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In the beginning of the twentieth century a Dutch taxonomist published an overview of useful plants in the then Dutch Indies. Decades later, this work inspired scientists in Africa to ask for something alike, a question that in 2000 led Wageningen University to start describing the useful plants of tropical Africa, the PROTA project.

It resulted in eleven impressive books. They can now be ordered from Agromisa’s webshop.

The PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa) programme has its predecessor in the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1913, the Dutch taxonomist Karl Heyne published De nuttige planten van Nederlandsch-Indië, tevens synthetische catalogus der verzamelingen van het Museum voor Technische- en Handelsbotanie te Buitenzorg, that, as the title indicates, gives a complete overview of the useful plants of what is now Indonesia. The book was reprinted many times.

Somewhere in the nineteen eighties the Indonesian government asked the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture for an update. In Wageningen this was the moment to broaden the scope from ‘Nederlandsch-Indië’ to all of south-east Asia, in a project appropriately called PROSEA, Plant Resources of South-East Asia. It started in 1985 and resulted in two meters of books. They describe the 7,000 useful plants of the region, brought together in commodity groups like timber trees, pulses, fibres, medicinal plants, dye and tannin-producing plants, and so on. The contribution of Wageningen university to PROSEA was completed in 2003. In Indonesia PROSEA lives on, disseminating knowledge.

In Africa, the PROSEA project inspired local scientist and development workers to ask for something alike. In 2000, that resulted in PROTA. It was also coordinated from Wageningen, with offices in France, United Kingdom and in seven African countries.

PROTA started by creating a network of scientific institutes and universities in African countries. Their knowledge is still the core of PROTA, to be found in the database and the books. Based on the published information PROTA organised projects and workshops in countless institutes and villages, thus reviving local practices and knowledge.

PROTA differs from PROSEA, of which data were only available in print, in that it started as a database on the internet. Because of the often poor accessibility of the internet in large parts of Africa, the need for books and DVD’s became obvious. Now, in 2016, the PROTA series contain nine impressive books, describing seven commodity groups and available in English and French. Also two overviews are part of the series.

The series is not complete: the ultimate goal was a database plus books about sixteen commodity groups, describing about 10,000 plants in tropical Africa. Lack of funds makes it almost impossible to finish the project, no matter how successful it was and still is. About 5,000 plants have found their place in review articles in the database and the books. The database counts 700,000 visitors per year, most of them from Africa; nearly 20,000 books have been distributed up till now.

At the start PROTA was financed by the EU, WUR and the Dutch government. Later the money came mainly from international organisations such as the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) and the COFRA Foundation. In 2008 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported PROTA with 3 million dollar. That kept PROTA alive for three years.

From 2010 onwards it became more and more difficult to find sponsors, partly because of the raging global financial crisis, but also because new project are more attractive to funding agencies than existing. In 2013 the PROTA foundation was liquidated. The products, however, live on. The interactive website www.PROTA4U.org is still maintained by volunteers. The books are distributed in Africa by the Technical Centre for Agriculture and Rural Cooperation (CTA) and now also for sale at Agromisa’s webshop.

 

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