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Ethnobotany today - who are the players?

© Kat Morgenstern, revised 2003, all rights reserved.

Ethnobotany is a rapidly growing science, attracting people with widely varying academic backgrounds and interests. It is still predominantly linked to Economic Botany, and thus pursued to determine the potential economic value of various plants. There is a romantic allure to the life of an explorer and the promise of finding gold - these days, in the form of plants or animals as potential sources for life-saving drugs that could become important in the treatment of serious diseases, such as AIDS and cancer. Ethnobotany has become a hot topic.

Scientists working in this field are often sponsored by major drug companies that have little interest in the actual geographical areas from which their laboratory specimen have come, nor in the indigenous people who may have provided the lead towards 'discovering' their promising plants.

Among the more ethically minded Ethnobotany community there is much talk about the rights and wrongs of bioprospecting and the ways in which indigenous people should benefit from the proceeds of drugs they helped to source - if indeed the plants are ever developed into drugs.

The pharmaceutical industry is having a hard time developing any ethical standards by which to proceed. Most are only interested in chemical compounds, which unlike plants themselves, can be patented and thus exploited more efficiently. Moreover, continuous supply of usable plant material is often unreliable. They are also weary of sharing their profits with 'half-naked jungle inhabitants', often giving the excuse that nature created the plants, not the people who use them, and besides who should they give a share of their profits to? The medicine man? The government? It is a minefield of heated opinions and arguments and few pharmaceutical companies even have the nerve to tackle the problem.

Other ethnobotanists are merely interested in collecting data 'for posterity' while the plants and the people who know about them still exist, as both are increasingly threatened by extinction. For these people ethnobotany is a labour of love. They do it to preserve cultural knowledge rather than in search of plant-gold that will make them rich and famous overnight.

Another group of scientists, who recently realized the potential value of ethnobotany, are the conservationists. Once only concerned with protecting plants against people, they are now increasingly realizing that in order to protect the plants one has to protect the people who use them as well, for their livelihood depends on them and the survival of both is intricately linked. Finding ways of making traditional uses of plants economically viable and sustainable in an effort to preserve indigenous cultures and their traditional subsistence base is the task of these scientists. One model for such conservation efforts is extractive forestry. This model aims at extending the calculation base for the value of a piece of forest beyond its timber value to include non-timber plants that may have medicinal uses, are sought after for decorative purposes, or are traditionally used as a source of food for people or animals who forage in the forest. In this model both timber and non-timber plants would be continuously harvested, but only to a limited extent, so as not to upset the overall ecological balance and thus allow all species a chance to regenerate.

A relatively new aspect in this whole scenario is the rapidly growing market of eco-tourism. In a century that has seen the loss of vast areas of natural habitats to development with many more hectares under threat each day, more and more people have come to value and appreciate what is left of the natural world. Whilst 20 years ago tourism was a major factor in environmental and cultural destruction, today it is being transformed into an instigator of conservation initiatives. As more and more people want to experience wild places in ecologically sustainable ways and interact with the local and/or indigenous people in a culturally sensitive way, people who live in endangered areas of rich biodiversity are realizing that they can earn more money from preserving their environment than by logging it.

Simultaneously, conservationists are realizing the great potential for the protection of endangered species by allowing limited, controlled access to sensitive habitats, coupled with educational guidance. This is where ethnobotany comes in - people enjoy learning about what they are seeing. Local guides enjoy teaching people about the many uses of plants. Thus a knowledge that was in danger of becoming extinct may be preserved. Many joint ventures between conservationists and local villages have sprung up to promote eco-tourism, sometimes coupled with research facilities from which the whole community can benefit. The tourist money can help to support both, the research facilities or conservation projects as well as the local people, thus reducing the need to cut down forest for cash crops or to seek work in urban areas.

Obviously eco-tourism does impacts the environment as well as the cultures with which it interacts. However, the communication that takes place and the education that goes with this type of tourism if conducted sensitively hopefully outweighs the damage. First hand experiences have a way of changing peoples perceptions far beyond something they might hear or read about, or even see on T.V. The awareness that is spread in this way can have a significant impact on conservation. Eco-tourists may become Eco-activists as a result of their personal experience - for we love only what we know, and we protect only what we love. So long as the integrity of eco-tourism ethics are maintained it may prove a great force for positive change.

For questions or comments email: kmorgenstern@sacredearth.com

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This Article was originally published in the Sacred Earth Newletter. The Newsletter is a FREE service containing articles, news and reviews on all things herbal and/or ethnobotanical, with an approximate publication cylce of 6 - 8 weeks. If you wish to subscribe, please use the subscription box to submit your e-mail address.

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Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.