Ethnobiology and Biocultural Diversity. John R. Stepp, Felice S. Wyndham and Rebecca K. Zarger (eds.). Published by the International Society of Ethnobiology. Distributed by the University of Georgia Press. 2002. 720+ pp. $65.00 ISBN 0-8203-2349-7. softcover.
This wonderful book is the proceedings of the Seventh meeting of the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) held in October 2000 in Athens, Georgia. The volume is dedicated to Darrel Posey who was responsible for creating of the ISE and its first International Congress in Belem, Brazil. Many of the authors of the chapters and this reviewer have been deeply influenced by Darrel Posey’s vision and fight for the rights of indigenous peoples.
It is appropriate then that the first section of the book includes six papers on Intellectual Property Rights and Benefits Sharing. These papers provide cutting edge thinking and models of benefits sharing, with an emphasis on contracts as well as shamanic knowledge in Brazilian Court cases. Each chapter, throughout the book, is followed with references.
The papers in Section II focus on Biocultural Diversity and Conservation, a natural transition from the benefit-sharing discussions. These six papers cover cultural groups and environments in regions as diverse as China, India, Brazil, and Colorado. I especially enjoyed the description of the Callari project in Quichua villages of Amazonian Ecuador who create high-value traditional handicrafts as part of economic alternatives to generate income and conserve their local forest ecosystems. Section III provides seven papers on general ethnobiology, including several papers on indigenous classification and nomenclature of plants and animals in North and Meso-America.
Sections IV and V present a total of 10 papers on Ethnobiology and Health and Medical Ethnobiology. The paper on Nutrition and Health provides an insightful analysis of the importance of the role of plants in nutrition and medicine. The authors elegantly articulate the advantages of not separating nutrition from medicine as part of public health, research, and development programs.Another paper in this section, “Therapeutic Evaluation of Hepatitis Remedies: The Usefulness of Ethnomedical Focusing Techniques” provides a fascinating overview of ethnomedical research that included more then 600 people in four river systems in the Peruvian Amazon. The authors’ work indicated that ethnomedical research can identify plant remedies that are useful for the treatment of hepatitis B and D. They also suggest prolonged treatment with plants can “promote recovery in chronic carriers.” This type of research in the area of hepatitis is critical as the rates of hepatitis A, B, and C continue to increase around the world with very few treatment alternatives in the “modern pharmacopeias.”
In the Medical Ethnobiology section there is an excellent paper on the plant medicines and public health in Uganda. There is also what is destined to be a classic on the “Sensory Cues as Mnemonic Devices in the Transmission of Medicinal Plant Knowledge among the Matsigenka of Yora Peru.”
Section VI provides six papers on Economic Ethnobiology with a diverse collection of contributions focusing on cochineal (the insect that produces a red dye), palm management in Mexico, betel nuts (Areca catechu ) in Yap (an island nation in the South Pacific), and several other species in South Africa and Brazil.
Sections VII and VIII, Historical Ethnobiology and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, provide nine more papers that actually weave an elegant tapestry of the past and present. Several themes deal with ecological stewardship, cultural land use practices, and the human ecology in a diverse set of landscapes and cultural groups. I was especially intrigued by the chapter “Ancestral Futures” which discusses the persistence of traditional sustainable agriculture in the Andean region of Ecuador. The discussion on pre-Inca, Inca, Spanish, and the green revolution land management is insightful. The local highland communities view their culture as closely connected to their land and subsistence strategies. They also do not want to lose their traditions and have resisted in many cases the use of costly agrochemicals on communal lands.
The final two sections, (IX and X) Mesoamerican Ethnoecology and Traditional Agriculture and Home Gardens, contain a total of 13 more papers. There is a rich and deep body of knowledge on Mesoamerican ethnoecology presented in section IX. Several papers discuss the acquisition of subsistence and plant knowledge. The last section provides detailed descriptions of the linkage between farmers, the process of plant domestication, and the implications for the conservation of agro-biological diversity. I have often thought of house gardens as a form of family and individual living art. The canvas in this case is the unique patterns of interplanting and management actualized by each family. The papers in this last section span multiple geographic regions including Mexico, Ethiopia, and Italy.
In summary, this is quite an extraordinary collection of ethnobiological research papers. There are more than 55 contributing authors who have reported on research from all over the planet. This volume is very well produced and edited. I am certain this book will be of great interest to scientists in the fields of anthropology, botany, ethnobotany, biochemistry, economics, ethics, public health, nutrition, zoology, and many other disciplines. This is part of what makes the field of ethnobiology so dynamic and interesting—there is so much integration of knowledge.
This book, more than anything, is a testimony to the sophistication and expertise of the indigenous peoples of the world. I would like to pay homage to their generations of wisdom that ethnobiologists have had the good fortune to explore. Two of the past presidents of the Society of Ethnobiology, Elois Ann Berlin and Brent Berlin, paid a beautiful tribute to the late Darrel Posey who created and inspired this society. I also thank Darrel for his passionate fight on behalf of the indigenous peoples of our planet.
—Steven R. King Ph.D.