Education centre > Plants and Culture: Ethnobotany and Education
Plants and Culture: Ethnobotany and Education
Contributed by Ian Darwin Edwards and Susie Kelpie, Royal Botanic Garden, 20A Inverleith Row, Edinburgh EH3 5LR, Scotland
Indigenous Knowledge and Senseless Destruction
Much has been written and many conferences have been held concerning the conservation of plants and their habitats. Among the general population, at least in the Western world, there is a high level of awareness regarding species loss and the critical importance of forests and other natural ecosystems in maintaining biodiversity. Most people will have seen documentaries on television or read articles in newspapers or magazines dealing with this issue and they will have clear images in their mind of devastation caused to a landscape through development of one kind or another. As long-distance travel becomes commonplace, a smaller but significant number will have witnessed this destruction at first-hand. Clearly an education programme dealing exclusively with plant and habitat conservation can presume some prior awareness or experience and aim to build upon this base.
A second, and probably less well known, botanical tragedy has occurred in recent decades in parallel to the first – the disappearance of indigenous plant knowledge among the native peoples of all five continents. This loss is much more difficult to assess. Hidden within human minds, and only rarely written down, indigenous plant lore does not appear on satellite maps or provide the media with images which can be used by those seeking propaganda. It is most often linked to minor languages through local plant names and specialist terms, and to traditional customs, for example those concerning health and healing, and these too are threatened.
This knowledge is of profound importance because many traditional societies have a unique understanding of their immediate environment. As Mark Plotkin (1994) has written of the tropics:
Appropriate and Inappropriate Education
Almost every development activity which takes place, including many which are generally regarded as environmentally positive, such as the provision of primary health services, improved agriculture and horticulture, and even wildlife conservation, is a potential threat to the survival of traditional plant lore. However, we believe the most important factor which is operating to destroy indigenous plant knowledge is education, in particular the Western model of school-based education being actively promoted by governments and missionary societies throughout the developing world. As Helena Norberg-Hodge (1991) says in her book Ancient Futures - Learning from Ladakh:
These changes can be illustrated by the changes which are taking place today within a remote region of Indonesia. To the outsider, a highland village on this island in the eastern province of Maluku offers an impression of the Garden of Eden. Surrounded by lush rain forest and productive gardens, people enjoy a way of life seemingly free from stress, eat organic food, employ natural medicines, breathe unpolluted air and benefit from the security of a tight family-orientated social structure. Wild sago, provides an abundant, free source of carbohydrate, and consequently fishing, hunting, and gathering wild products are pursued to provide variety rather than as ceaseless requirements for survival. Villagers show a remarkable range of forest skills, including the ability to recognise and name almost every tree they encounter
Although this highland village has a timeless, paradisiacal feel, it is not as unchanging as first appears. Traditional ways are under threat from a number of outside influences. The government would prefer to see all the islanders living on the coast where they can be assimilated into "mainstream" Indonesian society. For generations the people have resisted pressure to relocate, because they wish to preserve their independence, but it is unlikely that they will be able to hold out much longer. Children will be encouraged or required to attend school in a cosmopolitan coastal settlement a long day's walk from the village. They will probably find themselves in a minority among other children from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and be taught in a language which is not the same as the one spoken at home in the village. Teachers from other islands will instruct them in subjects which have little relevance to living in the forest. They will not be taught to respect the traditional knowledge of their parents and grandparents and, as in Ladakh, they may begin to despise it.
It is a matter of opinion whether what these children gain from schooling is greater than what they lose and which type of education is more appropriate for their future. It is, however, beyond question that the loss to humanity of precious indigenous knowledge within a single generation through the widespread introduction of school-based education is an immense tragedy. Experience in other places, in Europe, North America and Australia, suggests that indigenous people often do not value aspects of their cultural heritage, including plant lore, until after it has all but disappeared. In the popular song Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell sings the line "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone". If this is true what can we be doing now to preserve traditional plant knowledge and afford it the respect it deserves before it is too late?
Travel and Expeditions
As isolated communities have increasing contact with the outside world, exposure to the blue jeans and Coca-Cola culture can exert a powerful influence which is often exacerbated by arrival of travellers, including well meaning adventure and science expeditions, from overseas. But travel, like education, can be a double-edged sword. While there are numerous examples of insensitive tourism destroying the culture that the tourists travel to experience, there is an argument for ecotourism in which the traditional way of life, the skills of forest people and their knowledge of the local environment become highly valued commodities. The philosophy which states that you must "use it or loose it", might view the interest of outsiders as a positive factor in preserving at least the more exploitable aspects of indigenous culture.
The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is occasionally approached by groups of school or university students wanting to organise an overseas expedition and who are looking for a worthwhile scientific project to undertake. Botanical projects, especially in the biologically-rich rain forests, are notoriously difficult to carry out, due to the immense problem of identifying plants, especially trees, whose flowers and fruits, if they exist, may be 30 or 40 metres above ground. High biodiversity, coupled with a long period of coevolution, have resulted in one of the most taxing taxonomies, which will confuse even the experienced botanist. Ethnobotanical research projects, although they have a lot of popular appeal, can be even more difficult because of the added complication of folk taxonomies not necessarily corresponding with scientific systems. The RBGE has, however, devised a simple show-and-tell technique for carrying out ethnobotanical investigations ideally suited to this type of group with no experience but offering enthusiasm, time and willingness to travel.
The RBGE provided basic ethnobotanical training to two groups of school students (17–18 year olds) taking part in expeditions to Sarawak, Borneo. Preparations included pressing and mounting specimens of a number of plant species from the tropical collections at Edinburgh, known to occur in Western Borneo and to have some local use. This small reference herbarium was then carried by the expedition on their travels and in each of the communities they visited it was used to stimulate a dialogue with local people on domestic plant use. Semi-structured interviews were conducted in 13 different Sarawak villages and yielded useful new information about these plants (Edwards 1992, 1993). This information has subsequently been used by the education programme at RBGE in guided tours, schools programmes and interpretation.
To give an example, the orange-red heartwood of sepang (Caesalpinia sampan) is well known as both a fabric dye and a food colouring (Burkhill 1935). The 1992 Sarawak expedition, gathered information on the gathering, processing and use of sepang as a dye from Iban and Dayak people, even in communities where this plant has disappeared or is no longer used. However, people in the Penan community of northern Sarawak, one of the few groups who until relatively recently lived a nomadic lifestyle based entirely on hunting and gathering, had quite a different use for the plant. The Penan used the foliage, which appears to contain saponins, as a natural lathering agent for washing their bodies. Although the presence of saponin in other Caesalpinia spp is known, and it is widely employed as a fish poison, this specific use of sepang does not appear to occur in the literature and this may be the first time it has been recorded.
This gathering of information on useful plants was not carried out for any commercial rewards but as a way of demonstrating to the communities in Sarawak that our society appreciates their specialist botanical knowledge. If there is a gain, it is in enriching our understanding of the relationship between people and their environment, and in particular the ecologist's ultimate goal of sustainability.
Artefacts and the Imagination
Not all students are able to visit the real rain forest and meet with the inhabitants. However, a certain affinity with the lives of rain forest dwellers can sometimes be achieved through the use of artefacts. Items that the RBGE has acquired for use with visiting school groups are not regarded as museum pieces or objects d'art but as examples of everyday use of plants and craftsmanship of indigenous people. Their main value is to inspire creativity and encourage an appreciation of the ingenious use of natural materials. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoffin says in his marvelous book about the Tukano Amazonian Indians (1996):
A basket made by forest people from forest vines will be used to carry forest products until finally, once it has reached the end its useful life, it will be returned to the forest to rot. Is this basket any less a part of the forest than a tree, bird or monkey? The use of artefacts can therefore give students in Scotland an opportunity to touch the real forest, experience those primal ‘energies’ and, hopefully, let the forest touch their lives.
Living in a Rainforest was the title of an RBGE environmental education programme which successfully immersed Scottish schoolchildren in life in the Borneo rain forest. A Borneo-style house, constructed in the Education Centre, was used by school groups as a base for mounting forays into the simulated rain forests of the tropical glasshouses and to investigate the many useful plants growing there. During the day they were surrounded by artefacts and images chosen to generate an interest in the lifestyle of contemporary rain forest people. They also took part in activities, such as batik, music and shadow puppetry, which enabled them to explore other aspects of the rain forest world and express their concern for the threats to habitats and forest people.
The key to the success of Living in a Rainforest was its ability to capture and stimulate the students’ imagination. Environmental education must seek to engage participants in this way, otherwise it cannot deal with the emotions raised by ecological issues or touch the spirit. Creative use of imagination is an important element in virtually all of the RBGE's primary school programmes and the response from both children and their teachers has been positive. We have called our approach "earthshrinking" and make the wildly extravagant claim that we can take a class on a journey to anywhere on earth (except possibly Antarctica) through the world of plants. Consequently every day groups of children travel to Africa, Australia or Amazonia without ever leaving the 25ha area of the Edinburgh Garden!
A recently developed RBGE schools education programme which uses the earth-shrinking approach is called ‘Expedition!’. Classes are invited to join an expedition to a remote area of the Chinese Himalaya to investigate the flora of a river valley which is shortly to be dammed, submerging both forests and villages in water. Pupils, having seen an appeal for volunteers to join this important mission, respond by sending details of themselves and their relevant skills. On the day of the expedition school groups are given a briefing at the RBGE before setting off on an exploration which takes them through a shrunken world of miniature forests, lakes and mountains. The journey requires the use of a wide range of practical skills – from using a map and compass to drawing, collecting and pressing plant specimens. During the day the students learn about aspects of Chinese ethnobotany by discovering plants that can help cure them when they fall sick, sustain them when they are hungry, or provide them with the materials to build shelter. When they find that some of the plants of special cultural or practical significance are growing in the area soon to be flooded it stimulates some very lively discussion concerning the conservation of natural resources.
The RBGE has particularly strong links with China which extend back to the beginning of this century. 1997 saw the official opening of the Pringle Chinese Hillside, a new project in which part of the RBGE's extensive Chinese plant collection will be displayed in a landscaped setting, complete with stream, pond and bridges. In planning educational activities and events focusing on the Chinese Hillside it has been essential to involve members of the local Chinese community, who represent the second largest ethnic minority in Scotland. Various aspects of Chinese culture, including dance, festivals and cuisine, flourish in Scotland and will be incorporated into the public education programme in the future. Meanwhile some Scottish-Chinese school children have already taken part in our Expedition! programme where their bilingual skills were especially useful.
Interpretation and Plant Stories
Faced with the interpretation of an innovative development like the Chinese Hillside, the first question that might be addressed is: what are the stories we can tell visitors about these plants? An ethnobotanical approach would be to look at the essential role of the plants within Chinese culture for food, herbal medicine, religious ceremonies, etc. According to one Chinese proverb, bamboo alone has as many different uses as there are days in the year. Also, because they offer a rich supply of stories of human endeavour, one might consider the adventures which have taken place in connection with the introduction of horticulturally important plants from China to the rest of the world. It is not necessary to rely on plant-hunters of the past (some of whom were quite unethical characters) because the plant-hunting expeditions of the present day, carried out in partnership with Chinese botanical institutes, are an equally exciting source of material. In traditional societies around the world people rely on stories, reinforced with practical demonstration, as a means of passing on essential knowledge and skills from generation to generation. In the history of humankind the written word is a relatively recent invention and we must consider if there is not something significant in the more ancient approach. As Kieran Egan (1988) points out in Teaching as Storytelling:
The story form is universal, everyone, everywhere enjoys stories. The story, then, is not just some casual entertainment; it reflects a basic and powerful form in which we make sense of the world.
Considering their importance in people's lives, it is not surprising that there are many stories about plants and that these may have an educational value beyond the society in which they were created. Often they tell the listener something about the plant's biology or ecology, distribution, history, uses and methods of exploitation, or cultural significance. These are important narratives, with tremendous potential in botanic garden education and interpretation (see Graham and Bird, 1997, in this volume).
Gradually our repertoire of botanical plant stories from throughout the world increases, and as it does we have more to share, not just with school groups and the public, but with others in botanic gardens who value this approach. This is why we used this Congress to propose the setting up of an international "plant story bank" which would contain informative stories on specific plants from throughout the world. These stories might be entirely factual, for example the historical account of the discovery of a new medicine; they might take the form of a traditional myth, for example how people first learnt the use a particular plant; or they could be contemporary stories based on real or fictitious events. The essential thing is that the plant must be identifiable as a specific plant (e.g. travellers tree, banyan fig or coconut palm, not simply tree, fig or palm) and should be central rather than incidental to the main storyline.
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