31 October 2019

International Technical Assistance UNDP-GEF Project
“Strengthening of human resources,
legal frameworks and institutional capacities
to implement the Nagoya Protocol in the Republic of Belarus”

The book is devoted to the plant world knowledge, vision and rituals in the Belarusian village of 19th-21st centuries. History of ethnographic data collection about plants is highlighted, including traditional phytotherapy and use of wild plants in foodways. The world of herbs and trees is considered as a single “text” where biological features and economic use of plants are inseparable from their mythopoetic understanding.

The book is destined for folklorists, ethnologists, botanists, local history experts and everyone interested in the folk culture and nature of his or her homeland.

The accelerated process of wildlife species extinction on the Earth has given rise to the adoption of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (5 June 1992), which aims to conserve biological diversity, sustainably use its components and ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources by providing access to them and transferring related technologies, while respecting all rights to such resources and technologies.

In accordance with the Convention, States have sovereign rights to their genetic resources ‒ all wildlife resources, as well as the results of activities related to breeding and biotechnology realized in the form of economic plant varieties, animal breeds, strains of microorganisms, including GMOs. Over the past two and a half decades, genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge on their use have become an object of commercial interest and biopiracy.

The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity developed to achieve the third objective of the Convention shall provide for legal frameworks on legal and transparent access to genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, the fair and equitable sharing of benefits between the providers and users of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge (as a counter to biopiracy), as well as their use monitoring.

The study, systematization and analysis of information on traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources of the Republic of Belarus was carried out for the first time in the framework of the UNDP-GEF Project “Strengthening of human resources, legal frameworks and institutional capacities to implement the Nagoya Protocol in the Republic of Belarus” (Registration with the Ministry of Economy of March 30, 2018 No. 2/18/000874).

Traditional knowledge ‒ knowledge, skills or practices that are handed down from generation to generation and form part of the traditional lifestyle of local communities, reflect traditional patterns of life and are important for the sustainable use of biological diversity. Unlike folklore itself, i.e. verbal-poetic creativity, it is applied knowledge related to human life and the environment. This knowledge is the result of collective understanding of the properties and relationships of the world and of natural and human. It is based on daily experience and long-term observations and passed down for generations. Unlike scientific knowledge, traditional knowledge is a kind of life knowledge (for example, survival in extreme conditions, nature management techniques, properties of plants, products of the animal world, etc.). Their traditional character at that means, first of all, not the archaic nature, but the method of intergenerational transmission of ethnic experience in the form of customs, order and rules of behavior occurring through practice or narration. Traditional knowledge is generated every day and develops as people and teams respond to the challenges the environment poses to them (Intellectual Property, 6).

The Nagoya Protocol considers traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources in the context of legal access to this knowledge and the protection of the rights of traditional knowledge holders to benefits arising from their use. In Belarus, there are people and communities that preserve and develop traditional knowledge on the utilization of wild plant and animal genetic resources, which are used not only in nutrition, but also for maintaining human and animal health.

This paper provides insight only into one of the areas of traditional knowledge related to genetic resources ‒ plants.

Belarusian folk medicine uses more than 600 medicinal plants. In this regard, Belarusian herbal medicine as a branch of folk culture keeps pace with other European nations. When studying the medicinal flora of Belarus, it becomes clear that scientific herbal medicine is far behind folk medicine with regard to the number of plants used. Many plants of Belarus continue to be promising for the study and further medicinal use. But even today, one can speak of a significant pool of knowledge we have thanks to the dedicated work of our predecessors ‒ ethnographers, pharmacists, doctors and lovers of medicinal plants who have preserved the experience of our ancestors for us.

The kingdom of plants, creating an environment for a human being and providing him or her with everything needed for existence (especially in traditional cultures), at the same time represents an important fragment of the people’s spiritual culture. The place of plants in traditional foodways as well as domestic and veterinary medicine relies on the one hand on the actual biological properties of plants and knowledge, which has been accumulated empirically over centuries, and on their symbolic meaning determined by the mythopoetic human perception of a tradition on the other.

In particular cases, these two sides are not opposed and traditional knowledge holders are hardly cognizant of them. Plants have a special place in the system of calendar holidays and rituals, demonstrating ethnic identity and selectivity. This heterogeneous and ritualized relationship between a human being and the plant world falls under the scope of ethnobotany study, one of the most popular and actively developing branches of ethnoscience.



Traditional knowledge ‒ knowledge, skills or practices that are passed on from generation to generation and form part of the traditional lifestyle of local communities, reflect the traditional outlook and are vital for the sustainable use of biological diversity. Unlike folklore itself, i.e. verbal poetic creativity, it is applied knowledge inextricably linked to human life and environment. This knowledge is the result of collective understanding of properties and human-nature relations. It is based on everyday experience and long-term observations and transferred from one generation to another. Unlike scientific knowledge, traditional knowledge is a kind of everyday knowledge (for example, survival in extreme conditions, nature management techniques, properties of herbs, plants, animal products, etc.). At the same time, its traditional nature is not derived from ancient times, but refers to a method of transmitting ethnic experience from one generation to another in the form of customs, order and rules of behavior perceived through practice, demonstration or storytelling. Traditional knowledge is created every day and develops as people and communities respond to the challenges that their environment poses to them (Intellectual Property, 6).

This work aims at only one unit of traditional knowledge associated with genetic resources ‒ medicinal plants.

More than 600 medicinal plants are used in the traditional medicine of Belarus. In this regard, Belarusian herbalism as a branch of folk culture does not yield to other European nations. When studying the medicinal flora of Belarus, it becomes clear that scientific phytotherapy is far behind traditional medicine in terms of the number of plants used. Many plants of Belarus continue to be promising for the study of their medicinal uses. Only a small part of plants used in Belarusian folk medicine has found their application in modern medicine.


The frontal study of the historical sources aimed to evaluate the richness of traditional knowledge on the plant use accumulated by Belarusian peasants through the centuries.

In medieval Europe, the translations of Latin and Byzantine primary sources on the use of herbs were widely spread. Those manuscripts were altered, supplemented and modified in line with the conditions of this or that region. West European ideas and treatises gradually spread to the east, first of all, to Lithuania and Moscovia (through Germany and Poland), where they found grateful soil and were quickly mastered, processed and stuck in people’s minds for a long time. Those manuscripts are known as “Ziel‘niki”, “Books of Home Remedies”, “Medicinal Vertograd”. Often, they were made copies of and used for personal purposes. They also included the comments of Roman physician Galen to the works of Hippocrates, which were at that time popular in Europe, and the extracts from Pseudo-Aristotle books. Representing on the one hand peculiar botanical encyclopedias, Ziel‘niki and books of home remedies include quite a bit of information on daily life and beliefs. Along with the facts indicating certain knowledge of our ancestors about nature, its properties, life and business experience, there are also purely magic tips regarding treatment.

For Belarusian ethnology, a manuscript translated in Vil‘nia into a “Slovenian dialect” in 1677 is of particular interest. The basis of the manuscript is a large extract from the “Book of remedies from many healers, a compilation on the roots and potions”, which describes 106 medicines, primarily of plant origin, and the diseases they should be used for.

In 1926, a scientific expedition of the Arńanski Local History Association discovered in the Mardańevičy village of Dubrovenski District in the possession of a peasant Hanna Ńaranda a book of domestic remedies, which local residents had been using for treatment for many years. The book of homemade medication consists of 30 pages, written in Russian, but the Belarusian phonetic phenomenon akannie and the letter ŭ may occur. Researchers relate the original version of the book of home remedies to the first half of the 17th century. It describes 77 plants. Another 18th century book dedicated to domestic remedies was found in Hajdukoŭka village of Mahilioŭ Province in the late 19th century by the ethnographer Jeŭdakim Ramanaŭ.

At the end of 18-19th centuries, information on plants was scattered around in the literature of different directions, from botanical research itself to the work of ethnographers, both professionals and lovers of antiquity and folk life. Obviously, the first ones focused on the identification of plants, describing their habitus, habitats, and etc., indicating at the same time the areas of use where possible. First ethnographers recorded information on the local flora as it became involved in people’s life, poetized, etc. Representatives of privileged classes were discovering the life of a peasant for themselves touched by their knowledge, including of plants, or their condemning ignorance. Romanticism of the 19th century enhanced attention to people‘s life and thus led to the growth of ethnographic literature.

With regard to the later period in the literature of the 19th century, it must be borne in mind that in works of that time the comments were unfolding according to collectors’ preconceptions ‒ to show “downtroddenness” of peasants or to romanticize the “antiques” of their knowledge. In the records of first ethnographers, we already observe an important setting, according to which we cannot and have no right to categorically separate “scientific” and “superstitious” ideas about a particular plant or a means of the animal origin since they constitute an inseparable and organic unity for traditional knowledge holders.

And quite tellingly and particularly noteworthy is that well-rounded collectors of the mid-19th century tried to identify plants giving them appropriate Latin names.

Jaŭstach Tyńkievič was one of the first to start recording legends associated with various herbs, mainly of ritual or medicinal purposes.

The leading representative of the pre-revolutionary Belarusian ethnography is Jeŭdakim Ramanaŭ. Among various branches of the material and spiritual culture of Belarusian people reflected in the works of Jeŭdakim Ramanaŭ, an important place belongs to traditional medicine. He collected and published more than 800 incantations, published extracts from a book of home remedies and described the use of herbs (Romanov 1889; 1903).

One of the sources related to the ethnobotany of Belarusians is “Materials for Geography and Statistics of Russia” collected by the officers of the General Staff. The compilation of surveys on the provinces started according to a specific program and by order of the Ministry of War back in the 1930s of the 20th century and originally destined “for use” at the Military Department. The compilers worked on a program that included the collection of geographic and statistical information on each province. The Belarusian material is presented in the collections on Hrodna, Minsk, Smaliensk and Vil’nia provinces. The “materials” are in the form of a generalized informative source. This includes the data obtained from Statistical Committees, the reports of governors, the articles from the newspaper “Gubernskiye Vedomosty” and other periodicals. In a number of cases, handwritten materials of private persons, local ethnographers, and interestingly, doctors engaged in the description of the provinces’ flora were used.

In the description of Mahilioŭ Province, in the part devoted to the physico-geographical description, there is a “List of flowering and higher flowerless plants growing wild in Mahilioŭ Province” compiled by R. Pabo and K. Cholovsky. A list of plants includes class, family, group, genus and Russian and Latin names of species. It also provides information on their local names, a period of flowering and fruiting and consists of a section in which 197 plants are considered, including the described method of their use for specific diseases. The list makes reference to a number of plants that later never met. Perhaps some plants were not well-known among the peasants.

The largest and most thoroughly specialized work on traditional healing and traditional ideas with regard to human diseases and traditional medicine tools throughout Belarus is the collection of Francińak Viareńka “To the issue of traditional medicine” (Wereńko 1896). F.L. Viareńka managed to collect the richest folklore and ethnographic material. In total, there are about 1000 descriptions of healing techniques, incantations, beliefs and traditional medicine tools and more than 300 out of them are associated with plants. It is worth noting that the researcher was able to fairly and uniformly examine a full range of traditional medicine ideas and practices. Along with the description of ritual and magic practices, a worthy place in the collection is devoted to the descriptions of plant and animal origin remedies.

U. Dabravolski gives the name of “Travnik” to one of the parts of his “Smolensk ethnographic collection” in which he mentions over 80 herbs. Only the name and a brief indication of use are given (Dobrovolsky 1891, 216-223). The collection is valuable due to close attention to the local names of plants and their ritual uses.

By the mid of the 20th century, among the collectors and researchers of folk customs, the idea of a separate field of traditional knowledge ‒ “folk medicine” ‒ had already formed. There were attempts to interpret folk medicine from different standpoints: understand the reasons for the sustainable nature of folk tools aimed at ―enriching of medical science‖ with the remedies yet unknown to it. A general tendency shown in evaluating of folk medical practices was that “superstitious‖” (from the standpoint of gatherers) techniques were explained by “age-old backwardness” and the “useful” ones by “folk wisdom and experience”.

Western Belarusian lands were part of Rzeczpospolita where Polish ethnographers‘ work was particularly fruitful. An important role in popularizing of interest to plants from the standpoint of their use was played by popular ethnographic periodicals devoted to folklore and ethnographic themes, which published not only articles, but also questionnaires and data sheets contributing to the ethnographic search. Prime reference is made to Polish Journals “Wisła” and “Lud”. In 1889, Bronisław Grabowski published, for example, a questionnaire “Kwestionariusz dla zbierających zwyczaje i pojącia prawne ludu po wsiach i miasteczkach” (“Questionnaire for collecting habits and legal concepts of the people in the villages and towns”). In 1890, readers were approached with the words: “I call upon everyone who has an opportunity to learn about the methods and means of folk medicine so that they would kindly take care of collecting herbs used in local folk medicine. The treatment is performed by traditional healers, old women and even pani. We need to learn from them about this area as well. Each herb must be glued to a piece of paper, the traditional name of a plant should be written, if known, but in case where unknown, a specialist will scientifically define it, then find out about its use and which parts of a plant are used” (Kielak 2007, 57).

Professor Józef Rostafiński (1850-1928), a Polish botanist from Krakow (Jagiellonian University), composed a questionnaire of 70 questions that included all aspects of ethnobotany (traditional cultivated and wild products, medicines, rituals, colorants, etc.). It was published in about 60 newspapers in the Polish language in Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Rostafinski received several hundred answers. That was probably the largest ethno-botanical survey of the 19th century in Europe. The letters dated back to 1883-1909 (mainly to 1883-1884). Out of approximately two hundred authors who wrote to him, the majority sent him information about the territory of contemporary Poland. However, some of them reported on the use of plants in the territory of present Belarus and Western Ukraine for historical reasons, since a significant part of intelligentsia and landowners (typical for the Rostafiński respondents) in those countries was either Polish or Polonized. In their letters, they mainly referred to plants grown by peasants, although sometimes they also provided details of the plants used in country estates (Łuczaj et al. 2013, 2).

After the 1st Congress of Slavists in Prague (1929), Adam Fisher‘s address to Polish field researchers was published on the pages of the “Orli Lot” Journal (No.5-6, 1930) encouraging them to collect and send materials on popular beliefs and customs associated with plants and enclose the related questionnaire.

A similar situation of the increased attention to herbal medicine was observed in other European countries. Particularly noteworthy is the situation in Estonia, and specifically the material collection campaign launched by Jakob Hurt in 1888, which gave impressive results. The “Folk Botany” catalogue includes a wealth of information (about 13 000 index cards) on plants, cures, weather forecasting or cultivation (Soukand, Raal 2017, 58 – 67).

Over the past decades, ethno-botanical activity in Belarus has been stepped up thanks to the project on the Belarusian-Estonian Folklore Collaboration. In May 2016, joint field work was conducted in 11 villages of Liuban‘ski District. One hundred thirty-four respondents were randomly selected. Information on the local use of wild plants was obtained using semi-structured interviews and folk history method. 2252 references to wild plants were registered. Out of them, 58 taxa were used in food, 74 in medicine and 23 in veterinary medicine. The research results showed ten of the most popular taxa: birch Betula spp., raspberry Rubus idaeus, blueberry Vaccinium myrtillus, celandine Chelidonium majus, plantain Plantago major, St. John’s wort Hypericum spp., galangal Potentilla erecta, flowers of linden Tilia cordata, burdock Arctium mentomen, oak tree Quercus robur. Renata Sõukand concludes that ―while the number of wild taxa used is relatively large, the average number of taxa used per person is rather low, indicating the insignificant importance of wild plants in the studied region of Belarus‖ (Sõukand 2017).

In another study under the direction of R. Sõukand, the use of cultivated plants in medicine and ethno-veterinary medicine was studied. It was found that in domestic medicine cultivated plants and other means were significantly less important than wild-growing ones. Amid a backdrop of the lost unintended contact with nature, the population of Belarus seems to rely even more on wild plants supported by official medicine and popular literature (Sõukand 2017/2).

Further field studies conducted by Belarusian researchers shed light on different spheres of knowledge application related to the plant use.

Referring to modern folk herbal medicine, the following patterns can be identified: trends of people in giving preferences to wild plants, which are supported both by official medicine and popular literature. At the same time garden and especially potted plants expand the scope of their use. When we forget about a particular disease (e.g. scurvy, plica, etc.), the use of certain herbs naturally narrows, meanwhile new time, social and environmental conditions bring up new issues enabling “folk doctors” to look for recipes from alcoholism, depression, etc. In Belarusian folk medicine, wild plants act as the most popular remedies for cold, gastric, skin and folk childhood diseases. Among the most frequently used plants in modern herbal medicine are birch (Betula sp.), raspberry (Rubus idaeus L.), blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus L.), celandine (Chelidonium majus L.), plantain (Plantago major L .), St. John‘s wort (Hypericum sp.), bloodroot (Potentilla erecta L.), linden flowers (Tilia cordata L.), burdock (Arctium tomentosum Mill.), oak (Quercus robur L.).

Historically, in unsatisfactory veterinary service conditions, namely private ethnoveterinary practices were the source of accumulation and improvement of knowledge on animal treatment. In contemporary society, when veterinary service has become accessible and mostly free of charge, ethnoveterinary practices exist in rural areas mostly as auxiliary measures. In Belarusian ethnoveterinary, plants has been used to treat a wide range of diseases: skin diseases (wounds, scabs, and warts), stomach and digestive disorders (bloating in cows, rumination problems, constipation, and diarrhea), respiratory (pulmonary emphysema), infectious diseases (Erysipelas), enteric and reproductive diseases, etc. Plants were also widely used in healing of psycho-neurological or so-called folk diseases (e.g. “evil eye”) and in apotropaic rites. The most commonly used wild plants’ taxa mentioned in historical literature and modern studies are Acorus calamus L., Artemisia sp., Tanacetum vulgare L., Ledum palustre L., Pinus sylvestris L., Urtica sp., Hypericum sp. (including Hypericum perforatum), Alnus sp., and Betula sp.

For Belarusians, gathering was vital seasonal activity and the products of gathering were important sources of nutrition, medicinal and folk veterinary remedies over centuries. At the beginning of the 21st century, the products of gathering still play an important role in the nutrition system of Belarusians. Wild plants are consumed as an independent dish; they are used for preparing hot and cold first courses, salads, snacks and drinks. They are used as spices and food preservatives. The most common products of gathering today are wild berries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea L., Pyrus pyraster (L.), Vaccinium myrtillus L., Fragaria vesca L., Malus sylvéstris), young greens (Plantago major, Urtica sp., Taraxacum officinale ( L.), Oxalis acetosella L., Rumex sp.) and tree saps (Betula sp., Acer platanoides L.). At the present stage, however, processing and storage technologies for wild plants are undergoing significant changes.

In recent years, the ideas of ethnobotany are becoming more and more widespread, which include the issues related to folk beliefs, magic and religious practices associated with plants, as well as the actual use of herbs in folk medicine, veterinary and other spheres. Generally, it could be said that ethnobotany considers the sphere of relations between a human being and the plant world. In this regard, two main sections can be distinguished ‒ mainly botanical, in which the first place is given to a plant and its biological properties, and anthropological aimed at understanding the links between man and nature. Anthropological studies focus on knowledge of the ways and mechanisms man uses to semiotize a plant and include it within the boundaries of his world.

Ethno-semiotic studies abstract from the concepts of rationality or irrationality and explain phytotherapy in terms of culture. Folk mindset sometimes ignores the real features of a plant; sometimes it uses those reinforcing mythological details. Use of plants is explained from the standpoint of their involvement in the mythopoetic picture of the world.

U. Lobač also applies to the subjective component of folk phytotherapy, noting that if an average villager can immediately name 5-7 medicinal plants (St. John’s wort, chamomile, mint, yarrow, wormwood, thyme, and etc. which are most often referred to), then the “professional memory” of traditional healers is more capacious. Thus, for example, Hanna Piaciul’, a resident of Bykoŭńčyna village (Polack District) who cures a number of diseases using charms, easily recalled 34 medicinal plants (or products of a plant origin), indicating their functional characteristics and a mechanism of use.

The study results on the magical practices of the Belarusians relating to popular medicine were summed up in the Volume “Traditional medicine. Ritual and magical practices” (2007) prepared by T. Valodzina and belonging to the Series “Belarusian Folk Art”, which presents a chronologically blurred section relating to the Belarusian tradition of magic healing. The volume is a complete set of folk medical ritual and magical practices collected from a variety of printed sources and archives. A significant part of the volume is occupied by the author‘s field materials collected during more than 100 expeditions throughout all regions of Belarus under a special program in 1993-2010 (over 7 thousand folklore units were recorded).

However, for Belarusian folklorists and ethnographers, ethnobotany still remains on the periphery of scientific interests. Only a calendar-ritual aspect of the plant use is comprehensively considered (see the works of T. Kucharonak, J. Jankoŭski).

It should be noted that Belarusian ethnographers are still looking for the descriptive language that would be adequate to the fundamentally heterogeneous object of ethnobotany in a changing world. However, a closer attention to the plant world could be a source of inspiration for further search, which, in turn, will draw attention to new unknown or forgotten therapeutic practices, and also help clarify them and complement knowledge related to people’s perception of man and nature and their interdependence.


Although a few expeditions documenting local knowledge on the use of wild plants in domestic medicine and cuisine have recently taken place in Belarus (Sõukand et all 2017a; AIMEF 23-16-2, AIMEFe 2018.003_Jelsk, AIMEFe 2018.007_Iuje), Belarus still remains terra incognita from the point of view of modern ethnobotany study (Łuczaj et al. 2013). There is a huge gap between documenting practices of Belarusian peasants in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the realms of contemporary rural life. For the last thirty years, Belarusian researchers have been addressing wild plant-culture relations mostly within the framework of ethnolinguistics methodology.

A wide range of research issues including evolution mechanisms of local knowledge on wild plant uses, the regional provenance of different practices, the interaction of booklore and traditional knowledge relating to domestic medicine, etc. still remain uninvestigated. New data and materials should push for the formulation of new theoretical issues and also create the basis for the practical and applied use of accumulated knowledge.

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