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Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests


Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests by Charles M. Peters. New Haven, CT and London, UK: New York Botanical Garden and Yale University Press; 2018. Hardcover, 208 pages. $30.00.

Managing the Wild is a remarkable and wonderful book that I could not put down. In fact, this is probably one of the most profound books on the interrelationships among people, plants, and tropical forest ecosystems that I have ever had the pleasure to read. The author, Charles Peters, PhD, is a field ecologist and ethnobiologist who shares some of the lessons he has learned from 35 years of field research all over the world. Managing the Wild presents insights that Peters learned about the sustainable management of forest resources in 15 specific locations where he conducted field work, including in Mexico, Amazonia (Peru and Brazil), West Kalimantan, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Uganda.

Each of the 15 chapters is written in understated and easily understood prose so that anyone can access Peters’ wisdom and knowledge. He is a highly respected international expert on methods to sustainably manage forest resources, and he has published numerous technical papers that document his research (including “Sustainable Harvest of Wild Plant Populations,” which appeared in HerbalGram issue 118). In this book, he has, in many ways, become a conduit for people living in tropical forests who manage natural resources to sustain their families and communities and harvest the fruits, palm products, lumber, and rattan that are part of the local, regional, national, and international economies. Readers learn that pressures from market forces can lead to over-harvesting of natural resources, but this can be managed by measuring the production capacity of any given resource within these complex ecosystems. 

In almost every location where Peters has worked, the local and indigenous people have actively managed their ecosystems at the biological, ecological, and social levels for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Readers come to understand that local communities usually are quite interested in learning the inventory and production assessment techniques that he shares with them to ensure the long-term viability of the natural resources that the communities rely on for their well-being. He teaches the reader that “local people know a lot about managing tropical forests, and they are much better at it than we are.” In fact, when the author teaches inventory techniques to community members who have a strong interest in the sustainable management of plant resources, he often returns after a period of months and finds that they have been extremely effective, completing their work swiftly and with great enthusiasm and accuracy.

At least one black-and-white photograph of a person, plant, or product accompanies each of the 15 chapters. I wish there were more photographs, as each image does speak a thousand words, but that might be appropriate for another book. For each chapter, the text also includes notes that provide full species names, explanations of forestry terminology, and citations for some of the many scientific publications that Peters and his colleagues have produced over the past 35 years.

One of the other delightful elements of this book and these stories is the deep affection the author has for the people with whom he has had the good fortune to work. He describes people in remote locations providing gracious hospitality, laughter, and human warmth to him and his colleagues. This clearly reflects how open, receptive, and aware Peters is as a scientist, field researcher, and person. This also helps explain how he comes to understand the sophisticated management systems of landscapes and resources that have been and still are implemented by local and indigenous peoples. The author learns by asking questions, spending time with elders, and looking carefully at the composition and complexity of humans and their ecosystems.

I learned that Western-trained forestry specialists often are unable to understand the way these communities are managing their natural resources. Peters provides an example that occurred in Indonesian Borneo. There, he asked a well-trained national agronomist what he thought of the carefully managed forests called tembawang that are created by the Dayak people. These Dayak communities and families plant and actively manage a wide diversity of species, up to 125 species per hectare, in tembawang forests. These intensively managed forest orchards look wild and uncultivated to the untrained eye. The agronomic specialist had no idea what Peters was referring to, as he did not see or understand the human-managed forests and all the foods, medicines, and other materials that they provided for the community.

The stories in this book can and hopefully will open doors of awareness for conservation organizations, environmental foundations that fund the creation of protected areas, government officials working on long-term management plans, young students eager to work on studies of sustainable harvesting, and consumers who may yearn to learn about how people really produce and manage the plants that are part of the next wave of natural health products.

I am grateful that Peters has shared these stories in a voice and rhythm that is so clear and delightful. Bravo to him for his work, this book, and his spirit. He closes this wonderful series of stories with a clear message: “At this juncture of global climate change, accelerating species extinctions, and burgeoning human populations, we must together find better ways to manage tropical forests than to degrade them or cut them down. Based on over thirty-five years of fieldwork, I am convinced that the best suggestions will come from the people who live in the forest.”

—Steven R. King, PhD
EVP, Sustainable Supply, Ethnobotanical Research & IP
Jaguar Heath, San Francisco, California