Human Ecology

, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 79-94

First online:

Indigenous Medicine and Primary Health Care: The Importance of Lay Knowledge and Use of Medicinal Plants in Rural South Africa

  • Annika C. DahlbergAffiliated withDepartment of Human Geography, Stockholm University Email author 
  • , Sophie B. TryggerAffiliated withDepartment of Physical Geography and Quaternary Geology, Stockholm University

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Indigenous medicine is important to rural livelihoods, but lay knowledge and use of medicinal plants has not been extensively studied. Research in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, showed that medicinal plants were frequently used by villagers and contributed to their ability to cope with health problems. Knowledge of plants and household remedies was extensive and varied in that households often held different knowledge. Villagers mainly relied on common species, and were generally aware of alternative species for a certain ailment. People were flexible in their use of indigenous and western health care, which were both perceived as beneficial. Improved cooperation between health care systems could improve health standards. Extraction of medicinal plants has been described as unsustainable in the region—a situation not found in the study area. It is argued that conservation policies aimed to restrict access should be differential and potentially not include local consumption, since this may be ecologically unnecessary and entail local hardships.


South Africa KwaZulu-Natal Medicinal plants Natural resource use Indigenous knowledge Health care strategies Sustainable use Conservation