HEBE University of California, Berkeley

Narrative on Health, Ecology, Biodiversity and Ethnobiology

Macaw from the Amazon Basin of Peru
©Thomas Carlson
If we had to pay for the services that nature provides, how much would it cost? A paper appearing in the May 15th 1997 issue of Nature, co-authored by 13 ecologists, geographers and economists, estimated this at between $16 and $54 trillion per year. The authors of the paper assembled information from a wide range of studies on the value of a broad range of ecosystem services. These include not only such familiar items as food production, raw materials, recreation and water supply, but also services which are less apparent, like regulation of climate and atmospheric gases, water cycling and protection of watersheds, erosion control, soil formation, nutrient cycling and the purification of wastes. Conservation of these processes, all of which are intimately tied to human health, cannot be divorced from conservation of the individual species that constitute the natural ecosystems. The link between particular species and the function they serve in an ecosystem forms the basis of many native/local cultures. As such, the value of biodiversity has long been recognized by native peoples, and traditionally there has been a rich understanding of the uses of natural products for human health and well-being. This knowledge comes in the form of knowing the local plants and animals available as food, or for treating specific human ailments; recognizing the species associated with diseases, either of the human population or their resources; recognizing species important for functioning of the natural environment, including pollinators and major predators, etc. As the environment has been progressively modified for urban or agricultural existence, human society has been increasingly removed from the biodiversity on which it still depends. The value of traditional knowledge, and the link between native cultures, their languages, and their biodiversity, has only recently been recognized as an invaluable, and endangered, repository of information on biodiversity.

As an example of the importance of traditional knowledge, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that 80% of the world population utilizes traditional medicine as their primary form of disease treatment (Farnsworth et al. 1985). Most treatments in these traditional medical systems are plant-based. The WHO established the Traditional Medicine Programme as a mechanism to assess the efficacy and safety of traditional botanical medicines in tropical countries (Akerele 1992). Medicinal plants also contribute to the development of pure compound pharmaceuticals. Twenty five percent of the modern medical drug prescriptions (119 different chemical substances) written between 1959 and 1980 in the United States were pharmaceuticals derived from 90 different plant species (Farnsworth et al. 1985). Of the 520 new drugs that came to the market in the USA between 1983 and 1994, 44% (231 of 520) of all drugs and 65% (59 of 91) of antiinfective drugs were derived from plant, animal, and microbial natural products (Cragg et al., 1997). A variety of studies have demonstrated that ethnomedical plant collections generate significantly higher rates of bioactivity than plants collected randomly (Carlson, in Press). Ethnobotanical field research on the use of plants for medicine is an effective method for generating bioactive plant leads with potential therapeutic benefits. To assess the therapeutic benefits and public health contributions of traditional medicine and food systems, a multidisciplinary evaluation is required that includes experts in systematics, ecology, ethnobotany, anthropology, clinical medicine, public health, physiology, molecular biology, and chemistry.

UC Berkeley is ideally situated to become one of the top world centers for the study of the interrelationships between biodiversity, ecology, ethnobiology, and human health, as well for education about these subjects at all levels. The strength of UC Berkeley lies in (1) a strong consortium of museums; and (2) access to a diversity of cultures, many of which, at least in the more remote islands of the Pacific, remain largely intact. Moreover, the proximity to the different cultures is reflected in the local population of the Bay Area. Ethnobiological research can produce valuable leads for the development of safe and effective herbal medicines and pharmaceuticals for treatment of human diseases. It can also provide information on key players in ecosystem function, and human well-being, as well as providing a potential warning system for the spread of certain species associated with human occupation (eg problems with sandflies in many Pacific Islands has allowed scientists to identify and eradicate these insects on voyaging canoes coming in to islands without sandflies). This proposed ethnobiological center will develop methods and systems through which ethnobiologists, systematists, and ecologists can collaborate with environmental scientists and physicians to assess the contributions of the natural biological systems to human health and well-being, and to communicate this knowledge to students and the public. All studies conducted by this center will comply with the Convention on Biological Diversity and contribute to conservation, education, and capacity building in the countries and regions where we conduct research.


Akerele, O. 1992.
WHO Guidelines for the Assessment of Herbal Medicines. Fitotherapia, volume LXIII, No. 2, pp. 99-110.
Carlson, Thomas J. IN PRESS.
Ethnobiological Knowledge, Language, and the Use of Botanical Medicines for Tropical Public Health Needs. In Luisa Maffi (Ed.) Language, Knowledge, and the Environment: The Interdependence of Biological and Cultural Diversity. Smithsonian Institution Press.
Carlson, T.J.; Cooper, R.; King, S.R.; Rozhon, E.J. 1997.
Modern Science and Traditional Healing. Special Publication on Phytochemical Diversity, Royal Soc. of Chem., 200:84-95.
Cragg, G.M.; Newman, D.J.; Snader, K.M. 1997.
Natural Products in Drug Discovery and Development. Journal of Natural Products, 60: 52-60.
Farnsworth, N. R.; Akerele, O.; Bingel, A. S.; Soejarto, D. D.; Guo, Z. 1985.
Medicinal Plants in Therapy. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 63(6): 965-981.
Mishler, B.D. IN PRESS.
Biodiversity and the loss of lineages. In Luisa Maffi (Ed.) Language, Knowledge, and the Environment: The Interdependence of Biological and Cultural Diversity. Smithsonian Institution Press.

Table of contents | Purpose and vision of HEBE | Narrative on Health, Ecology, Biodiversity, and Ethnobiology | Medical and Nutritional Ethnobotany | Ethnoecology and Ecosystem Conservation | Medical Ecology and Ethnoepidemiology | Associated Researchers | Undergraduate and Graduate Education | Public Outreach