Photograph by Renee Fadiman
Deep in an Ecuador rain forest, monkeys overhead and poisonous snakes underfoot, Dr. Maria Fadiman goes to work. "It looks like one big, green mishmash to me, but the people who live here can single out the right plants for medicine, or the one to eat if you cut out the little part in the very center. Each house is made entirely from the forest—the poles that hold it up, the floors, the thatch on the walls, the vines that tie it, the palm leaf sleeping mats, the baskets, everything. It's strong, it's waterproof, it works, and it's all done in a way that's in balance with nature."
That "balance" is at the core of Fadiman's research. As an ethnobotanist, she studies how people interact with plants. "Looking at conservation without including people in the equation is a fantasy," she says. "So the focus of my work is finding a balance where people use resources in a sustainable way that allows flora and fauna to remain intact."
Collecting plants for food, medicine, and weaving can involve cutting down entire trees or just the specific parts of plants that will be used. Fadiman's data reveals where and why such differences exist in Ecuador's rain forests, Africa's savannah, and the Galápagos Islands.
"I was born with a passion for conservation and a fascination with indigenous cultures," she explains. "Ethnobotany lets me bring it all together. On my first trip to the rain forest I met a woman who was in terrible pain because no one in her village could remember which plant would cure her. I saw that knowledge was truly being lost, and in that moment I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life."
In many cases, no written record of plant knowledge exists, so it cannot be passed from generation to generation. Recognizing this, Fadiman's first effort is to record all information that groups can provide, add her drawings, and make it accessible. "When I come all this way because I think their information is important, it generates local excitement. Suddenly plant knowledge is valued. And since my knowledge comes from them, I'm not imposing my ideas but facilitating their own efforts to make the best use of land and resources."
Fadiman's information can also help nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with indigenous peoples. "My data often includes plant use by gender and ethnic group," she notes. "That allows an NGO to be more informed. They won't be talking to women about a plant that only men collect."
At her field site in Ecuador, Fadiman studies sustainable and nonsustainable methods used to collect fiber plants and palms. In the Galápagos she focuses on introduced plants, such as raspberries, which threaten native vegetation. "Other introduced plants can be the solution, not the problem," she says. "For example, coffee can be controlled and grown organically in the Galápagos. If people become more economically dependent upon this ecologically sustainable plant, it may help alleviate the area's severe overfishing problem."
In Tanzania and Zimbabwe, she concentrates on the relationship between indigenous groups and the baobab tree. "This is especially interesting since the baobab is not only used for food but also has religious and cultural significance. Will that increase sensitivity toward protecting the land on which it grows?"
In the field, Fadiman eats, sleeps, works, and collects native plants with local families. Whether sitting around a cook fire, slogging through mud to brush her teeth in the river, or trying her hand at basket weaving, she treasures both the information and experiences she gathers. An assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Florida Atlantic University, she says, "I want to make fieldwork real to my students. If they can picture the little girl who always comes to the river with me instead of a statistic, it will mean much more. I hope my work will change even a small part of the general consciousness."
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Looking at conservation without including people in the equation is a fantasy.
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