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Ethnobotanical Education Beyond the Garden

Volume 1 Number 19 - December 1999

Edelmira Linares, Elia Herrera, Robert Bye, Clarisa Jiménez & Patricia Novoa



This article presents some educational experiences carried out by ethnobotanical educationalists and ethnobotanical researchers of the UNAM Botanic Garden.  In particular it looks at a number of courses and workshops that were organised in the communities where the researchers were carrying out ethnobotanical projects.  These educational projects were planned at the request of the community or groups of teachers and coordinated by the communities in collaboration with the botanic gardens or local field stations.

The workshops are targeted at organised groups, for example teachers or healers, who are able to disseminate the ethnobotanical information offered.  As such the workshops revert knowledge to a larger nucleus of the population.  The article also mentions experiences carried out in rural communities in various states of Mexico and highlights their enormous value for improving established educational programmes at the UNAM Botanic Garden.  Through such in situ experiences, ethnobotanical educators can enrich and motivate themselves and make their educational programmes more appreciated by their visiting public.

Traditional Values are Under Threat

The Botanical Garden of the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (JB-IB-UNAM) is located in the southern section of Mexico City, one of the largest cities of the world.  As a country, Mexico has many ethnic groups speaking over 50 languages and maintaining the essence of their cultural traditions and ways of life.

Today, Mexico is faced with accelerated economic growth and globalization which, in turn, threatens traditional values and practices.  For example, there is less time for children to talk with their grandparents, mothers work more outside the home, and children have less interest in sharing experiences with the family, they usually prefer to watch television rather than listen to grandparents tell their favorite stories.  Another example of city problems is the rapid urban sprawl which not only destroys open space but also reduces green areas so that natural elements have become inaccessible to many urban residents.

Addressing the Problem - the Ethnobotanical Team

Faced with this pressing situation, a group, consisting of 10 ethnobotanists, was formed at the JB-IB-UNAM.  The members conduct research on topics such as medicinal plants, edible plants, ornamental plants, vegetable dyes, ritual plants, traditional agriculture, plant domestication, and sustainable management of vegetal resources amongst others.

These studies are carried out around the whole country from a community level as well as from a taxonomic perspective.  Each project generates various products for both the botanical garden (e.g. voucher specimens for the herbarium and ethnobotany collection) and for the living plant collection (e.g. the National Collection of Agavaceae).

In the Botanical Garden of the Institute of Biology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, ethnobotanists in the area of Public Information and Education work closely with those in the Research area in order to develop collaborative programmes for plant conservation in urban and rural settings.  On the one hand, the products of field and laboratory research in ethnobotany are used as the foundation for designing and conducting workshops, lectures and exhibits.  These are oriented towards city residents who have little contact and even less appreciation of the rich Mexican cultural and plant diversity.  On the other hand, the educational experiences derived from the urban programmes are applied in rural and indigenous communities.

The sharing of information is a basic human quality that the ethnobotanists ensure is part of the programme by giving data to people who originally shared information with them.  Not only does this exchange strengthen the relationship between rural and academic partners so that communication is enhanced, but it also complies with one of the basic tenants of ethnobotanical research - the return of information to the community.

This information, though filtered by contemporary academic theories, not only abates the suspicion that community members may have that ethnobotanists are possessive, but it also may be of benefit to the community.  Sharing the research information demonstrates to the community the value of their cultural knowledge to another human group (and one's ethnicity may be accorded a status).  Also, the community can use the information for their own benefit such as documenting and the evaluation of governmental actions, assessing economic development projects and the scientific and humanistic corroboration of their cultural practices.  Community members who have lost their ethnobotanical heritage, due to acculturation or other causes, can recapture, albeit in a biased manner, their ancestors’ traditions.  Communities looking for new directions of development, or desiring to revitalize those who may be distracted by other societies’ values, can use academic ethnobotanical products to bolster their own cultural values.

Maintaining Tradition and Biodiversity Through Partnerships

Two ethnobotanical projects at JB-IB-UNAM illustrate these principles:

  1. Bioactive agents from dryland plants of Latin America (sponsored by the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups [ICBG])
  2. Conservation of Genetic Diversity and Improvement Crop Production in Mexico: a farmer-based approach (sponsored by The McKnight Foundation [Milpa]).

These transdisciplinary projects involve researchers, including ethnobotanists, taxonomists, geneticists, crop scientists, and economists, from various US and Mexican institutions who work together with representatives of different Indigenous and rural communities in Mexico.  The overall objectives are to:

  • conserve the biological diversity and associated ethnobotanical processes of the communities.
  • promote community members’ participation and sharing in the benefits derived for both the short and long period.

Although the ethnobotanical focus of the ICBG differs from that of Milpa (medicinal plants in the former and basic food crops and their wild ancestors in the latter), the educational activities are similar.

When each research project is set up, community concerns are considered right from the start.  In one case, in the dry tropical forest of northwestern Mexico, improved bathroom facilities for a school are of high priority for the collaborators.  In another community, in the dry coniferous forests of the Sierra Tarahumara, a nursery is established for propagating plants.  These plants will be transplanted for the purpose of holding eroding soil in an area devastated by 10 years of drought and hunger as well as by deforestation.  In the culturally diverse state of Oaxaca, the state council of traditional healers (or curanderos) request workshops on Western concepts on plant description and identification.  Along with establishing a programme within each community to attend to its particular interest, various educational activities are developed.

Community leaders, interested residents and model farmers are involved in workshops and demonstration plots.  Preliminary training sessions also include government representatives from the ecological, forestry, agriculture, water commission and development agencies so that they can work and learn alongside community members.  Some workshop members participate directly in the research projects and combine traditional techniques with experimental procedures.  To reach a wider audience, radio programmes discussing the project’s activities are broadcast in Spanish and subsequently translated into the native languages.  School children from the Indigenous schools play learning games as part of their class room activities and are encouraged to share the results with their families.  Limited teaching materials, inadequate academic upgrading and inappropriate textbooks and visual aids for the natural world of their region disadvantage teachers in these rural schools.  As a response to their enthusiasm for developing local didactic materials, we sponsor training sessions where teachers from a similar vegetation zone (such as the dry tropical forest), but geographically and administratively distinct regions, gather together for a week and learn about the ethnobotanical aspects of the flora.

Not only do the teachers and community participants take home the ideas and materials developed in a collaborative manner in the workshops, but they are also encouraged to expand upon the results.  Children can make booklets with text and drawings based upon plant and animal stories of their grandparents.  Working with their parents, students can record herbal remedies or the recipes for their favorite dishes using maize, beans, squash, greens and other foods; these individual contributions, in turn, can be compiled and printed for local distribution.  Not only does the publication reflect one’s personal knowledge and experience but it is also placed in an academic context with basic biological information (such as plant diversity and nutritional content).

The recognition of each contributor by the university, as well as by one’s community, is another strong stimulus.  Although it is too early to evaluate the outcome of these and similar projects, it is anticipated that the rural communities will reinforce their heritage of positive conservation practices.  In addition to improving their well being through food security, personal health and community stability which have eroded in many parts of Mexico as a result of extractive, dominant external forces over the centuries.

Beneficial Relationships Develop from Ethnobotanical Research

Ethnobotanical research carried out by botanic garden personnel has an opportunity to develop productive, mutually beneficial relationships with rural and indigenous communities.  In order to encourage trust, and promote the conservation of ethnobotanical processes, it is important to share the results of the research with the communities.  Courses and workshops that have solid content, yet are fun, can be shared through local organizations and schools so that traditional knowledge and ethobotanical practices are not only maintained but also enhanced.  Incorporation of previous experiences into rural schools can bring plant conservation to the local level as well as assist the teachers in developing their academic skills.

Obviously, each community needs to adapt the educational techniques to their particular environmental surroundings and cultural criteria.  In order to ensure community acceptance of these educational programmes, one must be sensitive to other needs of the residents and attempt to aid them in improving their living conditions.  Botanical gardens with their academic resources and conservation commitments can combine educational and research goals in such a way as to make in situ conservation a reality in their area of geographic influence.


Robert Bye acknowledges the financial support provided from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group: Bioactive agents from dryland plants of Latin America  (Grant UO1 TW 00316 from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Agriculture, and the US Agency for International Development), The McKnight Foundation’s Cooperative Crop Research Programme, and Fundación Ecológica de Cuixmala for some of the projects discussed.


Se presentan algunas experiencias educativas realizadas conjuntamente entre los educadores-etnobotánicos y  los investigadores-etnobotánicos del Jardín Botánico IB-UNAM.  Mismas que incluyen cursos y talleres organizados en las comunidades  donde se llevan a cabo los proyectos etnobotánicos de investigación.  Estos programas educativos son planeados a solicitud de la comunidad o grupos de maestros y coordinados con los jardines botánicos o estaciones de campo locales.

Este tipo de talleres tienen la función de revertir el conocimiento a un núcleo más amplio de la población, por lo cual son dirigidos a grupos organizados que a su vez puedan reproducir la información etnobotánica ahí ofrecida, como son los maestros o curanderos.  Se mencionan experiencias efectuadas en varios estados de México y se destaca el gran valor que tienen estas experiencias llevadas a cabo en las comunidades rurales, para mejorar los programas establecidos en el mismo Jardín Botánico IB-UNAM en el corazón de la Ciudad de México, ya que los educadores etnobotánicos se ven enriquecidos y motivados con estas experiencias in situ que hacen que sus programas sean muy apreciados.

About the Authors

The authors are from three institutions; Edelmira Linares, Teodolinda Balcázar, Elia Herrera, and Robert Bye (Director) are from Jardín Botánico, Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México, DF.  Clarisa Jiménez is the Head of Education with the Jardín Historico Etnobotánico del Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, Oaxaca and Patricia Novoa is the Head of Education with Estación de Biología Chamela, Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Chamela, Jalisco.

For further information contact: Edelmira Linares, Jardín Botánico, Instituto de Biología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, A.P. 70-614 C.P. 045010 Coyoacan México D.F. Tel: (52) 5 622 9050 Fax: (52) 5 622 9046 Email: