The TH Interview: Maria Fadiman - Ethnobotanist and Emerging Explorer

Maria Fadiman is a highly acclaimed ethnobotanist who was nominated as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2006. When she is not studying plants in the depths of the rainforests of South America or in the wilderness of the savannah lands in Africa she works as a professor of world geography at Florida Atlantic University. Maria was introduced to David de Rothschild (Emerging Explorer 2007) through the National Geographic, he then invited her to be a part of his Adventure Ecology team on their first mission to Ecuador in April/May of this year. In my interview with David he explained that he asked Maria to join the team to add specifically to "the scientific side of the quest". Other members of the Adventure Ecology team include the photographers Ollie Chanarin and Adam Broomberg of Chopped Liver, the filmmaker Dustin Lynn and the world-renowned artist Gabriel Orozco. I talked with Maria Fadiman in Ecuador about what is was like to be an academic surrounded by creative artists, how this expedition compared to her other previous experiences of working in Ecuador and what effects she saw the oil companies having on the local communities they visited.

To hear more about the Adventure Ecology mission you can listen to David de Rothschild's interview on last week's TreeHugger Radio.Can you explain a bit about your job? Because I know very little about ethnobotany.
Ha ha! Well that's ok, not many people do! Well I am a professor in the Geography department at Florida Atlantic University, which is kind of ironic since I never took a Geography class until my phD. Basically through geography I could look at people and the land, so I can do ethnobotany through that. I teach the One World Geography class where I teach about the geography of Latin America and where I emphasis the environment. I then teach a Cultural Conservation and Land Use class so that's getting a little more towards ethnobotany. Then for the first time this coming fall I will actually teach ethnobotany.

What is ethnobotany exactly?
Ethnobotany is basically how people use plants. Ethno being people and botany being plants. So what I tend to do is go out to rural jungle areas or savannahs in Africa and look at how people are working with wild plants. People most often think of it as medicinal plants and that's certainly how I started. I now work more with fibre plants for weaving and making baskets. The big thing I look at is sustainability and how they are using a resource. So I've done a lot on fibre, a lot on medicinal plants, I also do food plants. What nourishment are people getting from the forest and how does that then get influenced by external foods coming in?

Do you also study the culture of food around that? I am very interested in the separation of medicinal plants and food here in Ecuador.
Yes it's very interesting. I was talking to some groups in Latin America about their foods and I was asking are there ever foods that are also medicinal, do they cross over? They said, "No we don't, these are our medicinal plants." So I am wondering if something is in the medicinal plant category then that's where it stays. Whereas in Asia or in Africa they'll have greens soup which is medicinal and food and it's understood that it's doing both at the same time. So with the people I've worked with there's a differentiation between what you eat as food. Also with some of the more traditional cultures flavouring is very basic, Aji (chilli) can be put on the side, but very often it's just boiled manioc and plantain and probably, as with the Kichwa, with no salt or anything.

So yes, sustainability is probably our main interest and then the culture that surrounds plant use and all that goes with it.

I am now also trying to start a project looking at the importance of trees, because you find almost every culture worldwide has some huge tree that is super important to them. It usually has some physical use, but also some spiritual connection and if you have a huge tree somewhere potentially people would be more interested in conserving that area for reasons beyond just usefulness, if for example an oil company wanted to come in.

What have your experiences been on the subject of deforestation and people's willingness, or lack of, to cut down trees?

Well I was doing a project up in Northwestern Ecuador, in the Quininde area, in an ecological reserve, working with different ethnic groups: mestizos, Afro-Ecuadorians, the Chachi Indians. I was looking at some of their resource use and how sustainable it was, the differences between the groups. It was almost the ones that come from areas that were deforested and had less land were far more conscientious than groups that had more land. I mean it makes sense.

Because they felt it was a much more precious resource as there wasn't so much of it?
Right, and actually the groups that have a lot of the land had already signed on with loggers and had started logging. It's money you wouldn't get otherwise and it feels like an endless resource. So I guess I found a lot of groups fairly willing to do that.

Do you find that's because there are no alternatives?

I think that it's a combination of one: there aren't alternatives, and two: once you are offered these things, the opportunities and money and stuff that you didn't have before, then you want it and here's the only way you can get it. I think a lot of the desire for these things comes with the opportunity to get them. And I am not judging anybody wanting those things — I have those things, so it's not to say that's wrong or right. I've found people more willing to sell wood than I thought. Certainly just where we were with the oil issue, on this trip, it was interesting because we were in the north where the oil already is and we went to the south where the oil has not yet come and they were saying, "We don't want it", but that's not everyone in the community who is necessarily in agreement with that. There are people who really understand what that means for livelihoods and other people who are saying, "This is an opportunity," and, "I want a job just like everybody else."

It's difficult for them to see the bigger picture. Is that a question of education?
I think partly it's education, I think people who have had more of the kind of the environmental education, cultural education bit will go for "We need to preserve this and we don't want this," but again when items and things are presented, and it's an opportunity that you want it's hard to say, "Well you are not supposed to want that." I do think it's important to understand that even if you want that and you get it, it's limited, and you will not keep that job because they aren't going to stay that long. So it doesn't matter how much you get because it's not going to last. I guess through education the long term repercussions could shift, that and of course seeing what's happened to other areas.

It's difficult because in our culture everything is about immediate gratification and that's what they are seeing and just like us their resources will run out and then it will be irreversible. You wonder if that's a concept that people can grasp? I am sure the majority of the western world haven't grasped it and they probably won't until it runs out.

Yes it's very frustrating because you say well you won't have any resources left if you do this for an unlimited amount of time, but then you look at the west and say well we're in the exact same situation and we are equally not paying attention to that. So again it is one of those things where it is hard because you feel like you want to be on the educational aspect of things, but you also don't want to be hypocritical. Look at our own culture and how we are acting as if everything we use is also .When you fly over the forest and you see the green and then you see the trees and the blossoms that you wouldn't see down below and then you see a patch ripped out and it's the oil company, you see the tower with the flame and it rips your heart out. Then you think I am in a helicopter looking at this because I am using petroleum. So it's a hard balance.

Have you been travelling everywhere by helicopter?
We did most of our travelling by helicopter and when we were in the rainforest area we travelled by canoe and then a small plane. So there've been a lot of helicopter rides, which was quite exciting!

That must be quite a different experience for you from the previous time you've spent in Ecuador, I presume it was just buses and canoes before now?
Yes it was interesting to get places immediately. Usually to get to my study site it would take two days to get in there. This time we were somewhere for half a day and then somewhere else completely different for the second half. We were using petroleum and we could really get around.

Do you have any reservations about a group coming in like that for a very short amount of time and leaving with brief first impressions?
Yes, that's an interesting question. I think maybe because I personally have spent quite a bit of time here in Ecuador in indigenous communities and the rainforest that it's a little bit hard for me to get into the mindset of what it's like if that had been your only experience. I have some issues when we go into the indigenous communities, because it's a hard balance, partly there's a message that we want to bring out and give that to the world and to really give these people the opportunity to make their own choices. Do they want to the oil to come in? Do they not? At least give them a choice or to help them make their own choices, but just our presence there .you know we've got rubber boots with no holes, we have quick dry pants, we have flashlights . and then we have all the cameras and equipment. All these things which are presented to people who might not have had an awareness about them before. We also give money to the communities which feels fair, but it also changes the dynamic. I can't say if it is positive or negative, but it certainly has an effect. It's odd to be working on one side of things, but your presence is possibly facilitating what you are trying to prevent.

Each community I've been into people have paid to stay the night there, but this money goes towards their eco-tourism ventures which is a sustainable income.
Absolutely, eco-tourism has it's pro and cons, but there is a sense of, "We can make money if the tourists want to see the forests." But it is hard to compare, the oil company pays a lot of money compared to eco-tourism, but obviously eco-tourism is sustainable if you do it right.

I also think if you go into communities and you have a certain consciousness and really try to be aware of what's going on then hopefully that becomes a positive experience for people — we hope! I used to be an eco-tourist guide in Costa Rica and it was mixed, we used gas in our boats and we created garbage and all of that, but the family who I was working for at the time said either we're going to log it or do eco-tourism. So they are doing eco-tourism in a beautiful forest which is being saved and I'd like to think that for the people that come once you have that experience of a place, somehow in your heart and in your consciousness that is then real to you and that will lead to an economic change or a consciousness shift. That hopefully helps.

What have your impressions been on this trip with Adventure Ecology compared with your other experiences in Ecuador?
I think one of the most interesting things for me on this trip has actually been David's vision of bringing in artists. You know I live in a very academic world, where it's either academia or conservation, or sustainability. The concept of looking at things artistically is not necessarily as appreciated in the world in which I usually function. It was incredible to be with people who have the same agenda of conservation and raising awareness that I do, but doing it through such a different medium. They have a very different kind of observation, through the taking of the photos, an artistic vision, with meaning behind it. With Gabriel we'd find a seed, for me that's ethnobotany, but then he would paint pictures with it! So for me it was really wonderful to get this other element.

Was that what attracted you to the project originally or was it unexpected?
I think it was partly what attracted me, but also because David has this educational element for school children. I felt so excited that this was something that was real. It wasn't just going to be written up in some academic journal that very few people are actually going to read. This is really reaching out to people. This is something so important to the world - it's all connected. This is a way to reach people who are interested in art and a way to reach school children. It's exciting to think that this is actually doing something, so I was very attracted to the whole Adventure Ecology concept.

Yes I was very impressed by the AE concept and image. David described his work as finding ways to break the cycle and monotony of people's everyday lives to get them interested in these subjects.
Yes, we were talking about writing on the blog on the website, I've never written on a blog before and I said, "I don't get it!" David said, "Well someone is going to check in on this and read about this adventure and get interested in it." Part of me is still asking why would they want to read that, but that's exactly it, it's about making it accessible, getting interested and caring about this topic, even if it's not what you went on there looking to care about.

The other thing that was interesting was working within an unknown framework and all being together in this group. I came in here having decided that it would be about plant use around these oil pits, and how it was different from areas less affected, but that isn't really what has come of it.

So what sort of things did come out of it?
Well I am still working on it, still digesting, subtle things that I hadn't anticipated like the oil companies will bring in doctors to communities, where they have agreed to work with them or even ones that haven't. Of course I wouldn't deny anyone western medicine, but once you bring those people in that's what people want to use and they're going to wait a month to do that and try and get the money to get the pills. So there is this subtle way in which plant and resource use is changing, not through any intention of the oil company, but it's just another aspect of what happens from their presence. So I am looking at what is going on with resource use around the oil companies both directly and indirectly.

It is easy to understand how the film and photography segments of this project will be shown, but do you know how your work will be represented within the group?
Well I have to say that is something I've wondered too, because what they are doing is very obvious, but I am not quite sure what I am doing! I think for me it won't be displayed in quite the same way, but I will reach out to the students in my classes and through the blogging for the AE website. I think it's also important for people to have a female to identify with on the project. I would like to get an academic article out of this, two kinds: one about the oil and the plants, but also about this whole aspect of bringing in artists to represent this subject because that's a very different way of looking at it, and hopefully eventually another piece about Ecuador and the forthcoming China and Uzbekistan trips, linking these three areas that are dealing with waste issues.

I think you have a very key point of view and it would be great for you to find way of exhibiting your work alongside the others.

Yes I've thought about that, but I am not quite sure yet, I want to bring this out in a different way, but I love it that you've asked because it's helpful to speak about it out loud.

Thank you so much, it's been so interesting to learn more about your work.

Well thank you for asking me to talk, it's so exciting to talk about this project.

:: Adventure Ecology

Tags: Ecuador | Florida | TH Interview