Un – Belize – able: botanical autopsia and local knowledge

By Paul Barnes

“Hello plant”

Take a step back, look.

“What do you look like?”

“What’s your texture? What’s the colour of your bark?”

Ok, I’m ripping off a piece.

“What’s the bark like? Is it stringy?”

“Is there sap? What colour is it?”

“How are your leaves arranged?”

“Do you have a distinctive smell?”

OK, so I’m asking a plant questions. Perhaps worse, I’m asking a plant questions in my own head. Apparently that’s what a two-week NERC Advanced Training Short Course (ATSC) from RBG Edinburgh does to you. During this training, I expected to gain knowledge about different tropical plant families. What I did not expect was to gain a fairly individual set of personal skills to identify plants. What surprised me even more was that I gained insight into a much less tangible aspect of my PhD research.

Perhaps the plants really do have all the answers.

Cutting and pressing collections in the field.
Photo copyright Paul Barnes.

Being accepted for an ATSC is an exciting prospect. Being accepted on to one where the training takes place in Belize, well for me it’s a feeling more like winning the lottery. There were about 30 participants on the course, including a fantastic group of MSc students from RGS Edinburgh, a handful of NERC PhD students and post-docs, and some local students from the University of Belize.

The aim of the course was simple enough: to learn to identify tropical plant families in the field so that if given a ‘sterile’ vegetative sample, you would be able to identify it to family level. To do this, the training focused on the development of your own personal skills in identification. These were raw, hands-on, practical skills, and we were encouraged to use all sensory and intellectual pathways available – sight, touch, smell, and sound. As you can guess, this is where knowledge into the identification process starts to blur into a more personal and individual set of skills. After all, one person’s sensory interpretation is slightly different from another’s. For example, I may smell runner beans when crushing a leaf, you may smell broad beans.

I have to confess it was great to get outside again after being confined to my office for months working on a systematic review, and it was even more refreshing to be doing something so hands-on and in such a beautiful part of the world. From what I could tell, this hands-on approach to plant identification served all the trainees incredibly well and no doubt would have made Linnaeus himself proud; who despite developing a reputation as a botanical imperialist, none the less championed direct investigation of natural history as well as the importance of ‘botanical autopsia’.

Using clipper poles to get to the high stuff.
Photo copyright Paul Barnes.

Indeed this kind of knowledge and insight to natural history is something you can’t get from a book or ‘big data’. Trainees were interacting with plants and then with each other about the plants, and back and forth it went. It was in this murky mess of discussions and sensory interactions that everyone’s knowledge and understanding really began to take hold. People were describing their sensory interpretations, others were questioning these interpretations, some were even creating stories to help them remember and reconcile difficult or confusing characteristics used for identification. As far as I could tell, this is the fundamental basis of human knowledge acquisition through empirical investigation, and whilst this knowledge existed in all the trainees heads, it would be very hard for any one of them to write it down so that it made sense to someone else.

This got me on to thinking about an aspect of my own PhD research on traditional and local environmental knowledge systems. This is environmental knowledge held by indigenous groups, mostly in rural locations. It is knowledge about their local land, animals, and plants; the social institutions that they have developed for managing these; and their wider worldview within which these are situated.

For part of this work I look at how this knowledge can be used by conservationists to assess rare and cryptic animal populations where conventional biological surveys would be problematic and inefficient. But perhaps more importantly, I look at how an appreciation of this knowledge can be used to foster better relationships between local people and the park managers enacting global and national conservation policies that, in some cases, can have negative effects on people and undermine the sustainability of conservation policy.

ATSC members working to identify plants collected that day.
Photo copyright Paul Barnes.

The topic of local/traditional knowledge is not something new. It’s definition, existence and validity as a concept has been debated in the wider literature for years, yet it continues to be of interest to various outside groups and for natural resource management and conservation. There is widespread use of local/traditional knowledge in a variety of fields including: pharmaceutical development, disaster relief, and biodiversity conservation, to name but a few. How this knowledge is understood and used has raised numerous concerns over issues such as Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) and the protection of intellectual property. Despite this there are continuing moves to document local knowledge, write it down, and then in many cases to call it into question through scientific validation.

With all this is in mind I think it is sometimes important to remember that I may smell runner beans, and you may smell broad beans. Knowledge explanation and interpretation will never be wholly uniform across different groups of people. I guess my point is that some knowledge just can’t be written down, and if it can be it should be done with sensitivity to where/whom it was collected from. Moreover, the majority that remains that can’t be written down is tacit, experiential and skill-based. It cannot be fully codified by science and remains specific to a location or group of people. Yet despite this, we must recognise that in many cases this knowledge has evolved alongside the natural environment for thousands of years. Whilst as conservation scientists we scramble to document biodiversity and knowledge in attempts to reverse the impacts of environmental degradation, what may be require is a deeper understanding and appreciation of these fundamental relationships between people and nature.

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