The importance of ethnobotany in environmental conservation
Richard Evans Schultes, PhD, FMLS
Excerpts from a speech given at Biosphere 2 on April 17th, 1993
As reproduced in Biosphere 2 Newsletter, Summer 1993 (copyright Global Ecotechnics)
There are numerous definitions of enthnobotany. The most widely employed and
simplest definition explains it as the study of the knowledge and the use of
plants in primitive societies in the past and present. Ethnobotany is certainly
not new. The earliest humans must have been incipient ethnobotanists. It began
when man first classified plants out of neccesity: those of little or no utility;
those which were useful in many practical ways, those alleviating pain or otherwise
ameliorating illness; and those that may have killed him outright.
Many indiginous groups around the world - the Indians of the Amazonian regions,
for example - are literally masters of their ambient vegetation as a result
of inherited knowledge. As a consequence of the Indian's familiarity with the
properties of te plants with which he lives there are, at least in the northwest
Amazonia, two systems of medicine: that of the medicine man or payé, including
the use of psychoctive plants, and ... that wholly based on the familiarity
in the general population of medicinal plants and their properties, knowledge
amassed by experimentation over many millenia and passed on orally from generation
to generation. This knowledge - of great potential value to humanity as a whole
- seems unfortunately to be doomed to extinction with the rapid acculturation
and westernisation in many parts of the globe. Indigenous people should live
peacefully without disruption, from road construction, airships, missionary
pressure, warfare, tourism, industrial settlers or various well-intentioned
government efforts to "civilise" the natives. The loss of this knowledge
and of the natives themselves will be a grave hindrance to progress in many
aspects of environmental conservation. Realisation of the seriousness of this
impending loss has given rise in recent years to the urgent need for ethnobotanical
Examples of the value to conservation of ethnobotanical knowledge of the natives
are evident with the properties of bioactive plants and their recognition of
numerous subspecific varients or ecotypes. Although techniques of ethnobotanical
research will differ according to the kind and condition of culture of the aboriginal
people and the type of ecology in which they live, there seems to exist an underlying
similarity in the relationships of ethnobotany to environmental conservation.
The Amazon basin supports the world's largest rainforest - 2,700,000 square
miles, with an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 species of higher plants, probably
15% of the world's flora. The number of species and their diversity increses
towards the westernmost point of the hylea. The Columbian sector, protected
from easy penetration by rapids and waterfalls in most of it's rivers, has not
suffered the extensive acculturation and wanton environmental devastation that
many other parts of the basin, particularly in the Brazilian sector, have had
and are experiencing. Furthermore, the Columbian goverment has wise and stringent
programs directed towards environmental and cultural conservation. The 70,000
indians in 50 ethnic groups in the Columbian Amazonia speak a mosaic of languages
classified into more than 12 linguistic families. Their knowledge and use of
medicinal and toxic plants is outstanding; during my field work since 1941,
I have identified nearly 1600 species in 596 genera in 145 plant families employed
as medicines or poisons; and I am certain that I have missed many.
Only a minute fraction of these 1600 species has ever been chemically studied.
In fact, an outstanding Brazilian chemist has stated that fewer than 10% of
the plants of the Brazilian Amazon have ever been analysed for bioactive compounds.
If phytochemists must procure sufficient material for a thorough analysis of
80,000 species from such remote areas, the task - obviously a random sampling
- will undoubtedly never be finished. Ethnobotany can help.
Concentrating on those plants which the natives have by long experimentation
found to be bioactive and which they have bent to medicinal use would be a kind
of "short cut": for, if a plant has any physiological effect when
ingested or otherwise applied to the human body, it means that it has at least
one active chemical compound. We should know what the active compounds are.
The are two excellent examples. The principal source of curare (Chondrodendron
tomentosum), used to prepare one of the numerous kinds of arrow poisons to kill
animals is perhaps the best example. An extract of this plant is the source
of tubacurarine, a valuable adjunct of our own modern pharmacology as a muscle
relaxant before deep surgery. The other excellent example is rotenone, a complex
ketone from species of Lonchocarpus employed by Indians as a fissh poison but
from which the active principle is now used as a pesticide that can be spread
over hundreds of acres of agricultural lands and which is biodegradable in several
days after doing it's work.
A major contribution that ethnobotany research offers concerns biodiversity.
Many, if not most plants, have local variants or ecotypes. Botanists seeking
diversity find it advantageous to utilise the perspicacity of the Indians in
recognizing slight, often hidden, differences in these variants. Biological
diversity of subspecific categories are often not easy for specialists, even
trained botanists, to discern. Ethnobotanists, taxonomists, geneticists, agronomists
and others would do well to utilise this native familiarity and knowledge before
it is forever lost.
I would like to make two pleas, both of which can directly concern ethnobotanists.
The first plea is to influence and pressure to train more oung people in the
numerous aspects of our discipline. This effort includes attempting to convince
granting agencies - private and governmental - pharmaceutical companies, international
organisations, academies and individuals to increase grants for educational
training and practical field work. The need for more dedicated ethnobotanists
is urgent in view of the rapidity of extinction of the precious knowledge of
plant uses in aboriginal societies in many parts of the world. The second plea
concerns the ethnobotanists' duty to exert influence to correct wanton commercial
or other exploitation of defenseless indigenous peoples. We know how much natives
have suffered in former periods, in may parts of the globe, and we often blithely
believe that those conditions have disappeared. Nothing could be more erroneous.
In a number of areas in the Amazon, Indians are still being deprived of their
land, working under near-slavery conditions, subjected to introduced diseases,
having their sources of water pisoned by mercury from gold mining, killing the
people themselves and their sources of fish, and a number of other abuses.
It brings to my mind the powerful words of Theodor Koch-Grunberg, the German
anthropologist who spent a number of years amongst the Indians of the northwest
Amazon in Columbia and Brazil early in this century. In 1910, he wrote the following
"Hardly five years have gone by since my last visit ... Whoever comes
here now will no longer find the pleasant place I once knew. The pestilential
stench of a pseudocivilization has fallen on the brown people who have no rights.
Like a swarm of annihilating grasshoppers, the inhuman gang of rubber barons
continues to press forward. The Columbians have already settled in at the mouth
of the Kuduyari and carry off my friends to the death-dealing rubber forests.
Raw brutality, mistreatment and murder are the order of the day. On the lower
Caiary, the Brazilians are no better. The Indian villages are desolate, their
homes have been reduced to ashes and their gardens, deprived of hands to care
for them, are taken over by the jungle.
Thus a vigorous race, a people endowed with a magnificent gift of bright intellect
and gentle disposition will be reduced to naught. Human material capable of
development will be annihilated by the brutality of these modern barbarians
We can learn a lesson for today from the words of Koch-Grunberg, written 80
years ago; and, as anthropologists, botanists and ethnobotanists, we should
be willing to come to the defence of our defenseless Amazonian natives of today.
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