and the environment. In the coming years, conservationists must be able to establish a bridge between the traditional biological and physical aspects of natural resource management and the complex social, economic and legal matters in order to conserve our fragile ecosystems.