The current role of ethnobotany

As the complexities and relevance of ethnobotany gain a broader audience, its applications have reached beyond the documentation of a new therapy or fiber to provide models and incentives for cultural and biological conservation. Long-term experience with plant biology, habitat preference and regenerative capacity can provide useful models for a balance between the use and conservation of resources (Redford and Padoch, 1992). Cultural experience provides a living link to complex natural systems, without which each successive generation would be left to their own devices.

Three important applications are emerging from the changing role of ethnobotany. The first is using ethnobotany as a means of recognizing the essential role of culture as a conveyor of relevant experience (Ford, 1978). Direct dependence on natural systems and traditional medicines continues to be a way of life for a large part of the world's population. Over 80% of people in developing countries, for example, continue to rely on traditional plant-based medicines for primary health care (Farnsworth, 1988). Ethnobotany grew out of basic human needs and it is in these localized contexts that applications are primarily reinforced and perpetuated (Jain, 1990). This is the critical link between the continuation of knowledge of plants from the past and potential applications in the future. Whether motivation stems from short-term market potential or long-term ecological survival, no strategy for the conservation of biological diversity can succeed without the support of indigenous people and subsistence farmers (Castillo, 1992).

Second, indigenous approaches to ecosystem management, based on a detailed knowledge of a plant's uses and biology, can provide invaluable long-term models for sustainable use (Redford and Padoch, 1992). Although perhaps more motivated by necessity than altruism, many cultures have developed beliefs and practices that have proven sustainable over time (Posey, 1992). As most studies of ecosystems and species occur in a short time frame relative to the processes they are trying to describe, ethnobotanical experience provides invaluable perspectives on the long-term sustainability of any given practice. A solid understanding of the biology of a plant often underlies cultural beliefs about wild collection and cultivation, as exemplified by the three guardians of ayuhuasca vines.

Lastly, traditional resource management, formed in this cultural context, reinforces a dynamic system that both conserves and exploits biological diversity (Alcorn, 1994). Indigenous communities and relatively unscathed ecosystems overlap with marked regularity for two reasons. First, because both native peoples and unique plant and animal species tend to have been relegated to remnant parcels of land, areas that contain the highest species diversity are often homes for endangered cultures, and second, because indigenous peoples have consciously fostered genetic diversity within species compared with the modern propensity for monocultures of vulnerable hybrids (Durning, 1992). Large-scale cultivation, transportation and regulation of plants and the manufacture of their derivatives all contribute to the shrinking number of species recognized as valuable. Less than 4% of the 80000 plants known to be edible are widely cultivated, and only seven species provide three-quarters of human nutrition (Tobin, 1990). This relative handful of domesticates partially obscures the diversity and value of the wild plants that we are only just re-discovering (Griffin, 1978). In the meantime, direct ethnobotanical experience is one of the most tangible means of differentiating and utilizing the diversity of species in any given habitat (Jain, 1990) and countering the simplifications of 'economies of scale' seemingly inherent to development.

This new relevance for old experience focuses on the conservation of cultural and biological diversity, but as incentives based on direct experience and dependence erodes, it is necessary to find additional means of ensuring a vested interest in the conservation of diversity. It is becoming apparent that unless economic values can be assigned to natural products and to the people who know how to propagate, prepare and use them, the prospects for preserving species diversity and indigenous cultures look increasingly tenuous (Posey, 1992).

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