Ethnobotanical explorations in analog forestry
Restoring ecosystems is one of those areas that can never completely be classified as either a science or an art. While, to be sure, a scientific approach is essential to understanding a natural system, the creativity required to bring an area back to something approximating its climax state makes restoration a bit of an art as well (see, for example, this article on how analog forestry can be considered an art form). In addition, restoration ecology draws a great deal on traditional knowledge systems, as present-day land managers continue to learn valuable lessons from the practices of traditional societies.
Ethnobotany is a discipline that looks at the way in which people interact with plants. Among other questions, ethnobotanists seek to understand how plants are used as medicine or food, what role they play in different cultures, or how they are used in managing landscapes. In the context of analog forestry, this information is vital because it allows us to learn about the wide array of plants that are available to us. Indeed, analog forestry itself is based on observations of forest gardens around the world. Traditional production techniques such as these have informed many ‘new’ ideas in agriculture, from agroforestry to permaculture.
Each analog forestry system, therefore, is a small-scale vision of what is possible when ideas, seeds, and knowledge is shared among passionate people around the world. The practice of analog forestry involves finding ‘analog’ species to fill the structural role of species in the natural forest – vanilla or pepper vines might replace a wild climber, and coffee or cacao trees might replace understory trees.
Producers find these analog species by using their experience and the knowledge of others to determine what would work best to fill the ecological niches in their farms. For example, the Finca Fila Marucha in Costa Rica mixes native species with economic plants from various corners of the world – nutmeg from Indonesia and ylang-ylang from the Pacific islands, growing alongside native pejibayes and Mexican vanilla. For a detailed look at the role of exotic species in analog forestry, see this article.
At the larger scale, initiatives such as Rich Forests seek to bring people together at the global level to exchange ideas and products that come from the creative management of forests. Non-Timber Forest Products are already some of the most traded commodities globally, with major examples being coffee and cacao. The Rich Forests approach emphasizes a diversity of products and a focus on restoration, which makes ethnobotanical explorations all the more important.
This makes the work of ethnobotany vital for the practice of restoration, as we strive to understand the way people and plants interact, and the lessons that can be learned from these relationships. Thus, collecting and systematizing traditional knowledge and contemporary experiments is of vital importance for informing the way in which we restore our planet’s life support systems. This goes beyond simply recording and storing traditional knowledge, it means learning, adapting, and creating new ways to benefit from the richness of nature. One digital tool that is useful for this purpose is the use of plant databases that catalog the use of certain plants around the world. A list of useful databases can be found here.
This article is based on a presentation given by Adam Kabir Dickinson entitled “Analog Forestry: Restoration and Rural Livelihoods”. A link to the complete presentation can be found here.