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Conservation and Society
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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2003  |  Volume : 1  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 173-176

Book review 5

Research Associate, Council for Social Development, Sangha Rachna, 53 Lodhi Estate, New Delhi 110 003, India

Correspondence Address:
Ghazala Shahabuddin
Research Associate, Council for Social Development, Sangha Rachna, 53 Lodhi Estate, New Delhi 110 003
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Date of Web Publication20-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Shahabuddin G. Book review 5. Conservat Soc 2003;1:173-6

How to cite this URL:
Shahabuddin G. Book review 5. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2003 [cited 2020 Nov 29];1:173-6. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2003/1/1/173/55854

Anthony B. Cunningham, Applied Ethnobotany: People, Wild Plant Use& Conservation. London and Sterling, VA: Earthscan Publications, 2001, 300 pp., £ 24.95. ISBN: 1-85383-697-4.

T. Cunningham (Director), People and Plants in Practice: Conservation through Ethnobotanical Training. A People and Plants Conservation Video. Produced by Nick Chevalier Productions. Camera, Script and Editing by T. Cunningham. WWF, UNESCO and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 25 minutes.

Yildiz Aumeeruddy-Thomas (Director), Medicinal Plants in the Hidden Land of Dolpo: Working with Himalayan Healers at Shey Phoksundo National Park. A People and Plants Conservation Video. Produced by Nick Chevalier Productions. Camera and Script by Yildiz Aumeeruddy-Thomas. WWF, UNESCO and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 26 minutes.

During the last few decades, there has been a growing realisation that biodiversity conservation cannot be successful without the involvement of the people living close to and dependent on natural ecosystems for their survival and livelihoods. In tune with this realisation, there has been a gradual broadening of the global conservation agenda from strict nature protection to include the sustainable utilisation of natural resources, which is now reflected in governmental policy the world over. However, as one strives towards the harmonisation of people's subsistence and livelihood needs with biodiversity conservation, one of the most elusive, yet critical, goals has been the sustainable extraction of plant resources from the wild. In the face of mounting pressures on wild plant populations from both industry and rural livelihoods, it has become more important than ever before, to devise, explore and verify quantitative techniques and methods in the area of sustainable plant utilisation.

'Applied Ethnobotany' is a welcome attempt to fill this lacuna in our knowledge. This is a publication of People and Plants, a joint initiative of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. The primary aim of the People and Plants programme (P&P) is to enhance the capacity of scientists, managers and local people to sustainably utilise plants in wild habitats under their control. The author, A.B. Cunningham, is an eminent botanist with a lifetime of experience of working on plant conservation in a variety of ecological and socio-cultural settings in Africa. In Applied Ethnobotany, Cunningham attempts a broad overview of the techniques and approaches for understanding and managing plant extraction from the wild.

An important contribution of Applied Ethnobotany is to tie together various disciplines in addressing the issue of sustainable plant utilisation. The multidisciplinary nature of the issue demands that practitioners from various streams coordinate their efforts towards finding suitable solutions. Thus, while social scientists are exposed to biological issues of sustainability in a jargon free and easy to understand language, biologists are alerted to the need for a solid foundation in socio-cultural and economic aspects surrounding plant use before undertaking quantitative research in this area. In the process, Cunningham uncovers important linkages between natural history and sustainable utilisation that are often ignored by practitioners of conservation. Above all, he succeeds in bringing back the vital issues of biological sustainability to the conservation debate, issues that are unfortunately being lost sight of, with the increasing emphasis on commodification of natural resources and the recent politicisation of the issue.

For the biologist concerned with sustainable extraction, Cunningham provides detailed methodologies which supplements C.M. Peters' work of 1994, possibly the bible of plant conservationists, so far. This includes the quantitative estimation of productivity, sustainable harvest of various plant parts and assessment of plant population health in the wild. He emphasises the necessity of long-term observation in order to incorporate inter-annual, intra-populational and landscape-level variability in production of fruits, seeds and other plant parts. There is also a section on village-based participatory monitoring which is increasingly recognised as the only way to effectively manage plant resources on a day-to-day basis. Cunningham alerts biologists to the various difficulties in the quantitative estimation of plant use and presents a wealth of information on socio-economic aspects such as studying the role of markets, cultural values of various species, seasonal trends in collection and sales, modes of processing and traditional plant conservation practices. He delves into practical issues as when to visit local markets for plant commerce surveys or what time of the year to organise household surveys, details which may appear trivial but are actually of utmost importance for accurate quantification of plant extraction.

Applied Ethnobotany will be no less useful to social scientists engaged in the issue of sustainable development. The book exposes social scientists and economists to the biological realities of plant extraction, of which they must be aware before they can design sustainable extraction or income-generation programmes based on wild plant resources. Important in this regard is a consideration of the physiological and ecological limits of extraction of plant parts, which Cunningham delves into in detail.

Cunningham has a pragmatic view of wild plant use in the modern context. He views human use as one of the many disturbances that affect ecosystem structure and function (which is to be managed), rather than an unwanted unnatural interference. While he does not gloss over the fact that 'traditional use' can be as destructive as any extraction undertaken for industrial use, he also recognises the fact that there exist many practices and customs amongst local users that have the potential to make extraction sustainable. Due to its objective and practical vision, Applied Ethnobotany will be helpful in broadening the debate on the perceived conflict between people's needs and biodiversity conservation that rages today in conservation circles.

The book, however, would have been more complete if certain long-standing, controversial issues had been dealt with by the author. For example, how does modern scientific knowledge generated through field studies get incorporated into local-level management in the long term? This issue has emerged as one of the main hurdles in participatory plant conservation. The question thus remains in one's mind: will outside professionals always be needed or will local people be motivated enough to take up sustainable plant extraction on their own after a period of capacity-building? Also missing in the book is a successful ongoing case study of participatory management. Such data would have strengthened the case that the latter is a viable method for conservation in the wild.

Applied Ethnobotany is accompanied by two short video films that illustrate the research and implementation work being undertaken by the P& P initiative in locales around the world. One of them, called 'People and Plants in Practice: Conservation through Ethnobotanical Training'(25 minutes), appears to have been made primarily with the aim of publicising the P&P initiative. The film illustrates the aims of the P& P initiative, the methods adopted, the range of socio-political environments in which the researchers are working and the economic, cultural and other constraints they are dealing with.

The other video, entitled 'Medicinal Plants in the Hidden Land of Dolpo: Working with Himalayan Healers at Shey Phoksundo National Park' (26 minutes), is a window on a plant conservation project based in the Himalayan ranges of the Shey Phoksundo National Park in Nepal. This project was initiated in response to declining plant resources, mainly caused by outside commercial interests. Here, local villagers, medical practitioners and researchers are now working together in a participatory manner to build and implement a sustainable management strategy for a few plant species of medicinal importance. The film demonstrates methods that have been adopted in the project, including baseline surveys in the wild, studying the impacts of harvesting, and the participatory design and implementation of sustainable management schemes in the National Park. The importance of combining local knowledge with modern quantitative science for plant conservation is effectively brought out in this film.

The videos will be useful for exposing policy-makers and researchers to the aims, values and methods of doing participatory plant conservation. It is unclear, however, what target group these videos are aimed at. They are a little too basic to be used as training material for policy-makers and researchers who are already working in this field. A little more detail could have made the two films more useful to field-practitioners. At the same time, these films are not 'dramatic' enough to be used for general viewing or for environmental awareness programmes.

Sustainable harvest is a difficult field of study both in terms of study and of implementation. This explains why to this date, there are few proven successful examples in any country. If we are to make any progress down this particular path to conservation, sustainable extraction of plants from the wild cannot remain a chimera for much longer. Applied Ethnobotany and its accompanying videos, attempt to provide the technical input needed by practitioners to convert the idea of sustainable harvest into a reality. The book is a useful addition to the ecological literature and is recommended as an essential read for all concerned with the utilisation of plants in the wild, including scientists, economists, administrators, sociologists, NGO workers and forest managers.


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