- Knowledge of Caribbean ethnobotany has so far been limited and little comprehensive island- or region-wide inventories of Caribbean traditional plant knowledge have been developed.
- A recent study highlights an eight-step action plan to foster greater academic recognition of the botanical tradition of Afro-descendent farmers in research, education and policymaking.
- Considering these farmers’ important roles in promoting plant diversity, the study authors say financial support from local and national governments can strengthen their work as plant stewards.
Despite being a treasure trove of rich biodiversity and traditional plant knowledge, little of the ecological knowledge of Afro-descendent peoples in the Caribbean is recognized internationally. For the authors of a recent study published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, an eight-step action plan could rectify this scientific gap in research and policymaking, and ultimately lead to improved species conservation.
In the disperse grouping of tropical islands that make up the Caribbean, traditional plant knowledge means more than knowing information about diverse plant species, the authors say.
“This knowledge is how a local community relates to the environment and plants are only a part of that,” says lead author Ina Vandebroek, an ethnobotanist at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. “The whole worldview of traditional knowledge in which plants play a role is much more than that. It’s spiritual. It’s medicinal. It’s about food security and sociocultural relationships.”
Knowledge of Caribbean ethnobotany has so far been limited to the scientific world, and even here little comprehensive island- or region-wide inventories of Caribbean traditional plant knowledge have been developed. According to the study, after Africans were taken from their homelands as slaves starting in the 16th century and reinvented their traditional ecological knowledge with new plants in the Caribbean, European colonists didn’t take them seriously or else appropriated their knowledge. Now, since public discourse has reframed the islands as tourism hotspots, little attention or knowledge is left of the region’s plant repertoire.
Sonia Peter, an ethnobotanist and executive director of the Biocultural Education and Research Programme of Barbados, agrees.
“The Africans arrived on Caribbean shores depleted of all except their knowledge for survival and this had to be immediately translated for the new environment,” she tells Mongabay.
Since then, however, their descendants have become disconnected from this reality, says Peter, who was not affiliated with the study. Familial values related to plant knowledge have been minimized over time, and this knowledge transfer has eroded with the adoption and adaptation to cultural penetration.
“The plant knowledge for survival has been pivotal for enslaved communities to eke out an existence but it became a form of resistance and resilience that has not been transferred through time to modern generations,” she says.
According to the study, this lack of recognition diminishes younger generations’ interest in holding on to the knowledge and practices of their ancestors. Farmers, who played a crucial role in conserving species and passing knowledge down, also find themselves unable or unwilling to transmit knowledge that’s now seen as being of little importance.
Jason West, an Afro-descendent farmer from Jamaica and corresponding author of the study, is living this reality. The knowledge and traditions that his grandfather practiced have now gradually slipped away. He says his father and grandfather knew how to prepare traditional medicinal beverages using a variety of plant species that he no longer remembers from the nearby forest.
“We need to encourage younger generations to keep this traditional knowledge,” he says. “It has become more urgent for the community to conserve it.”
Eight steps to recognition
The study highlights eight steps for better recognition of Afro-descendent farmers: strengthening inclusive community allyship; changing academic language; decolonizing research agendas and methodologies; using a macro-level approach; transforming education; shifting policy; involving citizen science; and accelerating justice.
Considering these farmers’ important roles in promoting plant diversity, Vandebroek also says financial support from local and national governments can strengthen their work as plant stewards.
“Leveraging their participation in research and academia is equally significant because local communities play an important role in not only holding this incredible knowledge about the plants, their environment, the ecosystem and how it functions, but also maintaining its integrity,” she tells Mongabay.
According to the authors, acknowledging their cosmovision, the broader ethical, spiritual and metaphysical aspects of traditional worldviews, could also help in bridging this gap in understanding the interconnected values and aspects of Caribbean traditional knowledge. Most Afro-descendent people in the Caribbean today have integrated Christianity into their worldview, along with the cultures and beliefs of their African ancestors and of the pre-Columbian Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean.
The influence of Indigenous beliefs to protect sacred trees, for example, has helped the conservation of a sacred cotton tree, Ceiba pentandra, a tall and majestic tree native to the Caribbean islands and tropical America with an extensive network of roots.
“Fig tree are also a sacred plant, represented by several species of the genus Ficus, most of which are native to tropical America and the Caribbean islands. Many species are hemi-epiphytic” — spending part of their life growing on other plants — “and capable of growing on other trees,” West tells Mongabay.
Besides the sacred trees, West mentions an endemic tree known locally as wild spice cinnamon and restricted to the John Crow Mountains in northeastern Jamaica, close to his home in the Windsor Forest.
“Wild cinnamon, also known as Cinnamodendron corticosum, is a pungent spice tree whose barks are used for medicinal purposes,” he says. Since the tree is now threatened due to overharvesting, the study authors are collaborating on a project to reassess its conservation status.
At times, certain plant species and their medicinal properties have made a comeback. During the COVID-19 pandemic, communities increasingly used vervain, a group of Caribbean native plant species, says Vandebroek, who studied it in a collaborative paper. “[T]wo species of vervine … Stachytarpheta jamaicensis and Stachytarpheta cayennensis, which are known to prevent blood clotting, were highly used among communities in Jamaica,” she says.
For the long-term conservation of these species, the authors suggest involving citizen science and decolonizing the research agenda and methodology that resulted in the ongoing societal and academic marginalization of Afro-descendent subsistence farmers. Providing local collaborators opportunities to co-author research works and ensure recognition by giving “due credit and weight” to their knowledge is the key, Vandebroek tells Mongabay.
To merge the idea of traditional plant knowledge with its culture and learn from the community’s perspective, the University of West Indies has introduced master’s and doctorate degree programs in ethnobotany and ethnobiology.
To mitigate the existing gaps in knowledge, Sonia Peter is also trying to promote the establishment of medicinal and ethnobotanical gardens for public access and create opportunities for educational exchange.
“We are losing aspects of this heritage as the elders in the communities depart,” she says. “But we are working to revive the value of our ancestral knowledge.”
Banner image: Bissy (Cola acuminata) fruit pod, seeds, and grated seeds, to make bissy tea, a morning tea and medicinal beverage. Image courtesy of Ina Vandebroek.
Latest Mongabay podcast: ‘It’s Not the End of the World’ book assumptions & omissions spark debate. Listen here:
Vandebroek, I., West, J., Otero-Walker, K., & Maldonado Silvestrini, S. (2024). Fostering greater recognition of Caribbean traditional plant knowledge. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 39(1), 9-12. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2023.10.007
Pieroni, A., Vandebroek, I., Prakofjewa, J., Bussmann, R. W., Paniagua-Zambrana, N. Y., Maroyi, A., … Sõukand, R. (2020). Taming the pandemic? The importance of homemade plant-based foods and beverages as community responses to COVID-19. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 16(1). doi:10.1186/s13002-020-00426-9
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.