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Human Impacts on Amazonia: The Role of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Conservation and Development

Human Impacts on Amazonia: The Role of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Conservation and Development by Darrell Addison Posey and Michael J. Balick, editors. New York, NY: Colombia University Press; 2006. Paperback; 366 pages. ISBN 0-23110589-4. $34.50.

This book is a labor of love and exists in many ways as a tribute to the life work and passion of the late Darrell Posey. The book presents many of the papers delivered at the First Oxford Amazon conference, which was held at Linacre College in early June 1998. The conference was organized for the University of Oxford Center for Brazilian Studies by Darrel Addison Posey, who was the director of the Traditional Resource Rights Programme, Oxford Centre for the Environment, Ethics and Society of Mansfield college. The co-editor of this book, Michael J. Balick, participated in this meeting and after Dr. Posey’s untimely death in 2001, Dr. Balick agreed to become the coeditor and pull this volume together.

We are all fortunate this book was published. It contains 20 chapters authored by highly experienced scientists who collectively possess a great deal of expertise on human impacts in Amazonia. Many of the authors are luminaries in the area of Amazonian and tropical forest research. As an example, the first chapter is written by John Hemming and focuses on the colonial history of Amazonia and the horrific impact that period had on the native people of Amazonia. In chapter 3, the highly respected Amazonian agricultural expert Charles Clement proposes that the process of co-evolution between indigenous peoples and plants created one of the world’s centers for crop domestication. There is also a discussion in chapter 4 of the 1998 fire in Roraima, an environmental disaster that might have been far less destructive if indigenous land management practices were embraced in that region.

In chapter 9 Philip Fearnside, another famous Amazonian scholar, makes the increasingly compelling case that standing forests, with all their biological diversity, are far more valuable to society than cut and burned landscapes. He outlines development strategies that focus on the benefits of standing forests, which provide environmental services and forest products.

In chapter 10 the highly respected tropical forest scholars and authors Christine Padoch and Miquel Pinedo-Vasquez provide insight on how local people in the Napo-Amazon floodplain have developed effective and sustainable commercial timber extraction.

I was especially intrigued by chapters 12 and 13 by Jan Salick and Claudio Pinheiro, which focus on collection and cultivation of two species used in the production of modern medicines in Brazil, ipecac (Cephaelis ipecacuanha, Rubiaceae) and jaborandi (Pilocarpus microphyllus, Rutaceae). These chapters focus on different aspects of managing these species. The chapter by Salick looks at the population ecology of ipecac and compares the process of collecting versus cultivating this understory neotropical herb of commerce. In the chapter by Pinheiro, the impact of the domestication and privatization of jaborandi by the pharmaceutical company Merck is analyzed. The author reveals that in this case, local people and communities did not benefit when the collection of jaborandi was converted to intensive, mechanized cultivation of the plant.

The chapter by Alcida Ramos on the “Commodification of the Indian” was also quite interesting and even more relevant today than it was when she presented this paper in 1998. She questions the idea of indigenous knowledge as a “resource.” She points out that the “link between indigenous knowledge and indigenous rights is paramount…” In this statement the reader is reminded of the life work, passion, and dedication of Dr. Posey to the fundamental human rights of indigenous people, their cultures, and their environments.

This book is a snapshot of highly experienced scientists who have lived and worked among the people, cultures, and forests of Amazonia for decades. The current and increasing focus on the global environment makes this volume of great value to anyone interested in the reality of people living in Amazonia. It will be invaluable as a teaching tool for academics, development specialists, anthropologists, environmentalists, and anyone with an interest in Amazonia.

In his co-editor note, Michael Balick speaks with great reverence, affection, and respect for the vision, dedication, accomplishments, and quest for truth that infused Darrel Posey’s life. Darrel is loved and respected by people all over the world for his passion, compassion, leadership, and courage to fight on behalf of indigenous people. Dr. Balick mentions one of Darrel’s mentors named Beptopoop, a Kayapo elder from the village of Gorotire, Brazil. As I write this review I am looking at a photograph of Beptopoop in my office that was given to me by another colleague who had the good fortune to know and work with this enchanted Kayapo elder. I believe Darrel would be pleased to know that this volume, birthed at his conference in 1998, is now part of the literature on Amazonia. I think Darrel would also be touched to know that one of his beloved indigenous colleagues is connected to this volume. Many thanks to Beptopoop, Darrel Posey, and Michael Balick for reconnecting the people of Amazonia with the rest of us through this book.

—Steven R. King, PhD Napo Pharmaceuticals Inc. South San Francisco, CA