Plants with a world of uses

February 20, 1998

There appears to be a growing interest in ethnobotany, the discipline that brings together the study of plants and people, and this new book by Cath Cotton will be an invaluable tool for teaching the subject. Ethnobotany is a superb text covering a broad range of the field. It is packed with useful information and examples taken from many different regions of the world. Most books on ethnobotany focus on a particular region. Here we can compare the customs and plant uses of the Ka'apor or the Waimiri Atroari Indians of Brazil with those of the Masai in Africa, Filipino farmers or Australian aborigines, to name just a few.

The text is highly readable and almost half of the book is taken up with information in boxes and tables to enable the reader to gain more detailed information about the topics discussed. The readership of even these boxes will not be confined to the professionals because they are full of interesting information and comparisons. The text not only explains ethnobotany but is also full of the basic botanical information about plant structure and function, biochemistry and taxonomy that is required for an understanding of ethnobotany.

Ethnobotany is divided into 12 chapters, each ending with a brief summary. The first chapters define ethnobotany, introduce the reader to basic plant structure, function and chemistry, the sources of traditional botanical knowledge and methods of ethnobotanical study. One cannot study ethnobotany without some basic chemical knowledge because local peoples use such a wide range of chemical compounds in their medicines, foods, arrow poisons and for hallucinogens. Later chapters deal with subsistence economics, domesticated plants and traditional agriculture, plants in material culture (textiles, basketry, tools, roofing materials and so on) and traditional people's phytochemistry. The chapter on understanding traditional plant use management is particularly interesting. There is also a chapter on palaeo-ethnobotanical evidence that seeks to reconstruct the history of the use of plants and can involve such evidence as fossil pollen, the study of coprolites, tooth surface analysis and ancient tents.

The final chapters are on the applications of ethnobotany to commercialisation, conservation and sustainable development. The benefits arising from ethnobotanical research have been considerable and have led to the discovery of new medicines or better management of ecosystems.

The last chapter deals with some of the problems associated with gathering knowledge from local peoples and presents the implications of the Convention on Biological Diversity drafted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. This convention helps to protect the intellectual property rights of local peoples. Ethnobotany ends with an important section on the various professional codes of practice that have been drawn up for researchers. It is important that ethnobotanists help to protect, compensate and empower traditional peoples rather than exploit either their knowledge or their products with no gain for the discoverers of the information.

This is a book that will help to make the practice of ethnobotany more scientific and will promote greater respect for the peoples being studied.

Sir Ghillean Prance is director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Ethnobotany: Principles and Applications

Author - C. M. Cotton
ISBN - 0 471 968315 and 955 37X
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £55.00 and £.50
Pages - 424

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