Plants & People

Ethnobiologists consider their impact during and after the COVID-19 pandemic

A group of scientists with diverse backgrounds reached out to each other under unprecedented times and set out new goals for their own discipline.

As the world went under lockdown and the horrifying news began to overtake our days – ethnobiologists from 17 countries teamed up to reflect on the relationships between humans, cultures, and the environment. 

Ethnobotany has been called the ”the science of survival”, as scientists aim to understand the past and present interactions between humans and plants. This discipline requires lots of fieldwork and interviewing locals.

Dr Ina Vandebroek from the The New York Botanical Garden shared the story behind her recent article titled “Reshaping the future of ethnobiology research after the COVID-19 pandemic” in the Nature Plants journal. The article collocates individual perspectives on how the pandemic will impact local communities, the interactions between researchers and communities, and what the new research priorities should be. 

The leading scientist, Dr Vandebroek, mainly works in New York, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic as an ethnobotanist. She recently co-authored the gradual loss of African indigenous vegetables in tropical America, co-edited a community manual on Popular Medical Plants in  Portland and Kingston, Jamaica and appeared on PBS’ American Masters episode on Ynés Mexía: Mexican-American Botanist and Adventurer (4:34) this year.

As ethnobiologists learn from indigenous or local communities, the views shared by Dr Vandebroek and colleagues give voice to people who might not be mentioned in the mainstream media headlines. Dr Ina Vandebroek was supposed to be in Jamaica but instead she spoke to Botany One over Zoom from her improvised sofa office in the Bronx.

The idea of this article came to her after New York City went under lockdown on March 15.  “While I was sitting here, the news about the pandemic was exponentially increasing and I could also hear the ambulance sirens day and night and it caused great anxiety and a sense of losing control to which so many people can relate to, right?”, she said. 

Her reaction to the pandemic was to focus her mind and silence that noise. As the majority of ethnobiology projects are field-based, everyone had to stop their work. She was thinking of a project to get collaborators together to work on something. 

She shared a 250-word perspective with colleagues around the world on March 23 via Google Docs. She suggested that everyone could add their individual views until April 15. “I could see it develop in front of my eyes [on Google Docs] and it was beautiful actually. Gave me so much hope. It really quieted the sound of sirens because I was so focused on this”. 

The different viewpoints shared in the article by Vandebroek et al. 2020. Ethnobiologists identified opportunities and barriers in the post-COVID-19 world in three main themes.

On April 15, she read all the replies and started looking for a common thread. The challenge was to stitch all the responses together as ethnobiology itself is a broad field. “It was therapeutic!”, she said. As the aim of the paper and ethnobiology itself is to bridge the gap between scientists and the public, she created a great figure to visualise the main ideas from the 29 scientists. 

She contacted the Senior Editor of Nature Plants if keeping the individual perspectives is an acceptable format as most Viewpoints or Review articles synthesise ideas under separate headlines of ideas. She did not want to synthesise everyone’s replies because there is strength in having individual perspectives from different countries and backgrounds. The team was overjoyed when their article was accepted as they wrote it. 

The lockdowns due to COVID-19 pandemic affect communities disproportionately. Social distancing and frequent hand sanitisation can be harder to implement. Photo by Thach Tran from Pexels

The scientists begin by describing the potential effects of avoiding ‘wet markets’ and China’s ban on hunting, trade, consumption and farming of all edible terrestrial wildlife. Consumer choices impact all stakeholders. If food markets are avoided, producers would need to find new jobs and the effect could trickle back to the consumers relying more on industrial food production systems which can be environmentally unsustainable. They discuss how lockdowns and social distancing affect some communities disproportionately. Online chats, knowledge exchanges and consultations are impossible in certain areas of the world. 

Consuming medicinal plants such as ginger, turmeric and ashvagandha (Withania somnifera) have been marketed as good preventative measures against COVID-19 but ethnobotanists need to analyse and communicate these trends and their validity. The authors offer different views whether the pandemic might lead to more ‘back-to-the-land’ movement as people would like to live close to nature more, or if it could encourage immigration back to rural areas.

Dr Vandebroek discussing plants with a farmer.  Courtesy of Dr Ina Vandebroek.

The second main theme focused on the impact on researcher-community interactions. Dr Vandebroek’s projects include conducting interviews with Caribbean immigrants in New York City about their traditional knowledge of plants, and she has two projects in Jamaica,together with colleagues from the University of the West Indies, Mona. Much like for everyone else, all these stopped. She also has a PhD student who is supposed to start interviewing Haitian women in New York but now they are brainstorming what she can do in the meantime. 

“It’s the lemons and the lemonade, right? In the same way, this article came together, I cannot do fieldwork, but we can write a viewpoint piece, and students can do a methodological or review paper! Bottom line, there are opportunities”, Dr Vandebroek said. One opportunity during the pandemic was for scientists to quantify the effect of human activity on wildlife

The authors in the paper suggested that this is the time to reflect on how research is carried out in remote areas. Now that (mostly) Westerners cannot fly over to carry out their projects themselves, it will be crucial to train locals to conduct surveys themselves, use online tools and be recognised on scientific publications. Researchers can and need to support indigenous peoples and local communities by demanding proper healthcare for them, sharing information, training, and recognising that researchers themselves can become potential vectors of COVID-19. 

“Collaborations between researchers and community members should also become more visible, so that community voices are increasingly heard instead of being interpreted by scientists”, Dr Vandebroek wrote in the article. 

“If they [local people] are part of the research team, they deserve to be on publications. It’s often their pride and joy to be on the publication! I always say, community members are my wise professors – they might not have a diploma, but they graduated from forest life – or from any ecosystem”,  she added. 

The study of ethnobiology focuses on the interaction of humans, cultures and the environment. Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

The third theme of the article discussed what should be the priorities of the field of ethnobiology. Whilst this discipline might have been seen ‘naïve’ in the past, there is much to learn about how humans, cultures and the environment can live in more harmony. The current reactive strategies to COVID-19 could learn from traditional systems of medicine which are more proactive. 

The State of the World’s Plants by RBG Kew in 2017 estimated 28,187 species are used in plant-based medicine. The authors, Drs David Picking and Rupika Delgoda share their perspective on how people in Cuba became less reliant on pharmaceutical drugs as there are more ‘green medicines’ (medicinal herbs) grown on farms and distributed to pharmacies, hospitals and clinics in the Cuban healthcare system. Whilst researchers have discovered many natural products to be new sources of drugs in the last decades, more funding and research is needed post-COVID-19. More support for ethnopharmacological projects, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, would also shed light on the socio-cultural factors that divide public health interventions. 

“The message is that communities are resilient – but resiliency should not take attention away from the fact that a lot of communities are experiencing vulnerable situations. We see with the indigenous people in the Brazilian Amazon and how they are affected disproportionately by COVID-19”, Dr Vandebroek said. 

She emphasised that scientists need to reflect on their own research and a large amount of responsibility is on their shoulders to be responsible and protective of others. 

“A whole dialogue needs to happen about the integration of biological and social sciences,” she said. “Let’s stop having these separate career tracks. There’s so much we need to learn from history, from the social sciences, from anthropology”, Dr Vandebroek said. It is not only time for the public to reflect on their consumer choices, but researchers need to think about “How can young people bring this [integration] into their research? There are barriers but also opportunities.”

This article itself is a dialogue between scientists with diverse backgrounds who reached out to each other under these unprecedented times and set out some goals for their own discipline. 

“Even when you feel like it’s getting to be too much, it’s okay”, Dr Vandebroek said. “There are all these challenges but there are also new opportunities. We just have to look for them. You are not in this alone. We are all connected. That is what COVID19 is showing us. But we also have to reflect on how to protect each other and find a way to communicate and collaborate in a respectful and protective way.”

Plectranthus amboinicus has an oregano-like taste and it is great in many dishes. Source Nguyễn Thanh Quang/WikimediaCommons

We finished the interview by discussing her currently favourite plant in her house, an enormous-looking Plectranthus amboinicus, known as oregano or Mexican mint. “It is in the mint family, Lamiaceae and it’s very aromatic. I like it because it is beautiful, grows easily and it is a great seasoning on my Caribbean dishes”, Dr Vandebroek said as she took off her plant from the windowsill. 

The article by Dr Vandebroek and colleagues is accessible to all and shares the views of scientists from 17 countries with an uplifting behind-the-publication story. If there is one opportunity in this pandemic, it is to reflect on our behaviour, choices, and responsibility to live in harmony with nature and bring each other along. 

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