Friday, 27 February 2009

Is traditional medicine viable in a globalising world?

London, United Kingdom

How can we sustain traditional medicine, which is said to be the treatment of choice of more than 80% of the world’ population? As we are discovering in our work on herbal remedies in Morocco, the challenges are multiple. With growing demand driven by urban and international markets, the viability of wild plant resources is threatened. This can lead to substitution of scarcer species with more available ones, with unknown health consequences. The transmission of knowledge about medicinal plants is being disrupted as well, potentially affecting the competence of younger healers. For these reasons, medical professionals call into question the safety and efficacy of traditional medicine. These issues were on my mind today when I met with Michael Heinrich, Professor and Head of the Centre for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy at the University of London’ School of Pharmacy. We met in 1981, when I was on my way to Berkeley to begin my doctorate in Anthropology, and he was completing a masters degree in Anthropology in my home state of Michigan. Now nearly thirty years later, we hope to collaborate on some aspect of traditional medicine in Morocco, perhaps the safety of herbal medicines given to children.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Speaking of human evolution and cultural diversity...

Canterbury, United Kingdom

After participating in research cluster meetings at the University of Kent on ‘governance and conservation’ and ‘biocultural diversity’ I had the opportunity to listen to stimulating seminars from two very different colleagues. In the late afternoon Stephen Jones delivered the Darwin lecture on “Is Human Evolution Over?”. His message was quite similar to that of a dialogue at UNESCO in 1999 on “What Future for the Human Species” that featured the late Harvard University palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the French Sociologist Edgar Morin. They agreed that the physical evolution of humans would not change greatly, but that our cultural development was far from finished. Jones described how the analysis of the trio of evolutionary factors – mutation, natural selection and geographical isolation – reveals that people will not change physically to a great degree, contrary to popular conceptions and depictions in science fiction movies.

Our great cultural development, in the recent past and into the future, was evoked in an earlier Anthropology Department seminar given by Dario Novellino, an Italian anthropologist and ethnobiologist. In a lecture on “Stories of Plants, Politics and Social Life: from the Tropics to the Mediterranean’, Dario spoke of the indigenous people in Palawan, Philippines where he lived for many years, and of local shepards in Maranolo, a community in southern Italy near his native Naples. Under the pressure of various global processes that affect their lifestyles, these distinct communities are struggling to maintain knowledge and practices related to the environment. Even if our physical evolution is static, our cultural development remains dynamic.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Darwin Initiative funds GDF's Malaysia and Mexico projects

Marrakech, Morocco

We received the welcome news today that the UK Darwin Initiative will support our community conservation efforts in Oaxaca, Mexico and Sabah, Malaysia for the next three years. The Darwin Initiative began in 1992 as part of the UK’s effort to implement the Convention on Biological Diversity. The funds allow people from British institutions to assist colleagues in other countries (or in British Overseas Territories) to conserve and sustainably use biological diversity while ensuring that any benefits are equitably shared. In April we will begin a project to help Chinantec communities create management plans for the voluntary conservation areas that they have created in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca. Then in August, we will launch a new phase of our work with Dusun communities, ensuring that their traditional rights to access and use natural resources are respected when Sabah’s Crocker Range Park is nominated as a Biosphere Reserve. I will be giving regular updates of these initiatives on the GDF website, eNewsletter and this blog.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Wild edible plants and local diets

Marrakech, Morocco

Spring comes early to Marrakech, at least in comparison to my home state of Michigan. With my son Edward, I was out harvesting wild asparagus in my garden this morning. The tender sprouts grow up through the spiny stems of the previous year, giving them good protection from grazing animals. My hands were poked and scraped as I cut away the old growth to harvest the wild vegetable for lunch. This ‘hidden harvest’ brings to mind the many species of wild edible plants that were an important part of local diets throughout the world until people transitioned to eating processed foods. Later in the day, I read that Harriet Kuhnlein, a colleague from McGill University, has put together, an impressive website dedicated to promoting local foodways. It features a series of videos that portray indigenous peoples' culinary traditions and describes how they could contribute to better diets for millions of people who are malnourished or are suffering from lifestyle diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart conditions.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Marrakech, Morocco

I have mixed feelings about Sebastião Salgado’s Genesis initiative, said to be the last of his great photographic projects. Described in an interview as a project ‘designed to reconnect us to how the world was before humanity altered it almost beyond recognition', it has sent Salgado on an eight-year quest to capture pristine nature and peoples untouched by modernity. His photographs are stunningly beautiful, and they communicate the importance of the world’s threatened natural and cultural diversity. The UK newspaper The Guardian is running a series of photo essays in its Weekend magazine, and his photographs appear regularly in other publications in Europe. In January 2008, he spent several weeks in Botswana to document the disappearing semi-nomadic lifestyle of the San Bushmen who were forcibly removed from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. An article in the popular French magazine Paris Match (5-11 February 2009) presents twelve photos of the San engaging in hunting and gathering activities at Trail Blazer Farm, where they have taken refuge.

The accompanying text contains some accurate testimony of their environmental knowledge and use of resources. It also conveys some naïve notions about the San (and by extension indigenous peoples in general). The photos appear to be stylized and posed, and they make me wonder if the San Bushmen who participated in the shoot were asked to recreate a lifestyle and even way of dressing that is rarely practiced today. One image of the San drinking rainwater from the ground carries the caption, “just after the cloudburst, they drink like lions”. Depictions of their hunting skills are accompanied by a reference to ‘instinct, cunningness and simple sticks’.

Salgado is quoted as saying that he found himself ‘thousands of years in the past’. These characterizations give the impression that the San are primitive and animal-like. Paris Match makes scant mention of the alcoholism and other social problems that are common among the San and refers only briefly to their dreams of returning to former lifestyle. As beautiful as they are, Salgado’s images seem to inspire romanticism about culture and nature that belies the harsh reality the San and other indigenous peoples are living today.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Marrakech, Morocco

The 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth is bringing about a new reckoning. Museum exhibits and popular articles are asking what he got right, and how did he err. Many point out that evolution and natural selection are now widely accepted in the natural sciences, and that the special cases of sexual and group selection are increasingly embraced. But what I find intriguing are the lessons to be drawn from Darwin’s intellectual quest, and how they can inform the way that we conduct science today. Nicholas Wade of the New York Times notes that “one of Darwin’s advantages was that he did not have to write grant proposals or publish 15 articles a year.” He would ponder his theory for more than twenty years before publishing “The Origin of Species”, and then 12 years more before explaining how it related to people in “The Descent of Man”. The time he took to develop his ideas was dedicated to not only deep reflection on how to interpret empirical observations from his fieldwork but also explaining his insights in lucid and engaging English. He honed his knowledge of natural history by exploring anatomy, fossils, plants, sexual reproduction and the geographical distribution of living things. These are approaches that we should take to heart and mind in the new integrative, interdisciplinary science that is being developed to address our global cultural and environmental challenges.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Marrakech, Morocco

After recent snowfalls, the High Atlas mountains are exceptionally beautiful. From my office terrace, I feel that I can almost reach out and touch them over the palm oasis. The Atlas – and the Anti-Atlas mountains and Sahara desert behind them – are home to many Amazight communities, the indigenous peoples of Morocco (who were formerly known as Berbers). GDF’s work in Morocco has focused primarily on wildlife trade – an alluring subject whose importance comes clear whenever you visit any of the local ‘souks’ or marketplaces of Marrakech, where hundreds of species of plants and animals are offered for sale. Much of this biodiversity comes from the High Atlas and other parts of Marrakech’s hinterland, where local harvesters wander the fields and forests in search of wild plants. We are trying to understand how this commerce supports livelihoods, and if it is ecologically sustainable.