Call to mainstream ethnobotany into development

Scientists must accept local populations' rights to own their knowledge, say experts Copyright: Mark Reed

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Efforts to protect plant species important for nutrition, medicine and cultural heritage are being hampered by the failure of ethnobotanists — scientists who study the relationship between people and plants — to connect with policymakers and the wider development community, warn experts.

A new global programme is needed to mainstream ethnobotany into development and to place local communities' needs and traditional knowledge at the heart of plant conservation, a meeting of scientists at the Missouri Botanical Garden, United States, concluded this month (1–2 May).


  • Ethnobotanists are failing to connect with policymakers and development actors
  • Cross-cultural partnerships, global research platforms and databases are needed
  • Preserving local ownership of knowledge is vital

Tens of thousands of plant species are at risk of being extinct, including plants used for food and nutrition, medicine, cultural and spiritual purposes, and the maintenance of livelihoods. These are needed to alleviate poverty, provide food security and ensure sustainable development in many nations, the meeting statement says.

"There is a lack of action because the scientists and policymakers do not communicate on a day-to-day basis," Ina Vandebroek, an ethnomedical research specialist at the New York Botanical Garden, who attended the meeting, tells SciDev.Net.

"Academic research in ethnobotany is still isolated from the wider development community," Vandebroek says.

As a move towards bridging this gap, the 15 experts from ten different countries who attended the meeting, released a statement highlighting steps that the international community should pursue.

"We are trying to get away from just publishing to our scientific peers but [also] calling for action," says Vandebroek.

This action includes increasing cooperation through cross-cultural and multilevel partnerships; creating a global research platform to help identify gaps in scientific knowledge; a database to catalogue useful plants; and improving capacity building in ethnobotanical science.

The statement proposes that these measures are implemented within the Convention on Biological Diversity's (CBD) existing framework for botanical preservation, the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation.

Efforts should also be made to preserve local ownership of knowledge in a culturally sensitive manner and to include local communities at all levels of conservation, it adds.

The limited inclusion of local populations — the individuals who are most affected by plant species loss — is one of ethnobotany's greatest failings, says Rainer W. Bussmann, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden's William L. Brown Center.

Many ethnobotanists, in attempts to justify their scientific credentials to more established fields, often focus on research and high-impact journals at the expense of local community engagement — tendencies that are unethical and inhibit successful conservation, he adds.

Scientists must accept local populations' rights to own their knowledge, and take steps to publish results in local languages and providing opportunities to collaborate in research and policy discussions, he says.

But Gary Martin, director of the Global Diversity Foundation, believes the ethnobotany community has already made "significant contributions" to conservation and development and that "many ethnobotanists have been strongly engaged with policy".

Evidence of this engagement is present in the CBD framework, which makes explicit mention of protecting valuable wild plants, and respecting and maintaining traditional knowledge when conducting conservation activities, he says.

Furthermore, several global research networks for plant conservation — a key demand from the expert meeting in Missouri — already exist, Martin says.

Martin believes that a recognition of ethnobotany is also increasingly present within policy circles and the CBD.

Nonetheless, the field could always do more and, as such, the expert statement made in Missouri plays an important role in raising the issues' profile, he adds.

Link to statement