Ethnobotany, in its broadest sense the study of the relationship between plants and people, is a discipline that celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. In 1895, J. W. Harshberger, in a lecture to the University Archeological Association of the University of Pennsylvania introduced this term, suggesting that it was a vehicle for further understanding how tribal people used plants. The discipline of ethnobotany has grown far beyond this original suggestion, and has become an interdisciplinary study of the intricate interrelationship between plants and people. This book, the first in the series from the People and Plants Initiative of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England, is, as stated in the introduction, "intended to provide information which will assist the botanists and others to undertake such practical conservation work." The focus of the People and Plants Initiativ e is to enhance capacity for scientific work with traditional communities in botanical conservation. The author, Gary J. Martin, is exceptionally well qualified to author this first manual, having training in both botany and anthropology, with extensive field experience in both the Old and New Worlds.
Let me emphasize that, in my opinion, this book goes far beyond the intention of being a resource for professional botanists; it is an extraordinary look into the inner workings of this important scientific discipline that would be of interest to anyone who finds plants and their uses a fascinating subject. The first section is on "Data collection and hypothesis testing." A number of approaches are discussed, including both the rapid appraisal method, and the long-term, more in-depth study. The next section discusses the best ways of collecting and identifying plants, preparing reference collections. Included is a comprehensive lesson on preparing and curating herbarium specimens, and understanding their value for this type of research endeavor. Following this is a section on "Ethnopharmacology and related fields," elaborating methodologies for phytochemical analyses and screening, as well as, importantly, discussing the ethics involved in collecting plants for this type of stud y. Following this are sections on anthropology, ecology, economics, and linguistics. Of particular importance in this type of study is the ethnobotanist's relationship with the people he or she is working with. Martin relates an interesting anecdote from a Peruvian anthropologist who was visiting a remote indigenous village in a mountainous region of Oaxaca, Mexico. After exiting the small aircraft he traveled in, a villager walked up to the plane and greeted him, asking whether he was an anthropologist. When the researcher indicated that he was, "the eager villager said, `Well, I am an informant.'" As Martin points out, this type of person is unlikely to be a typical village resident and points out that one must put a great deal of effort into selecting the sample of people in a community with whom to work.
The last section of the book, "Ethnobotany, conservation, and community development" should be required reading for any field biologist working in the contemporary environment. It explains, in a persuasive way, why one must follow contemporary codes of ethics and other guidelines for interactions with local people. All too often, field biologists have such a narrow focus and time constraints that they are interested in getting in and getting out with little consideration for "giving back" to the local groups that they are working with. That is not to say that their scientific colleagues are not accorded due respect; it is often people in local communities that ultimately are not accorded the respect for being the teachers they are.
In general, ethnobotany is a difficult discipline to "teach" because its success or failure ultimately depends on establishing mutually beneficial and respectful relationships with traditional peoples with whom one is collaborating. Thus, even the slightest hint of exasperation or impatience can completely destroy the foundation on which ethnobotanical studies are based, e.g., trust between the investigator and the people.
This book is required reading for any aspiring ethnobotanist as well as suggested reading for those working with plant resources, especially in remote tropical regions. It is informative, engaging, succinct, and, above all, very timely. While strict adherence to the principles espoused in the book cannot guarantee the success of the study, certainly Martin's experience and detailed elaboration of the "nuts and bolts" of this discipline make this book an invaluable resource. This reviewer is certainly looking forward to the additional books that are planned for this series, considering them a wonderful and lasting contribution to ethnobotany and biological conservation.
Article copyright American Botanical Council.
By Michael J. Balick