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GARY MARTIN received his undergraduate degree in botany from Michigan State University in 1980, after which he spent several years in Oaxaca, Mexico, conducting ethnobotanical and floristic studies. He carried out his graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where he completed a Masters (1982) and Ph.D. (1996) in Sociocultural Anthropology. Since 1991 he has been living in Paris, France, where he is employed as field coordinator for the People and Plants Initiative on ethnobotany and sustainable use of plant resources, a joint effort of WWF, UNESCO and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He has been responsible for developing field activities, workshops, networks and publications during the first phase (1992-1996) of People and Plants' work in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and has worked as international coordinator of interdisciplinary projects in Kinabalu Park (Sabah, Malaysia), Beni Biosphere Reserve (Beni, Bolivia) and the Sierra Norte (Oaxaca, Mexico). In these field projects, his approach has been to encourage the formation of multicultural, interdisciplinary teams responsible for addressing the opportunities and conflicts that arise from use of biological resources around protected areas. With other colleagues from People and Plants, Martin has participated in the organization of international training workshops in the Dominican Republic, India, Mexico, China and Thailand. He is the author of "Ethnobotany: A Methods Manual" (1995) and is the general editor of the forthcoming "People and Plants Handbook", which focuses on sources of information on the management of plant resources, conservation and community development. He is board member (for education and training) of the International Society of Ethnobiology.
For the purpose of argument, let us say we recognize the general principle that biodiversity, linguistic variety and cultural heterogeneity are linked, and that decline in one will affect adversely the others. Further, assume that any action taken by individual researchers or organizations must be catalytic rather than systematic, because of our limited resources and political power. What pressure point do we choose to ensure the maximum impact in reversing trends of deforestation, linguistic loss and cultural impoverishment?
This is one dilemma faced by ethnobiologists, whose interdisciplinary studies integrate biological, linguistic and cultural approaches. Some colleagues respond by focussing on the sustainability of key biological resources and ecosystems that are critical to the livelihoods of local people. Others seek to ensure the viability of indigenous languages, essential to maintaining local ecological knowledge and practices. Another response is to concentrate on cultural knowledge systems themselves, particularly by stimulating continuity and evolution in what local people know about their environment.
Each approach entails opportunities and risks, the promise of resolving some problems while ignoring or even exacerbating others: this is a second dilemma confronting researchers. As an example, consider current efforts to record local ecological knowledge, return it to communities in a more permanent form and communicate it for wider benefit. Although returning results has been one of the rallying cries of a new applied ethnobiology, the practice has raised numerous ethical issues. First, by recording oral knowledge--through written forms, videos or compact disks--we inevitably transform it. We risk creating an official version of indigenous lore that can eventually push aside the numerous representations that are a normal result of cultural diversity. Second, we enter into the complex arena of traditional resource rights. Once we have placed oral knowledge in the public domain, questions of ownership, access and compensation come to the forefront. Third, emphasis on continuity of ecological knowledge may appease the concerns of visiting researchers, but communities may have other priorities, including land tenure, health, food security and access to water, electricity and other services.
While these issues give researchers sufficient reason to put reflection before action, the rapidity of cultural loss in some regions spurs them onward. A prudent approach is to leave the initiative of recording local knowledge in the hands of community members, while providing them with tools and training they deem necessary. At the same time, it is essential to be aware of non-local economic and political trends which form the context in which local changes in biodiversity, language and culture occur.
Examples from Africa, Asia and Latin America--taken from field projects sponsored by the WWF-UNESCO-Kew "People and Plants Initiative"--illustrate the complexities of returning benefits from ethnobiological studies and turning the tide of biological, ecological and linguistic losses. Issue 3 of our People and Plants Handbook, entitled "Returning Results: Community and Environmental Education", will bring together guidelines, viewpoints and sources of information that will provide additional tools for researchers and communities who are recording local knowledge.
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