Putting plants in their place

Putting plants in their place 


Over the last decade or so ethnobotany has assumed a scientific prominence previously denied it. It is endorsed by institutions with a high international profile (Kew, the Royal Geographical Society, WWF, UNDP, UNESCO), has a market value placed upon it by foresters, agronomists, development advisors and pharmacologists, and has become pivotal in preserving the cultural identity and knowledge of indigenous peoples whose traditional way of life is under threat (Posey 1990). Ethnobotanical knowledge has, therefore, become both economic commodity and political slogan. This is particularly true with respect to the plant knowledge of rainforest peoples, as these peoples are often those with the highest media profile. However, in our eagerness to exploit a product and to demonstrate its usefulness there has been a tendency to oversimplify what ethnobotany entails and just how it can be useful. I argue in this paper that we must not be narrow-minded or simplistic in our conception of ethnobotanical knowledge, and that to take anything less than a broad culturally-contextualised approach may miss the point of the relevance of indigenous knowledge altogether. 

In an historical review of the subject published a little over a decade ago Richard Ford (Ford 1978: 29) says of ethnobotany that it represents a common discourse but lacks a unifying theory. That this is still the case is in part due to the historical differences between what we might call biological ethnobotany and anthropological ethnobotany.1 The first operates within a bio-economic paradigm. At its narrowest this has been simply the study of plants used by indigenous people (whoever they might be). Data thus provided have often been no more than species identifications against vernacular names, and lists of uses. In its most recent version this approach has become heavily identified with the discovery of new applied botanical and phytochemical possibilities, and with the economic valuation of rainforest (Peters et al 1989); and so becomes virtually synonymous with what is widely understood as the remit of economic botany. Although the global significance of such work should not be underestimated, bare lists are of limited application (see e.g. Alcorn 1981a: 228). 

The second kind of ethnobotany operates primarily within a cultural-linguistic paradigm, is concerned with indigenous rules and categories and is particularly evident in the work of Harold Conklin, Brent Berlin and those who have been influenced by them in the US; and in the work of those within a Francophone tradition closely associated with what is now the Laboratoire d'Ethnobiologie-Biogéographie in Paris, and which finds much of its intellectual legitimation in the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Although there is some overlap between the data and findings of the two kinds of ethnobotany, it is the second which - especially when situated in systematic botanical investigation - comes closest to what Ford (Ibid. 44) believes best exemplifies what ethnobotanists should be doing: namely, the direct investigation of the relations between plants and humans, placing plants in their total cultural context. 
I wish to explain here why it is vital to adopt a 'progressive contextualist' (Vayda 1983) approach, beginning at the species level and working outwards; an approach which locks specific local knowledge within increasingly more general but denser culturally-relative paradigms, and which links indigenous ecological know-how to general subsistence and social behaviour. This is not - nor should it be - privileged or esoteric anthropological methodology, but a strategy of practical relevance to botanists, foresters and all those working in the development field. 

The main weakness of the first kind of ethnobotany, then, is one of definition: that for many it has become simply that empirical knowledge embodied in fixed folk traditions which can be of value to global science. A pharmacologist looking at ethnobotany in this sense thus sees potential drugs, a botanist scientifically-unrecorded species, food scientists new foods, materials scientists new materials (for example, milled coconut fibre as a substitute growing medium for peat), and the Body Shop some new politically-correct cosmetic. Such an approach tends to reduce ethnobotany to partial unconnected bits: or to put it another way, knowledge is transformed into information. In the process much of potential value is lost. Rather than generating selected bits of information in a framework determined by the quite specialised requirements of conventional biological science and taxonomy, we should be focussing on connected systems of local knowledge, informed by an understanding that such knowledge is intrinsically highly variable between individuals and populations, fundamentally situational, and dynamic. My remaining remarks - which put more flesh on these bare assertions - fall under four headings: (a) species-focussed empirical knowledge, (b) knowledge of the rainforest as an entity, (c) the interconnectedness of social and mundane knowledge, and (d) domains of ethnobotanical knowledge defined functionally. I shall conclude by returning to the question of variability and change. 

By species-focussed knowledge I mean those data which an investigator will primarily elicit with a single voucher specimen as the unit of analysis, or multiple specimens of the same 'natural kind'. This will include all names which informants give to a particular specimen, the terminology used for its parts, knowledge of variation in form, its reproductive cycle, seasonal and geographic distribution, growing conditions; in fact, all information that a field botanist would ordinarily seek concerning a particular species being investigated. The secondary data, secondary only in some putative logical order of elicitation, refer to cultural uses, and practices with respect to the specimen type. These include how it is located, collected, prepared for use, protected and cultivated, including of course its recognised effects: material, nutritional, medicinal or symbolic; and evaluations of the plant type and particular specimens of the plant. As Hays has stressed (Hays 1974; Hays 1982), it is really only when we examine our data in this way that we can see what constitutes a 'use', and that one use is by no means functionally equivalent with another. A third dataset at this level consists of associated ecological knowledge. This includes knowledge of the identity and activity of predators and diseases, the effects which the plant has on the habitat in which it is found and on associated flora, and the effects they have on the plant. Rich data in this area has emerged over the years with respect to specific cultigens, for example the important work of Paul Richards on folk understandings of Zonocerus infestations of cassava in southern Nigeria (Richards 1979; Richards 1985). More recently, and of more concern to rainforest specialists, Darrell Posey (Posey 1988) has shown how Amazonian Kayapó maintain buffer zones between gardens and forest which contain plants with nectar-producing glands on their foliage which have the effect of drawing away aggressive ants and parasitic wasps from crops. Then there are the effects of different patterns of rainfall, predation and human extraction; the role of other organisms in the dispersal of seeds, and the use made of the plant by other non-human organisms as food. Nuaulu, for example, in the lowland rainforests of Seram in eastern Indonesia, are well-informed on many species not because they are directly of use to humans, but because they represent the food of animals which they hunt, particularly cassowary, pig and deer. In other words, plants have to be understood as part of the web of forest life, not simply in isolation. 

Although such knowledge as discussed here can be presented in terms of a checklist for the species as a whole, it is important to realise that most folk-botanical knowledge differs fundamentally from conventional scientific knowledge in not being organised abstractly within some convenient general-purpose classification, but rather with respect to particular contexts, defined perhaps in terms of different subsistence activities (hunting, planting trees, collecting, artefact manufacture, burning swidden trash, or whatever). Moreover, how that knowledge is apprehended by people will be determined by culturally relative coordinates of sense perception which sometimes deviate sharply from the expectations of scientifically-trained personnel; for example, the significance of olfactory and textual stimuli compared with the purely visual. Thus, much knowledge is inaccessible except via a research strategy which allows a multi-focal approach; and if investigators additionally wish to appreciate how local people make key subsistence decisions, they must attend to the categories of knowledge locally applicable (Ellen 1982). To do all this requires a general understanding of the underlying principles of ethno-botanical knowledge (e.g. Berlin et al 1974; Conklin 1954), but goes beyond the more formal systematical aspect of folk classification, to what we might call folk-autoecology (rather, that is, than folk-synecology). But then, that ethnobotany and the study of indigenous knowledge of particular plants needs to be ecological has been recognised for over half a century (Carter 1950; Jones 1941), even if the implications have seldom been followed through, or its relevance fully understood. 
Species-focussed knowledge is, additionally, variable between individuals, and so may not be fully documented until a number of people have been queried regarding the same species, or indeed the same individual has been interviewed on the same subject on a variety of occasions. Moreover, since such knowledge is situational, the optimal conditions for finding out are with respect to growing specimens, at different stages in the life-cycle, in contexts where there is a pre-determined subsistence goal, such as cutting bush for swiddens or collecting fungi for food. And just as knowledge is not fixed in its contemporary distribution, so it also changes through time: the result of generations of trial-and-error testing, extensive experimental evidence, enormous individual specialist and collective experience; new plants moving in and out. This does not mean that mistakes are never made, but simply that daily routine pragmatic considerations act as a major incentive for identifying effectiveness. As in science as a whole, there may be bad folk science; but there is also a wealth of good science (Richards 1993). It is this which pharmaceutical firms are now taking advantage of, but they and us also need to appreciate how that experience has been gained. 

Ethnobotanical studies of rainforest peoples have uniformly demonstrated an impressive breadth of knowledge of plant species, in addition to a depth of knowledge of particular significant species. A recent attempt to collate data on the total inventories of plant categories for different subsistence populations (Brown 1985: 44) shows strikingly how rainforest populations have repeatedly been found to yield much longer lists than populations living in other environments, lists which may consist of between 800 and 2000 items at the upper end. Clearly, to some extent this reflects the subsistence necessity of those who extract from such environments, and also the strong tendency for non-significant and non-useful species to go unnamed or to be lumped within larger generic categories. Though it is still debated whether or not human populations could ever have entirely survived on rainforest plant matter, other than when they can rely on palm starch (Headland 1987), breadth of knowledge is undoubtedly a key part of any adaptive strategy. 
In addition to this, it has become clear that systematic encyclopaedic knowledge is situated within folk-models which reflect an ability to connect observations at the species level with informed perceptions about forest structure and dynamics. What constitutes 'forest' is, of course, something we might expect to vary cross-culturally, but even if we restrict ourselves to focal shared meanings it is clearly a complex categorical construction. Thus, the Nuaulu generic term wesie (Ellen 1993) is anything but uniform or empty in the way they perceive, understand and respond to it. It is more like a mosaic of resources, and a dense network of particular places each having different material values. In this sense it is much like the modern scientific modelling of rainforest as a continuous aggregation of different biotopes and patches, varying according to stages in growth cycles, degree of regeneration, underlying geology, altitude, geography and natural contingency. In such a view, simple distinctions between 'secondary' and 'primary' begin to look pretty academic. Seventy-eight percent of the 272 forest trees identifiable by Nuaulu have particular human uses, and it is through their uses that they are apprehended (Ellen 1985), wherever they are found. The picture is similar elsewhere. Carneiro (Carneiro 1988: 79) reports that, on average, Panare, Tembe, Urobu and Chacobo peoples of the Amazon basin use at least two-thirds of the tree species growing in the forests (see also Carneiro 1978). Such peoples, like the Indonesian Nuaulu, being forest-fallow swidden cultivators, also have sensitive understandings of how forest changes as a consequence of different soils, selective extraction, cutting and burning; and of the regrowth stages following abandonment. It is this knowledge which permits such strategies - despite persistent rumours - to be self-sustaining (Dove 1983a; Dove 1983b), and which underlies its deliberate application in a way which assists the recovery of degraded areas (Shanley 1991). The classic description of this knowledge is still that by Conklin (Conklin 1957) for the Hanunóo of Southeastern Mindoro. 

Empirical knowledge of plants, as I have referred to so far, does not exist apart from a broader socially-informed understanding of the world, in some kind if hermetically sealed vacuum from which other aspects of culture are excluded. Detailed knowledge of plant reproduction or symbiosis may, for example, comfortably co-exist with beliefs about the world which have not been empirically tested in a conventional scientific sense. Everything is seen as connected through chains of mutual causation to give rise to a complex notion of nature. Indeed, it is often plausibly argued that rainforest peoples have cosmologies which in certain respects anticipated the systems view of the world which underlies modern ecology; as argued, for example, by Reichel-Dolmatoff (1976) for the Tukano of the northwest Amazon. Such a view is also reconstructable for the Nuaulu, and we can infer their conceptualisation of forest and attitudes towards it from systematic ethnobiological data, from human subsistence practices with respect to it, from the rules of land tenure, from general statements about forest, from rules relating to the extraction of resources and sanctions consequent upon their infringement, indirectly from myths, stories, taboos, and so on. From these we can distill four general characteristics which, taken together, summarise the most important aspects of Nuaulu conceptual engagement with 'forest'. The first characteristic has already been discussed, namely that forest is never experienced as homogeneous. The remaining three are that forest is a complex categorical construction, that there is an inner connection between history, identity and forest, and that forest is not morally neutral. 
Although uncut forest is recognised by the Nuaulu as a single entity (wesie ), it contrasts in different ways with other land types depending on context. It may contrast with wasi (owned land, which may sometimes display very mature forest growth), emphasising a jural distinction; with nisi (garden land), emphasising human physical interference; or with niane (village), emphasising landforms: empty as opposed to well-timbered space, inhabited (dwelt) as opposed to uninhabited space, untamed as opposed to tamed space, all with various symbolic associations and practical consequences for Nuaulu consumers. Although there are no Nuaulu words for either 'nature' or 'culture', it is in the various and aggregated senses of wesie that the Nuaulu come closest to having such a term, and from which the existence of an abstract covert notion of 'nature' can reasonably be inferred. 
The values which Nuaulu attach to forest are thus multi-faceted and differential, simultaneously materially useful and culturally meaningful. And in the same way that the material uses to which forest is put must be understood in specific and local terms, so too the social implications. While the Western conception of environment is something which is 'opposed' to people, or some kind of medium in which we dwell , and which is therefore bounded; the Nuaulu conception of environment is not as a space in which they hang, but much more like a series of fixed points to which particular clans and individuals are connected. These points are objects in an unbounded landscape linked to their appearance in myths; use of land is at every turn inseparable from specific sacred knowledge, sometimes mutually contradictory and obscure, though never absent. 

The undeniable effect of merging practical usefulness, mythic knowledge and identity in the construction of the category wesie is to give it a moral dimension. That is, there are right and wrong ways in which to engage with forest which arise in part from the specific social histories of parts of it, but also from its intrinsic mystical properties. Forest is unpredictable, dangerous and untamed, and various attempts are made to control it. This is reflected in the inferential symbolic opposition between 'nature' and 'culture' evident in most ritual, in the specific rituals conducted prior to cultivating forest, in the charms which are used to protect travellers in the forest, in the prohibitions on certain behaviours and utterances while in the forest, in the correct ritual disposal of its products. 

The practical implications of the interconnections between the social and the environmental can be very important, and it is often the case that subsistence practices triggered by cultural beliefs (for example, linked to prohibitions) appear to regulate resources. It is in the context of all this that we must understand Nuaulu ritual restrictions (sasi ) on harvesting certain forest products at particular times. Certainly, the effect of all of these things may well be to conserve resources and maintain biodiversity, and in particular cases people may consciously do so. But we should not confuse effect with purpose. Much of what appears to be 'ecological balance' amongst rainforest peoples is either illusory or simply a beneficial function of low population densities and benign subsistence practices. However, when governments and other agencies interfere and seek to introduce 'rational' measures to conserve resources, ignorant of local cultural representations of the forest, their purposes may be meaningless to local peoples, as Richards (Richards 1992) has shown for Mende living on the edges of the Gola in Sierra Leone. Similarly, governments acting with the best of intentions may interfere with cultural regulators (purposeful or inadvertent) which are often more sensitive, and in the long term, more effective (e.g. Morauta et al 1982). 

All human knowledge is represented and articulated not only through the systematic lens of general-purpose classifications, such as those offered by science, but also through the domains constructed around specialised applied knowledge. I have already noted how specifically 'botanical' knowledge is embedded in the particular contexts in which plants are encountered, but knowledge can also be presented in terms of functionally-defined abstractions, such as in the context of medical or veterinary knowledge, specific craft specialisations (such as house building), and so on. Indeed, many peoples who might otherwise deny formal knowledge of ethnobotany, may in fact have a considerable practical working knowledge known to them under other headings (see e.g. Brown 1992; Telban 1988). Thus, the unit of analysis (in this case most usually the voucher specimen) can always be organised into arrays which demonstrate significant discontinuities other than those found in classifications based predominantly on morphology. 

Ethnobotanical knowledge and practice must, therefore, be understood contextually, but it must also be recognised as being intrinsically variable and subject to change. One of the problems with the kind of narrowly-conceived ethnobotany which I have been criticising is that it conceals much of this. We need to take into account intra-cultural variation, often hidden in over-generalised accounts which imply that one respondent is as good as any other with respect to a particular subject. We now have convincing demonstrations that knowledge may vary qualitatively and quantitatively according to crucial social variables, such as gender, and even within groups defined in terms of a single key social indicator (e.g. Hays 1974). We also need to take into account variation between different rainforest populations, reflecting for example different modes of subsistence (Brown 1985), though it may be artificial to separate out populations on the basis of their apparent degree of interaction with forest, degree of acculturation or integration into the market. I take a broad view of what constitutes a rainforest population, including all those (such as peasants) interacting with the rainforest (Denslow and Padoch (eds.) 1988). Knowledge may pass between superficially different groups which are in contact or who extract from similar biotopes. We must be wary of inventing a category of 'traditional' peoples whose knowledge is regarded as somehow pristine and superior, however much the temptation. 
Narrow conceptions of the ethnobotanical enterprise also sustain a non-dynamic view of particular human populations. In the popular imagination, peoples of the tropical rainforest have hitherto been remote, isolated, living in more or less the same place, unchanging, living 'in harmony' with their surroundings. In fact, we now have plenty of evidence to the contrary. Ironically perhaps, it is ethnobotany which has provided much of this, in terms of the movement of plant species between isolated points on all sides of the globe. The migration of the main plant domesticates is well-documented, though we know less of the impact this has had on the forests themselves. Certainly, human settlement has introduced many varieties of cultivated trees into the lowland forest of Seram in the Nuaulu area, both deliberately and inadvertently. For example, Tectona grandis and Toona sureni are now established, though they were probably introduced during the seventeenth century; and the ornamental Delonix regia cannot have been planted before the nineteenth (Ellen 1985: 563). And the picture is no different as far as foraging populations are concerned (e.g. Fox 1952), where a nomadic lifestyle has served well to distribute certain humanly-valued trees widely. An excellent example of this is the role of the Mbuti of the Ituri forest of Zaire (Ichikawa 1992) in the propagation of genera such as Canarium and Landolphia . Many rainforest peoples selectively fell trees, protect valued species, replant the tops of wild Dioscorea tubers, transplant palm suckers, on a sufficiently systematic basis for us to speak of 'rainforest management'. Alcorn (Alcorn 1981b: 410) reports for the Huastec of Mexico's Sierra Madre that 63 percent of 800 wild species documented had uses and 25 percent were actively manipulated. The selective extraction of wild species, strategic burning, and swiddening at optimal conditions may combine to give rise to distinctive patches and new opportunities for colonisation; and there are numerous examples - such as those provided by the Kayapó (Posey 1988: 89) - of the deliberate preservation of corridors of mature forest between plots as some kind of biological reserve. The cumulative effect of this in some areas must be considerable, and persistent human interventions may be presumed to have co-evolutionary consequences. Such disturbances not only improve the rainforest as a human resource base but contribute in significant ways to its structural patchiness and biodiversity. They also signal, along with the gratuitous destruction of vegetation for short-term gain, such as the felling of entire trees to catch a single arboreal mammal (Ellen 1986; Rambo 1985), that the practical impact (if not the cosmological representation) of even the demographically smallest human group need not always be benign. Many tropical forest peoples have complex histories of movement, no better illustrated than from the intricate ethnic mosaic of northern Borneo (see e.g. Freeman 1970). Trade and exchange has existed for centuries between upriver peoples, including remote foraging populations, linking them to peoples of the forest fringes, the estuaries, and ultimately the global economy (Dunn 1975; Hoffman 1984). 
We now have a considerable body of ethnobotanical knowledge and a growing volume of literature pertaining to rainforest peoples (Conklin 1972); for southeast Asia alone there is a critical mass (Barrau (n.d.)). But the data are of variable quality, ranging from the fragmentary notes of field botanists, the systematic inventories of an active generation of colonial officials (e.g. Burkill 1935), and detailed long-term studies within an anthropological context (e.g. Friedberg 1990; Revel 1990; see also bibliography in Brown 1985). The priority now, as I see it, is to organise such information into accessible databases and recognise the differential quality of our data (some of which is shoddy, much of which is inadequate). But perhaps even more importantly we need to shift our focus from abstracted empirical data on particular plants to contextual accounts. Indigenous peoples have perceived, interacted with and made use of tropical rainforest in historically diverse ways, and it is clearly important for those making recommendations in the fields of conservation and sustainable forest management to take this into account. 

This paper is a by-product of an ESRC funded project (R000 23 3088) on 'The ecology and ethnobiology of human-rainforest interaction in Brunei'. I would like to thank Jay Bernstein for his comments, and am additionally grateful to the British Council for the award of a travel grant to make attendence at the UBD-RGS conference possible. Perhaps I should explain - at the risk of seeming an imposter - that my own empirical work has primarily focussed on ethnozoology. This paper might have had such a focus, and still dealt with essentially similar issues, though I judge that current debates concerning the role of indigenous rainforest knowledge assume that this is largely a matter of ethnobotany. 

This is similar to (though by no means identical with) other distinctions which are sometimes drawn, such as between different 'levels' of ethnobiological enquiry (Bulmer 1974). 

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