5 Possibilities of a Nickel-eating Plant Found Recently in the Philippines

Elpidio V. Peria
17 May 2014

Philippine botany was recently in the news this past week with the discovery of a nickel-eating plant somewhere in Luzon by University of the Philippines @ Los Baños (UPLB) scientists, by Drs. Edwino Fernando and Marilyn Quimado and University of Melbourne’s Dr. Augustine Doronila.

There are many other things that should happen next after such discovery but aside from the usual work of further documenting the characteristics of the plant and researching further its applications, here’s our take on the possibilities of that finding, not only by Dr. Fernando’s team, but the rest of us in the Philippines (govt, academe and private sector) who care about these issues :

1. The plant should be conserved and its use strictly monitored and regulated

The plant, as reported in GMA News online , was named Rinorea niccolifera, and accumulates nickel in its leaves with concentrations of up to 18,000 micrograms of nickel per gram of dried plant material, which is a hundred to a thousand times higher than those found in other plants. The plant appears to be rare since according to the same report, only around 450 plants worldwide have this ability – just 0.15% of the 300,000 species of vascular plants. Having been found in Zambales, it may not be found in other parts of Luzon, thus it should be conserved and its use strictly monitored and regulated.

2. Phytomining now becomes something of a go-to research field

It was Forbes magazine which sketched out the possibilities of such kind of plant, its columnist Tim Worstall saying that : “the importance of this is that those leaves would then be a richer source of nickel that the nickel laterite ores which are expected to be our major source in the centuries to come.” It now suddenly looks that one way to get some metals we need is just by planting certain plant species in mining sites in an activity which is called phytomining. According to Robert R. Brooks, Michael F. Chambers, Larry J. Nicks and Brett H. Robinson (from the scientific journal Cell Vol. 3, Issue 9, pp. 359-362 (1998)) :

Pioneering experiments in this field might lead to a `green’ alternative to existing, environmentally destructive, opencast mining practices. Phytomining for a range of metals is a real possibility, with the additional potential of the exploitation of ore bodies that it is uneconomic to mine by conventional methods.

The Philippines being a megadiverse country with a high percentage of endemic plants in its midst, there can be other plant species that may be explored for certain metals that may be of commercial use and application.

3. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of these types of plants should be further systematized and classified

It was not mentioned in the report how the scientists found the plant or whether they were led into it by the use of the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples living near the site but even if no traditional knowledge was used to lead scientists to the plant, surely there will be other plants in other parts of the Philippines that may have similar characteristics and it will help scientists if they work with indigenous communities to identify what these species are and where they may be found. While it is important to emphasize that researches into this type of traditional knowledge should be with the free and prior informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned, what needs to be done now by indigenous peoples themselves is document this information and provided the terms and conditions are right, share this with researchers interested in developing these species further.

4. The accession of the Philippines to the Nagoya Protocol should now come as a matter of course.

The discovery of this plant should make ordinary Filipinos and politicians alike aware of the potentials of Philippine biodiversity, but there is an international instrument, the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing, that should strengthen the hands of government when ensuring that all further utilization of Philippine genetic resources should follow certain requirements as prescribed by the Protocol. Right now, the documents for this instrument is in Malacanang, but attention to this issue should further fast-track the notification to the Senate that the Philippines will accede to the instrument, so that Senate hearings on the merits of the Philippines joining the international instrument will commence, and hopefully the Philippine accession to the instrument will come on time so that the Philippines will become one of the Parties to the international instrument when it shall have entered into force by October 2014 this year.

5. Communities in mining-affected areas should be taught how to propagate these plants

Areas affected by mining can use these plants so that their soils can recover, though how much time would be needed for that to happen is something that needs to be further studied. At least this is something hopeful that the community can latch on to, rather than let the area remain degraded for a long time, which makes difficult the restoration of the old vitality of the soil systems.


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