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Applied Ethnobotany: People, Wild Plant Use and Conservation by Anthony B. Cunningham


Applied Ethnobotany: People, Wild Plant Use and Conservation, by Anthony B. Cunningham. Earthscan Publications Ltd, London, U.S. distributors: Stylus Publishing <>. 2001, 256 pp., figures and photos, softcover. $40.00 ISBN 1-85383-697-4.

Applied Ethnobotany, by Anthony Cunningham, is an extremely practical conservation manual. The author is one of the leading world experts on African ethnobiology and the interface of cultural and biological diversity. This manual is intended to provide detailed tools to individuals working on conservation, rural development, national park management or to companies that seek to create sustainable harvesting programs for plant species contained in their products.

This book is also part of the People and Plants Conservation Series, a collaboration of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The series includes several other books, which are described on the Earthscan Publishing website, <>.

The manual has eight chapters with nearly 130 figures, tables and boxes. The second chapter (Local Inventories, Values and Quantities of Harvested Resources) features a wonderful section that describes "Taxonomy with all your senses: the use of field characters." This passage encourages field scientists to focus on the knowledge of local people as they describe the characteristics of species that are being inventoried. The author provides numerous examples of the color of roots, bark or wood, the scent, texture, taste, and even the sound created when bark is slashed.

The third chapter (Settlement, Commercialization and Change) contains an amazing series of tools to understand the movement of plant species of trade into and out of local and regional markets. The 35 pages on this topic begin with subheading "Local Markets: order within chaos." Like most ethnobotanists, I have always been fascinated and intrigued by markets around the world. After reading this section, I will never look at market the same way again. For resource management studies, this chapter is an invaluable tool for understanding the flow of plants within a region. The structured analysis provided is applicable to any market in the biodiversity-rich nations.

The fourth and fifth chapters (Measuring Individual Plants and Assessing Harvest Impacts, and Opportunities and Constraints on Sustainable Harvest: Plant Populations, respectively) provide extensive and detailed methodology to measure the impact of harvest on a great diversity of plant parts including bark, exudates, and leaves. Methods to measure and quantify flower, fruit and seed production, along with tree bark thickness and bark mass, are presented. My favorite section, "Underground ethnobotany: roots, tubers, bulbs and corms," provides expertise to assess the impact of harvesting underground plant parts, a challenging but important process. The excellent fifth chapter, "Bridging the Gaps in Knowledge: Life Forms, Plant Architecture and Reproductive Strategies," provides a very concise description of plant life forms in the context of their basic ecological characteristics.

One aspect of these chapters that I greatly appreciate is the description of simple, basic, and inexpensive equipment that can be used to conduct this type of research. Items such as tape measures, aluminum tags, field notebooks, pencils, hand lens, paint, and measuring scale can all be obtained in any capital city. There is at times, in my view, a near-fetish focus on expensive technology for fieldwork, which is often not necessary or available to young ethnobiologists or members of local communities who may be otherwise highly qualified to conduct this type of research. The author does not, however, exclude advanced technology. Chapter 6 (Landscapes and Ecosystems: Pattern, Process and Plant Use) moves the reader into the "big picture" of resource utilization. This includes information on how to utilize aerial photographs and satellite images, along with local knowledge, to create maps as part of participatory mapping programs. The final part of Chapter 6 mentions cultural views of landscapes, which provides a wonderful introduction to the complex and critical cultural component of resource use, conservation, and management.

Chapters 7 and 8 (Conservation, Behavior, Boundaries and Belief, and Striving for Balance: Looking Outward and Inward, respectively) seek to weave together the cultural and community boundaries of this manual on applied ethnobotany. There is a strong focus on common property management, community-based conservation programs, land tenure, cultural practices, mapping programs, and a section called "ritual, religion and resource control." And, finally, Chapter 8 provides some very appropriate reminders about the limits of any natural system to produce sustainable levels of plants. There is also a fascinating figure on global consumption pressure, as a measure of the burden placed on the environment by people as of 1995. Once again, U.S. readers will be reminded of the high level of pressure that our national level of consumption places on the global environment.

In summary, this is a must-have manual for anyone working with people and plant resources. It is especially useful for anyone associated with the management of national parks or protected areas anywhere in the world. This manual is a practical tool that, fortunately, already has been translated into Spanish; a Chinese translation is expected to be published next year. There is a delightful tone of respect and affection for the people with whom the author has worked over the past several decades. That is evident in the smiles and facial expressions of the people in the photographs of this book. It is obvious that the author loves his work, and he also inspires his colleagues wherever he goes. That is another component of the gift of this manual and the author’s dedication to exploring the magic of plants, people, and culture.

– Steven R. King, Ph.D.
Vice President of Ethnobotany & Conservation
PS Pharmaceuticals Inc.
South San Francisco, California