The importance of ethnobotanicals 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 ethnobotany [and ethnobotanicals]. 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 necessity: 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 indigenous 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 the 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 psychoactive plants, and ethnobotanicals, that are wholly based on the familiarity in the general population of medicinal plants and their properties, knowledge amassed by experimentation over many millennia 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 westernization 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 “civilize” 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. Realization of the seriousness of this impending loss has given rise in recent years to the urgent need for ethnobotanical conservation.

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 sub-specific variants 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 increases 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 government 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. Ethnobotanicals play a key role in continuation of the culture and its peoples.

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 analyzed 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 fish 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 utilize the perspicacity of the Indians in recognizing slight, often hidden, differences in these variants. Biological diversity of sub-specific categories are often not easy for specialists, even trained botanists, to discern. Ethnobotanists, taxonomists, geneticists, agronomists and others would do well to utilize 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 young people in the numerous aspects of our discipline. This effort includes attempting to convince granting agencies – private and governmental – pharmaceutical companies, international organizations, 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 poisoned 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 words :

“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 pseudo-civilization 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 of culture.”

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 defense of our defenseless Amazonian natives of today.