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Wightman typing up data, Bullita camp, Gregory National Park, May 1996 (Photos: © Bill Backman
In 1993, the Northern Territory Conservation Commission published Traditional Aboriginal Medicines, one result of a seven-year collaboration between Aboriginal peoples and a multidisciplinary team of researchers in northern Australia. Now the Conservation Commission has turned into the Parks and Wildlife Commission, the Traditional Medicine Project has been wound down, but an Ethnobiology Project continues to expand.

Ethnobotanist Glenn Wightman has been with the Commission since the inception of the projects. In the following interview, conducted through an exchange of faxes in January 1997, Glenn told me about the origins of the project and the new directions it is taking as it completes its tenth anniversary. /GJM

GJM: I am interested to know how the Traditional Medicine Project began. Did you approach Aboriginal elders to request permission to carry out the study, or did the communities come to the Commission seeking assistance in recording their traditional knowledge?

GW: The Traditional Medicine Project began in the Northern Territory Health Department in 1986 as an Australian and Northern Territory funded project in celebration of Australia’s bicentennial in 1988. The Health Department liaised extensively through their network of Aboriginal health workers and elders. Work was undertaken in 42 communities throughout the Northern Territory. While the bush medicine project was primarily concerned with recording medicinal plant names and uses, many communities wanted to record all the names and uses of plants in book form specifically for their own community and language. This was where the Conservation Commission (precursor of the Parks and Wildlife Commission) was able to respond and assist language groups to record and publish traditional knowledge in a format that they wanted.

GJM: In his introduction to the Aboriginal Medicines book, Andy Barr – the Traditional Medicines Project manager – notes that younger Aboriginals are again wishing to join collection trips and are being taken aside by the elders for instruction about places and plants, and their uses for food, medicine or the making of implements. Is this sense of cultural revival widespread in the Northern Territory ?

GW: Many young Aboriginal people are intensely interested in the wisdom of their elders as it relates to plants. However, due to enormous changes in lifestyle in the last 30-50 years they do not have the opportunity to learn the law about plants in the same way or in the same detail that the elders did. So while there is a sense of cultural continuity in many areas there is also a desire to respond to changes and to adapt to contemporary knowledge transmission requirements.

GJM: Have any of the Aboriginal elders expressed concern that by helping to produce written materials they would be passing secret and spiritual knowledge not only to the youth of their communities, but also to the general public?

GW: When we first sit down with elders from a language group to discuss working with them we emphasize the fact that we only wish to record information that they are happy to present to the public, for example in schools. Generally, information about plant names and uses is public knowledge and available for everyone to learn. We never record sacred or spiritual information about plants unless the senior elders expressly direct us to do so. Occasionally elders wish to indicate to non-Aboriginal people the reasons why plants, and animals, are important and will include some stories to illustrate their point. When we worked with Alawa elders they wanted to include the fact that the Woolybutt tree (Eucalyptus miniata) is responsible for causing the cold weather each year due to the special powers of its conspicuous orange flowers. Some Aboriginal groups are concerned about intellectual property rights, and specifically about pharmaceutical companies commercializing active components of traditional medicine plants without any benefits flowing back to the custodians of the knowledge.

Ronnie Balwanjer, Snowy Kulminya and Glenn Wightman at Dingo Springs, Gregory National Park recording Ngarinyman palnt knowledge.

GJM: If forms of oral transmission of knowledge (such as collection trips and instruction by elders) are still alive and well, why is it necessary to record traditional botanical knowledge in booklets and books?

GW: There is no doubt that elders are the primary source of traditional knowledge and that through the use of stories, songs, ceremonies and hands-on tuition a thorough and detailed knowledge has been successfully transmitted for many, many generations. However, it is recognized that many of the most senior elders will pass away over the next five to ten years, and that the learning regimes of many young people have changed considerably. Many of the elders we work with cite the desire to make traditional knowledge available in contemporary formats, like books which can be used in school curricula, as a main reason for wishing to record their knowledge.

GJM: Do you know of schools in the Northern Territory or elsewhere that have started using any of the materials you have produced – books, booklets, posters, plant identification kits, plant trails in the botanical garden – as part of their natural history curriculum?

GW: Absolutely. Four of our later books have been printed with funding assistance from Aboriginal community schools and they are used extensively in the curriculum usually in conjunction with the local elders, who are senior authors. This is excellent as it is one of the major reasons elders wish to prepare books. However, you have to be properly careful, in one book we slightly misspelled a tree name, and the elders growled at me because the kids at school began to mispronounce the language name of the tree. The publications and self-guided plant use walks are also used by urban schools. Recently a school undertook a project where each student adopted a native plant and hunted up as many Aboriginal language names for each species as they could.

GJM: As of 1993, you had produced ethnobotanical booklets for six Aboriginal language communities, and you had received requests from an additional 12 communities who wished to have similar materials. Are the requests still pouring in and the ethnobotanical bulletins coming out?

GW: At present, we have completed ethnobotany books for 12 Aboriginal languages, and there are another three that we should publish during 1997. We have also produced seven large posters and four pocket-sized color identification kits about different Aboriginal plant use themes to promote traditional knowledge in the broader community. Field work continues with 16 language groups. Requests for assistance continue to be received at a greater rate than we can finish languages. Our main constraint is a lack of funding. Early last year we began recording traditional knowledge about animals as well as plants. This was in response to requests from elders who felt that you cannot separate plants and animals as they are so inextricably linked in the natural and spiritual world.

GJM: Apart from expanding from plants to animals, are you experimenting with new ways of transmitting traditional knowledge, such as videos, computerized information systems or community databases?

GW: We do use video cameras where elders wish to be filmed and have assisted in some multimedia projects but due to limited resources we are really trying to stay focused on recording knowledge at this point because we are very concerned about losing traditional biological knowledge diversity. I’m sure that in the future Aboriginal people will use a variety of techniques to promote the knowledge we are now conserving.

GJM: When I was in Solomon Islands last December, conducting an ethnobotanical workshop, I met two Solomon Islanders who had been working with you in Australia on the Ethnobiology Project. Do you encourage people from other countries to come to the Northern Territory and learn about your efforts to perpetuate ethnobotanical knowledge?

GW: We have had ethnobotanists from Botanic Gardens in Indonesia, UK (Kew) and the Solomon Islands come and work with us, and it has been a great learning experience for us and them. Myknee Qusa Sirikolo (botanical officer in charge of the Solomon Islands National Herbarium) was adopted by a family in Arnhem Land and given the name Bandikan (White Cockatoo). Several times he was approached by Aboriginals speaking to him in their language, which was fairly confusing, but also quite funny, for everyone. We really enjoy having people working with us but we are constrained in terms of money and out of respect for our elders we do not like to have different people coming with us in the field too much.


Mark Plotkin, former Vice-President for Ethnobotany at Conservation International (CI), has been working on ethnobotany and conservation in the Amazon since the late 1970s. While at CI, he developed the Shaman’s Apprentice program, an innovative way of returning the results of his studies of medicinal plants to various indigenous communities in Latin America. As a member of the Ethnobiology and Conservation Team (ECT), a non-governmental organization based in the United States, he is continuing to promote Shaman’s Apprentice and other applied ethnobotany projects. In an interview conducted by e-mail in January 1997, Mark shared with me some of the recent developments in his work.

Contact: Mark J. Plotkin, Ethnobiology and Conservation Team, 1655 N. Fort Myer Drive, Suite 700, Arlington VA 22209, USA; e-mail MARKPLOTKIN@msn.com,
http://www.ethnobotany.org /GJM

GJM: In the final pages of your acclaimed book, Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, you speak of your efforts to return ethnobotanical results to Tirió people in Surinam through the Shaman’s Apprentice program. Could you explain the basic concept and goals of Shaman’s Apprentice?

MP: One of the issues all ethnobotanists struggle with is the question of returning benefits to the people with whom we are privileged to work. How do we best accomplish this? In the course of my travels and travails, I have been asked to provide everything from cash to rum to ice-makers to airplanes! Of course, the answer to the question is: there is no easy answer. In my experience, it always has to be done on a case-by-case, culturally sensitive manner, which sounds easier than it is. I’m intrigued by the fact that cash is not always the most common request – even if the group is already involved in the cash economy, certain material goods are much more important in that the tribe may have very limited access to the markets in which these goods can be purchased. Machetes, flashlight batteries, and even polio vaccine may prove to be more urgently needed.So the underlying tenet of the Shaman’s Apprentice Program is that one of the first and most important ways we can reciprocate our tribal colleagues is help return and/or codify their ethnobotanical wisdom. In the case of the Tiriós of Surinam, much of this information was taught to me by several elderly shamans at a time when the young Tiriós showed virtually no interest in learning the old ways of their own tribe. Having worked with me, however, to translate into their own language (and correct!) what I recorded, they have chosen to take over the project themselves and augment what I recorded, since it was clear that there are many things the elders would never teach me but are more than willing to pass on to members of their own tribe, now that they are interested in learning it.Perhaps an even better model for most groups is that the ethnobotanist serves more as a catalyst rather than a repository of the information. By this I mean that we help groups develop a format for recording the information (preferably in their own language) and provide them with the notebooks, pens, laptops and other tools to do this. I believe that the end result of this approach (which we are supporting with the Tiriós and other groups) will result in more information being recorded in a manner that is of more interest and greater utility to the tribe.

Mark Plotkin with a shaman's apprentice from a Tirió community in Surinam (Photo: © Mark Plotkin).

GJM: When Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice appeared in 1993, you were also working on Tirió Epi Panpira – the Tirió Plant Medicine Handbook. Has the Handbook been completed, and if so, how has it been received by the Tirió?

MP: We originally envisioned the Tirió Epi Panpira as a handbook that we would produce and put into the village school. However, the response to the project has been so overwhelmingly positive among the Tiriós that we were unable to do this.Let me explain why. Once the apprentices began translating my notes after I had left the village, several elderly men stepped forward and revealed to the young men that they were shamans who hadn’t practiced their craft since the arrival of the missionaries 30 years earlier. They were not interested in teaching the foreigner (yours truly) but were anxious to pass the information on within the tribe. The flow of new information has been so overwhelming that the apprentices are still recording it.At the same time, the apprentices themselves became so enthusiastic that they began traveling to other villages and even neighboring countries (both Brazil and Guyana) to learn from other shamans both from their tribe and related tribes. So, at this point, the handbook is a computer printout that they continue to add to by hand. At some point, we’ll collate this information with the other data and print out an updated version. What is particularly gratifying is that the Tiriós now see the document as a living, breathing, growing body of information that has led them to open a Shaman’s Apprentice clinic in parallel with the allopathic clinic set up by the missionaries. What that means is that, if you have tuberculosis, you go see the Westerners. If you have a fungal infection of the skin (which the Westerners can’t cure), you visit the shamans and their apprentices for a traditional treatment (which does cure). Or if the missionary clinic runs out of the medicine for conjunctivitis, you go to the shaman who has one based on a plant that grows in the village. What is both noteworthy and encouraging is that these two systems are working side by side in a complementary manner – something Western medicine and health care practitioners need to learn to do!

GJM: After Shaman’s Apprentice was up and running among the Tirió, you made plans to expand the project to include other indigenous communities, including the Bribri in Costa Rica, Guaymi in Panama, and Chimane in Bolivia. Have these communities embraced the Shaman’s Apprentice concept as enthusiastically as the Tirió?

MP: We helped start a similar project among the Bribri which was successfully launched although the village later decided that they wished to focus their communal efforts in other areas. The Guaymi project has been successful and is still being managed by Manuel Ramirez of the Tropical Science Center and Conservation International. The Chimane Project in Bolivia, like the Bribri effort, was off to a promising start but, since I no longer work for CI, I’m not up to date on where it stands

GJM: In speaking of the Bribri and the Tirió, you bring up several good reasons for not putting the emphasis on recording ethnobotanical information in the form of published books: communities often have other priorities, some elders prefer to maintain the knowledge within their own culture, and people prefer ways of recording knowledge that allow for constant editing and revision. Do you think these local perspectives will eventually change the way that academic ethnobotanists go about recording and returning data?

MP: I believe that we can not think of ethnobotanical data as some sort of ‘wild game’ we have to ‘bag’ and hang on our mantelpiece. Unfortunately, given the ‘publish or perish’ mentality that still permeates much of academia, this will make it even harder for ethnobotanists to stake out their turf in the university world (which still underestimates the need to develop degree programs in ethnobotany and ethnobiology despite the fact that students are clamoring for it). So what I’m saying here is that the type of study where one lives with a group of people and rushes home to publish a list of plants used by the culture will eventually prove to be a smaller and smaller part of the ethnobotanical universe. My guess would be the type of ethnoagricultural studies done by Alcorn in Mexico and Padoch in Peru, or market valuation and other types of ethnobotanical work carried out in Mexico, or the comparative use research by Balée, Boom, Prance and Phillips in South America, are all methodologies and approaches that represent much of the future of our field.

GJM: Ironically, it seems that since leaving CI you have become even more involved in ethnobotany. What are your plans for the future?

With Gary Nabhan and other colleagues, we have formed a new organization called ‘The Ethnobiology and Conservation Team’. Our major focus will be to expand the Shaman’s Apprentice effort to many different peoples and regions around the world. We are in the process of launching parallel efforts in the Argentine Chaco, in northern Australia, and even here in the American southwest. A most successful effort is well underway in the Colombian Amazon with the Ingano people. Under the direction of the most accomplished Ingano shamans in collaboration with Colombian physician Dr. German Zuluaga, shamanistic practices and wisdom are being taught to the young Inganos as well as the neighboring Correguajes whose last true shamans died over a decade ago. In addition, primary health care is being provided to both Mestizo and African-Colombian communities who have little or no access to western medicine. It is a project that incorporates conservation, culture, human rights and health care – the type of holistic approach that is firmly grounded in ethnobotany.In conclusion, let me say that I have never seen the science of ethnobotany as alive and vibrant as it is today. Just look at the excellent books on the subject by Alexiades, Balick and Cox, Cotton, Schultes and von Reis, and others that have been published in the last two years and you can see that ethnobotany is in the midst of a renaissance. The proliferation of college courses, articles, Internet chat groups and so on bodes well for the future.


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