Information dispersal and perpetuation

The key to the quality and vitality of ethnobotanical information is not the static end result, but the biological and cultural dynamic that fuels a cycle of discovery, use and proliferation (Johns, 1990). Ethnobotany, like most scientific endeavors, is perpetually adapting old ideas to new information, but few fields are losing their resource bases as quickly. Ethnobotanical knowledge is rapidly eroding, caught between the loss of species and the habitat that provide new material on the one hand and the loss of the cultural legacy of experience on the other. As mobility and markets mix people and traditions, the efforts to find common ground detract from individual experience and cultural distinction. Botanical knowledge which sustained our predecessors is being converted to memory within one or two generations, and entirely forgotten by the next (Messer, 1978). The information and values which are replacing this knowledge often obscure the impetus for conservation of natural systems and the species they contain.

Yet locally developed and managed systems of knowledge and its use continue to be the richest source of information available regarding the use and conservation of species and habitats (Durning, 1992), in addition to being a source of new drug leads and other potentially marketable products. In order to find new means of counteracting these processes of dissolution and acculturation, and strengthening this connection, it is necessary to build on the languages, traditions and institutions that have protected and perpetuated the knowledge of plants and their uses for generation (Sheldon and Shanley, 1991).

In cultures with written language, revered ethnobotanical traditions have been transposed into elaborate volumes on ethnomedicine, horticulture, famine foods and other compilations. Ayurvedic doctors trained in Ayurvedic schools, for example, rely on a vast body of reference material, botanical gardens and collegial support in their practices. The same is true in Chinese traditional medicine where an extensive network of institutions are devoted to the study of plants and their uses. In countries such as Thailand and Tibet, monasteries have provided an educational structure for a large percentage of the population, and a sanctuary for traditional practices. This was also true, ironically, of European monasteries in the Dark Ages, which protected folk knowledge of herbs at a time when anything that might be mistaken for witchcraft went underground (Griggs, 1981).

In oral traditions, cumulative knowledge is often harbored by respected individuals such as healers or hunters, and transmitted through apprenticeships with younger members of the community. Much of ethnobotanical literature is based on interviews with only one principal informant. In the Colombian Amazon, the role of shaman is not a hereditary position; there are certain qualities that are sought out. The candidate must be interested in myth and tradition, have a good memory, a strong singing voice and above all their 'soul should shine with a strong inner light rendering visible all that is hidden from ordinary knowledge and reasoning' (Schultes, 1992). Embodied in individuals, this type of information is more vulnerable to mortality and acculturation than the printed word.

In other cultures, without the benefit of human or literary repositories, ethnobotanical information has been dispersed in a thinly spread residue of folkloric knowledge, as is the case in many communities disconnected from their ethnobotanical heritage by colonialism or other fragmentation. On a recent trip, a reporter from the USA was trying to capture and document the importance of biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon. After 3 days of interviews, looking for exemplary species he had become frustrated; each time he asked a new person which plant they thought was the most important, he got a different answer (P. Shanley, personal communication). Knowledge that is conveyed orally is more adaptable to new information but is also perhaps more vulnerable to the distortions of individual experience than the printed word.

Traditional means of preserving and perpetuating ethnobotanical knowledge are being undermined by larger market demands and the values they foster (Durning, 1992). Loss of cultural ties to place, combined with habitat destruction, make it continually necessary to develop more effective methods of protecting what still exists. Numerous efforts are being made, but their numbers are small relative to the rapid and irreversible loss of information. One such example is a collaborative effort between the Ix Chel Tropical Research Foundation in Belize and the New York Botanical Garden, which focuses on the collection, documentation and study of traditional medicine (Balick, 1991a, b). The project strives to work on several different levels simultaneously; learning from groups of elderly healers who for the most part do not have apprentices, teaching the community's children through school programs, building nurseries with the Belize College of Agriculture, building cooperation with the Belize Association of Traditional Healers and contributing to Western medical research collecting for the Developmental Therapeutics Program of the National Cancer Institute. One of the most exciting developments is the recent donation of 6000 acres of old growth forest to be managed by the Belize Association of Healers for teaching, extraction and conservation (Belize Association of Traditional Healers, 1993). Extractive reserves, plant nurseries, college curricula, herbaria and other institutional harbors can provide much needed temporary shelter for both information and species.

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