Report on the 16th. International Botanical Congress

St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.; 1-7 August, 1999,

Ethnobotany And Conservation Of Biocultural Diversity

7 August, 1999.

by Luisa Maffi (8/24/99).

As you may know from the announcement in Langscape 12 (volume I), my colleagues Thomas Carlson and Eglée López-Zent and myself organized an ethnobotany session at the 16th. International Botanical Congress earlier this month. It was a very successful session and a very interesting congress. Here are some of the highlights of my very intensive five days there (I arrived on August 3).

I tried to catch most of the scheduled ethnobotany sessions and other interesting sessions and events too. This in and of itself was a tour de force: the I.B.C. is a huge congress (almost 5,000 people present this time), which only happens once every six years and thus represents a major opportunity for showcasing advances in botanical research. In recent times, ethnobotany has been included as well, and this particular congress had a particularly high rate of such sessions, also due to the fact that the Society for Economic Botany (S.E.B.) was meeting concurrently with the I.B.C. and co-sponsoring many of the ethnobotany sessions. The S.E.B. (whose members tend to be, although are by no means limited to, botanists) has traditionally focused on ethnobotany understood as the study of human uses of plants. This doesn’t exhaust all of what goes into making the overall field of ethnobotany; this broader domain (which also includes people whose main background is in anthropology along with natural sciences, or vice versa) focuses not just on indigenous uses of plants, but knowledge of them, of their characteristics, distribution, ecological interactions, and so forth, as well as beliefs and values concerning plants, and practices of use and management of natural resources.

Nevertheless, the main focus at the I.B.C. ethnobotany sessions was on plant uses (for food, medicine, etc.) — which doesn’t mean that there weren’t numerous interesting papers in this domain! I particularly liked the one by Timothy Johns on Masaai (East Africa) diet and its health implications (how the Masaai keep healthy on a diet very high in animal fat by adding a variety of plant species as ingredients that are shown to significantly lower cholesterol levels in the blood). And in a number of cases issues of conservation and sustainable use and management of natural resources according to traditional knowledge and practices were dealt with as well: e.g., from plant conservation in the context of commercial production of traditional crafts by East African weavers and woodcarvers (Anthony Cunningham), to indigenous land use strategies in Mesoamerica and their ecological implications (Javier Caballero). Anthropogenic habitat modification by overt or inadvertent introduction of new plant species was also discussed, e.g., in a paper by Robert Bye on the human influences in the distribution of Datura and Brugmansia species in Mexico.

Two of the ethnobotany sessions were devoted to issues of ethics and intellectual property rights (I.P.R.) related to plant genetic resources (biodiversity conservation, bioprospecting, biotechnology). One of the crucial issues that emerged from these sessions is the increasing tension between two related and conflicting trends: on the one hand, a growing régime of privatization and secrecy in science and technology, with ever increasing (and some think overboard) patenting of ideas and an ever shrinking public domain; on the other, growing concern for the potential risks and harms deriving from placing ideas (including indigenous knowledge) in the public domain, where they are unprotected from third-party appropriation — which begs the question of how to safely maintain a rich public domain. A resolution of this tension is as yet not in sight, although some approaches are being proposed. More below on two specific papers from these sessions.

Some other sessions (not listed as ethnobotanical) also included aspects of indigenous botanical knowledge. For instance, at a session devoted to the flora of Mount Kinabalu (Borneo), Gary Martin spoke about the significant contribution to the floral inventory of this area made by local Dusun collaborators (community-based collectors), in terms of both plant specimen collection (including botanical species, genera, and families new to Western science) and of information on ecological characteristics, distribution, conservation status, utility, etc., of the organisms collected. At a keynote symposium on plant conservation biology, Arturo Gómez-Pompa presented a Yucatec Maya (Mexico) case study of indigenous methods of biodiversity conservation, speaking of the Maya region as “one of the largest anthropogenic mosaics in the Americas” which contributes greatly to Mexico’s floral megadiversity; of Maya forest gardens as “experiments in mosaics of cultivated and natural species”, containing rare and endangered species and cultivars; and of home gardens as “a biological and social buffer system”.

Still, as far as I could tell, the Maffi, Carlson & López-Zent session must have been the only one in which the notion of “biocultural diversity” was explicitly introduced and discussed and formed the backdrop of all presentations. (Also as far as I can tell, I may well have been the only person with a linguistics background — if along with anthropology and ethnobiology — to speak at this congress, and possibly at any of the previous ones!). The focus of this session was the knowledge that indigenous and tribal peoples, as well as “local communities embodying traditional lifestyles” (to use the terminology of the Convention on Biological Diversity), have of their local ecosystems and how this knowledge is and can be applied to the sustainable use and management of local botanical resources.

The papers discussed significant examples of traditional ecological knowledge (T.E.K.) and management and use of natural resources, with special reference to tropical forests and medicinal plants. They showed, on the one hand, the impressive extent and detail of this knowledge, which often exceeds that of Western-trained botanists and ecologists working in the same areas; on the other, the rapid changes that T.E.K. is undergoing due to the increasing incorporation of these local communities into regional, national, and global socioeconomic processes. As a consequence, traditional knowledge of the environment, developed over many generations, and the sustainable practices it supports, are increasingly at risk of becoming obsolete, with serious consequences both for the livelihoods and well-being of these local communities and for biodiversity conservation. The overall conclusions that the papers drew were, first, that conservation projects could greatly benefit from integrating indigenous peoples and traditional local communities into the development and implementation of the projects; secondly, that the conservation of biological diversity and the maintenance of healthy ecosystems should proceed hand in hand with support for the survival and continued development of the indigenous and traditional societies who live within these ecosystems. In this connection, the paper by Iwu et al. (see below) pointed to the importance of speaking about “conservation”, not “preservation” of biodiversity insofar as, unlike “preservation”, “conservation” implies (sustainable) use of natural resources, and thus intrinsically includes humans, and sustainable human development, as part of the environment. (I note in passing that a parallel point could be made about linguistic diversity: “conserving” or “maintaining” linguistic diversity [through continued use] versus “preserving” it [through documentation and fixing for posterity]). The papers presented are listed below, with their abstracts (the list is partly modified from the announcement published in Langscape 12, with one paper added [Iwu et al.] and one changed in topic [López-Zent]):

Luisa Maffi (Northwestern University) — What is Biocultural Diversity Conservation?

The world’s biodiversity crisis became a major focus of scientific and public attention in the 1980s. Originally attributed to the negative impact of humans on the environment, the crisis is now regarded as a highly complex phenomenon that must be understood on the basis of a more nuanced evaluation of the interaction among a wide range of variables. Research in ecological anthropology and ethnobiology has demonstrated considerable cross-cultural variation in the environmental consequences of human behavior and a strong correlation between the geographical distribution of biological megadiversity and that of cultural and linguistic diversity. This research suggests that biological and cultural-linguistic diversity may be related through coevolution and that the causes and consequences of declining biodiversity may be linked to those threatening the diversity of human cultures and languages. This perspective has profound implications for conservation of both natural and cultural resources. The paper presents the notion of “biocultural diversity” at the core of this new integrated conservation perspectives and introduces some of the relevant developments in ethnobiology.

Manuel Lizarralde (Connecticut College) — Indigenous Knowledge and Conservation of the Rainforest: ethnobotany of the Barí of Venezuela

This paper addresses the question of how the Barí knowledge of their rainforest can be applied to conservation of biodiversity. The Barí are an indigenous people living in the northwest lowlands of Venezuela. The Barí have a refined perception of their vegetation. Their knowledge of their rainforest allows them to perceive the smallest details. They are able to name all the trees and to recognize them as belonging to different groups of plants. Their biogeographical and ecological knowledge of these trees is quite impressive, too. Based on a large collection of vouchers, 3,162 individual trees in 5 hectares forest plots and interviews with 20 informants, my research suggests the Barí have a detailed knowledge of their forest and a very high potential use of them. This knowledge can be applied for the sustainable use of this forest and conserve its biodiversity.

Stanford Zent (Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas) — Ethnobotanical Convergence, Divergence, and Change in Four Hoti Communities

Ethnobotanical knowledge convergence, divergence, and change among the Hoti of Venezuela are studied by analyzing patterns of inter-informant agreement and disagreement about plant names and uses in four Hoti communities. The communities chosen for this study vary in terms of habitat, settlement pattern, subsistence focus, interethnic contact, social structure, accessible technology, material culture, socialization, and religion. Overall consensus scores as well as the patterned variation of scores between different age, gender and family groups are compared among the four communities. The observed patterns of knowledge variation appear to be associated with different environmental and social variables: floral diversity, settlement nucleation and sedentism, amount of time allocated to different subsistence activities, diversity of family and community backgrounds, and type and degree of exposure to intrusive knowledge forms. Inasmuch as the results of this study may be used to infer the current direction of ethnobotanical knowledge change among the Hoti, they also suggest the prognosis and possibilities for preserving their traditional plant lore.

Eglée López-Zent (Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas) — The Hoti as Creative Disturbance Agents of Serranía Maigualida, Venezuelan Amazon

This paper explores a working hypothesis related to the Hoti Amazonian people acting as environmental disturbance agents in the Venezuelan Amazonian Sierra Maigualida. Three theoretical premises framing the main argument are presented (centered on concepts of environmental disturbance and eco-cultural process). The basic idea is to illustrate human activities as potentially dynamic and central in the functioning, richness and complexities of this ecosystem. In support of this argument, the author selected some examples to illustrate the ecological behavior of contemporary Hoti through the management of the following species: Ecclinusa guianensis, Oenocarpus bacaba in association with Rhinostomus barbirostris and Rhynchophorus palmarum, and the systematic harvesting of honey. The vast and complex knowledge exhibited by the Hoti about local bee ethology and the phenology of the arboreal species used by them for nests sustain observations related to potential interspecific coevolutionary processes (e.g., between Trattinnickia lawrancei, Tachigali guianense, and Meliponinae).

Glenn Shepard (University of California at Berkeley), Douglas W. Yu (Imperial College at Silwood Park) and Bruce Nelson (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas na Amazonia) — Ethnobotanical Ground-Truthing and Forest Diversity in the Western Amazon

Recent assessments of LANDSAT images of the Peruvian Amazon suggest biotope diversity may have been historically underestimated. Yet there exists little empirical evidence to support this assertion, and satellite images alone prove problematic in accurately distinguishing biotopes. An ethnoecological study among the Matsigenka indigenous people revealed a system of forest classification based on topographic, hydrological and vegetative features, much like that used by Western ecologists. The Matsigenka recognize all forest types currently known to ecologists working in Peru, and also distinguish biotopes not known to ecologists. Several native forest types have, as their dominant species, trees previously considered “rare”. Estimates of forest diversity based on indigenous knowledge suggest more than forty biotopes for the Manu river, at least triple the number recognized by ecologists. “Ethnobotanical ground-truthing” may contribute to our understanding of tropical forest diversity.

Thomas J. Carlson (Shaman Pharmaceuticals) — Botanical Diversity, Medical Ethnobotany, & Public Health

In tropical rural communities most people do not have access to pharmaceuticals. Botanical diversity from tropical ecosystems provides affordable medicines and foods to rural communities. It has been estimated by the World Health Organization that 80% of the people in the world use botanical medicines for primary health care. Tropical countries contain the most biologically and culturally diverse traditional medicine systems in the world. Experimental biology research on tropical medicinal plants has demonstrated bioactivity for the treatment of malaria, infections of the skin, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract and other common tropical diseases. As ecosystems are degraded and languages are lost, these traditional botanical systems and the health care they provide become significantly diminished. It is valuable to have interdisciplinary research teams of ethnobiologists with training in botany, anthropology, medicine, pharmacology, and field linguistics to understand these traditional medical systems. Scientists able to assess how tropical botanical diversity is used as medicine have valuable contributions to make to innovative tropical public health programs.

Beto Borges and Steven R. King (Shaman Pharmaceuticals) — Conservation of Biocultural Diversity in the Amazon: Croton Lechleri, a traditional indigenous resource

Indigenous cultures have mastered a relationship with their natural surrounding that has assured both their physical and cultural existence. It is becoming increasingly accepted that indigenous cultures and their natural surroundings have been in a coevolutinary process. The extent of this “co-dependence,” however, is rapidly changing in scope. Traditional indigenous practices are now being replaced or accompanied by new practices, such as the marketing of timber and non-timber forest products. The expansion of the global economy has caused most indigenous cultures to rely on the cash economy to meet their basic and changing needs. The continuous coevolution of indigenous cultures and their natural surroundings now largely depends on successful economic alternatives that promote conservation of biocultural diversity. The marketing of medicinal plants offers such potential, as seen with Croton lechleri (sangre de drago) in western Amazon.

Maurice Iwu (Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme), Chris O. Okunji (B.D.C.P. & Walter Reed Army Institute of Research), Paul Iwe Akubue (B.D.C.P., International Centre for Ethnomedicine and Drug Development ­ Nigeria) and Brian G. Schuster (Walter Reed Army Institute of Research) — Ethnobotany and the Search for New Drugs for Tropical and Emerging Diseases

Although much progress has been made in the treatment of parasitic and infectious diseases since the advent of chemotherapy, only a few drugs are clinically available for the treatment of such diseases. Evaluation of plants used in traditional medicine in Nigeria for the treatment of protozoan and viral infections lead to the identification of plants with potential for the treatment of malaria, leishmaniasis, trypanosomiasis and opportunistic infections caused by Cryptosporadium parvum and Toxoplasma gondii. Plants were also identified in traditional medicine for the treatment of hepatitis, infections due to the influenza virus and other viral diseases. Garcinia kola, an edible seed, was found in this study to possess remarkable activity against a variety of viruses including Punta Toro, Pichinde, Sandfly fever, Influenza A, Venezuelan Equine Encephalomyelitis and Ebola. The Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme has developed a biological resources management program based on strategic partnerships and capacity building that seeks to add value to forest resources at source. A key element of the strategy is the integration of scientific research, product development and socioeconomic development as a single, coherent endeavor that ensures equitable distribution of the benefits derived from the exploitation of biological resources. The emphasis is on discovery and development of compounds not only for the treatment of diseases of global importance such as cancer, A.I.D.S. and metabolic disorders but priority is given to tropical diseases such as malaria, leishmaniasis and other parasitic infections. The program has provided a catalyst for several local initiatives on sustainable utilization of biodiversity. [abridged]

My colleagues’ papers worked remarkably well together, and in my opinion jointly gave a significant picture of some of the most innovative theoretical, methodological, and applied work being done today in ethnobotany with a focus on biocultural diversity. It seems the audience shared this opinion, because in spite of this session coming on the last day of a week-long congress, most everybody stayed put until the end, and many went on talking with us for a long time afterward. Most rewarding to me was to see much openness toward the biocultural perspective, and particularly a younger generation of researchers and students who are carrying out, or are likely to carry out, work from this perspective. As I said at the end of my talk, hopefully when the I.B.C. meets again in another six years, there will be many more reports along these lines!

Later, my colleagues and I discussed a possible publication based on this session. We are now planning an edited book, with the addition of two other papers. The first one was presented at the I.P.R. session mentioned above; the second one will discuss concepts presented in a paper at the session on ethics and biotechnology, but in a different version closer to ethnobotany. Both are relevant to our topic and fit well with the other papers from our session:

Miguel Alexiades (New York Botanical Garden) — Ethnobotany and the Global Economy: science and ethics in the age of privatization

The end of the 20th. century is characterized by a rapid transition towards an increasingly integrated global economy and society. The explosive growth of knowledge-based industries and technologies, the consolidation of worldwide neoliberalist policies and the growing influence of mass media, are all expected to continue shaping the broad nature of social and economic relations. These changes in turn have profound implications for science, botany and ethnobotany. Through the use of specific examples, I illustrate some of the issues, challenges and contradictions facing ethnobotanists seeking to develop socially and politically sustainable research models in this complex and rapidly changing environment. The commodification of cultural and genetic resources, the increased privatization of science, education and development, and a historically unparalleled articulation between local and global actors, all need to be taken into account as economic botanists articulate their agendas for the 21st. century.

Kelly P. Bannister & Katherine Barrett (University of British Columbia) — Weighing the proverbial “ounce of prevention” versus the “pound of cure”: a rôle for the Precautionary Principle in ethnobiological research

A central criterion for ethical scientific research is sharing data and conclusions with the scientific and wider communities. As ethnobiology and other ethnosciences have become established academic disciplines, researchers have been increasingly obligated to comply with such scholarly norms. However, the dualistic nature of ethnoscientific research — which acknowledges an integral rôle for the interconnectedness of culture and science — brings into question the appropriateness of certain scientific conventions, particularly the publication and dissemination of some research outcomes. While potentially undesirable cultural impacts of research and publication have been debated among anthropologists, parallel biocultural discussions have been slower to arise among biological scientists engaged (directly or indirectly) in ethnobiological study. What are the potential biological and cultural impacts, for example, of disseminating traditional medicinal knowledge of an aboriginal community through the conventional academic avenues? This paper attempts to raise awareness of current issues surrounding the publication of indigenous knowledge, or related cultural information, that have been documented through ethnobiological research. More specifically, this paper considers the uncertainties and potential harms that may result from distancing indigenous knowledge from its original biological and cultural contexts — such as may occur through publication and third-party appropriation. While we acknowledge that specific consequences of publishing data are often difficult to predict, we argue that potential harms need not be overlooked. In this regard, we suggest application of the Precautionary Principle as a useful ethical framework to address several important issues that too often are overlooked by current intellectual property rights mechanisms, international agreements and professional codes of conduct. The core of Precautionary Principle can be summarized as follows: when there is reason to believe that our actions will result in significant harm, we should take active measures to prevent such harm, even if cause-and-effect relationships have not been scientifically proven. To date, most applications of the Precautionary Principle have been primarily limited to health and environmental harms. This paper extends the application of the Precautionary Principle to third-party use of indigenous knowledge, and to the link between health- or environmentally-related harms and “cultural harms”. We propose that the Precautionary Principle may be a helpful legal and ethical principle to gain a broader view of the intentions and potential outcomes of current ethnobiological research. [abridged]

The volume (Maffi, Carlson, and López-Zent, eds.), to be titled Ethnobotany and Conservation of Biocultural Diversity, after the session from which most of the papers originated, will be submitted to the book series Advances in Economic Botany, published by the New York Botanical Garden Press.

I will make no attempt to summarize all else that went on at the I.B.C. and that covered all imaginable aspects of botanical research (systematics, evolution, ecology, biogeography, conservation, microbiology, genetics and genomics, physiology and biochemistry, you name it) ­ and most of which was beyond my grasp anyway! Some of the sessions I would have actually liked to go to were held before I arrived in St. Louis, or I had to miss them because of overlap with the ethnobotany sessions or other obligations. In particular, I wasn’t there for the opening plenary by Rita Rossi Colwell, Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, on the concept of “biocomplexity”, which is now one of the main themes for N.S.F.-funded research, and the keynote talk by Jane Lubchenko, chair of the U.S. National Science Board’s Task Force on the Environment that prepared a recently released report “Environmental Science and Engineering for the 21st. Century: the rôle of the National Science Foundation”. Materials on these topics are available on the N.S.F Web site. I was also sorry to miss a keynote symposium on the phylogeny of plant life organized by Brent Mishler, in which major new results in the reconstruction of the evolutionary relationships among all of the Earth’s plant species (a 200-scientist team effort) were announced. From the press releases, it appears that the group traditionally known as “plants” is actually not just one kingdom, but four kingdoms or “lineages” (green plants, brown plants, red plants, and fungi), one of which (fungi) is more related to animals than to plants. That should be food for thought for some of us! (I am told that a good non-technical summary of this research was published in the Science News section of the New York Times of 31 August, 1999.)

Also good to think about was the reminder I got at the symposium on plant conservation biology about the central importance of conserving not only species diversity, but also the diversity of coevolved interactions between species – which the speaker, John Thompson, described as the “glue of biodiversity in increasingly fragmented environments”. (Again, you will see the parallels with the case of languages: “languages as species” on the one hand, and “linguistic ecologies” on the other.)

Another symposium I did attend was the “Millennium” symposium at which Peter Raven, Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden and President of the 16th. I.B.C., spoke, amongst others, on the theme “Plants in peril: what should we do?” He reported that the latest data on extinction of plant and animal species on Earth show extinction rates that indeed rival the five mass extinction in past geological history, and predicted that up to two-thirds of estimated plant species may be destroyed by the end of the next century. He proposed a seven-point plan focusing centrally on international research and monitoring cooperation as well as information exchange, desirably to be under the oversight of a new coordinating body sponsored by the United Nations. Another key point was the strengthening of museums and other institutions that have globally significant holdings of specimens and literature. Most of these points then went into the Resolutions passed by the I.B.C. at the closing session.

Still at this symposium, there was a presentation of initiatives undertaken by the International Union of Biological Sciences (I.U.B.S., based in Paris, <>.). One is the “Toward an Integrative Biology” (T.A.I.B.) program, which links to Colwell’s “biocomplexity”, stresses interdisciplinarity across the biological and social sciences, research across levels of analysis, and attention to both natural and managed ecosystems as well as interactions among species. (On this the contact is Dr. Motonori Hoshi, Chair of I.U.B.S./T.A.I.B., at <>.) The other is the “Diversitas” project sponsored by I.U.B.S. in collaboration with U.N.E.S.C.O., the French National Center for Scientific Research (C.N.R.S.) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (A.A.A.S.). At the moment, I don’t have the details of the full scope of Diversitas. The aspect that was discussed and supported at the I.B.C. was an “International Biodiversity Observation Year” for 2001-2002 (also endorsed by the Convention on Biological Diversity). On the other hand, prior to the I.B.C., I had seen a communication by the U.S. National Committee for the I.U.B.S., which was focused on, and called for input about, the human dimensions of biodiversity in the context of Diversitas. (The contact here is Robin Schoen, staff person for the U.S.N.C., <>). I intend to find out more about these initiatives and will report on any interesting findings.

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