Decolonising paradise: The International Society of Ethnobiology conference in Kingston, Jamaica

I’ve just returned from the Society for Economic Botany & International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) conference at the University of the West Indies, Kingston. Jamaica was not chosen for this conference arbitrarily. The island is a stark and visceral example of what ethnobiology can do.

The beautiful campus of UWI-Mona

The discipline of ethnobiology works “to understand and strengthen relationships between human societies and the natural world, and to promote biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity”. In short, it’s about human-nature relationships.

If you’re reading this from an apartment in Tottenham or Manhattan I suspect ‘human-nature relationships’ brings to mind city parks and going for a walk ‘in nature’ on weekends. However, for the Majority World (people living outside of urban bubbles in the Global North), relationships to nature are extraordinarily diverse. That’s why many ethnobiologists work with indigenous, local, and traditional peoples who retain many ways of relating to plants and animals which are not boxed in by dominant worldviews.

Being hosted in the Caribbean, the historical and contemporary injustices in relation to slavery and colonisation were front and centre.

One of the my favourite examples of this was presented by Rosalina Diaz. During September 2017, Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. Puerto Rico isn’t an independent country nor a U.S. state, it’s an ‘unincorporated U.S. territory’, and as such expected the U.S to assist the humanitarian effort after what was the worst natural disaster in recorded history in the region. Unfortunately, very little materialised and this changed the mentality of the island towards a sense of independence and self-sufficiency. Faced with a serious threat of strip mining by U.S. companies, a Puerto Rican community built up local support and institutional organisation to fend off the extraction, despite harassment from the U.S. Government. Instead, the community have the turned the land into a large forest area, restoring biodiversity, cultural connections to the land, social and health benefits, and reinstating their self-determination and resistance to imperialism.

Due to the mass enslavement of people from West and Central Africa, and the later arrival of labourers from South and South-East Asia, the Caribbean today is a mishmash of cultures and natures. Many of the crops grown in Jamaica are not native to the island and were brought in from African shores. One example is rice in Suriname.

Akin to Jamaica, Suriname has Maroon populations. Maroons were those who escaped or were freed from slave plantations, surviving in refugia in the mountains in Jamaica or river basins in Suriname. They had close relationships to the indigenous peoples (Taíno in Jamaica, Kaliña, Lokono, Trio, Wayana amongst others in Suriname) from whom they gained extensive knowledge of how to survive, particularly medicinal plants, and developed rich spiritual connections to the land.

Working alongside Maroon communities in Suriname, ethnobotanists Tinde van Andel and Nicholaas Pinas learned that in addition to harvesting existing flora and fauna, Maroons were planting crops which they’d brought with them from Africa. Of course, enslaved Africans had no idea where they would end up and if there would be food. To hide them from slave masters, women braided these seeds, including rice and cassava, into their hair, and planted them within the slave plantation. Some of these were medicinal and, as Kenneth Walker noted, the rich medicinal knowledge was brought along too in their heads.

Slave masters did not recognise these crops, just dismissing them as grass and weeds. When the Maroons escaped or were freed from plantations, they again braided seeds into their hair which they then planted in their places of refuge. When formal slavery ended, so-called indentured labourers were imported from China, Vietnam and other countries who also brought some of their own seeds. Nowadays, this mix of crops are still found and consumed, some of them named after individual Maroons or others who transported them, intrinsically bound to the history and social makeup of the land.

Near the town of Buff Bay on the north coast of Jamaica is the Charles Town Maroon community. We traversed the winding roads through the Blue Mountains to visit Charles Town, an experience which I learnt a lot from. One elder showed us a selection of medicinal plants, explaining their names, ecologies, and uses from Guinea Hen Weed for the treatment of migraines to Fevergrass for flu. This knowledge, passed down between generations of Maroons for hundreds of years, is still healing many people today – in fact, around 80% of Jamaicans use ‘bush-medicine’.

I was particularly struck by her answer to my two questions. The first was Are you worried about outsiders coming and stealing this knowledge? It is a concern, she replied, but they are doing something else entirely, it is not the healing that we are doing, they make drugs and pills but this is not the holistic healing that is the power of these plants. Secondly, I asked Do you still discover new healing plants? Yes, she said, these can sometimes be plants which are right under your nose, outside your front door, but you ignore them thinking they are a weed. You step over these plants but they have many uses. She added that generally she doesn’t find new plants, it is the plants that present themselves to her. You can see now how intimately Maroon culture is tied up with the life of this landscape.

Selection of medicinal plants at Charles Town
‘Bush-medicine’ for sale

As part of the conference I was asked to chair the session on social justice, an exciting and slightly stressful invitation. Luckily it included a group of fascinating researchers with a wide range of interests. Jeffery Wall discussed how well First Nation Mi’kmaq understanding of their environment aligns with conventional scientific epistemologies (not very well) – the Mi’kmaq have a broad array of terms for their environment grounded in relations to the land which cannot be translated. Guadalupe Maldonado looks at abortifacients (plants which cause abortions) in Mexico. These plants are widely used by women and Guadalupe tries to understand their cultural value and which compounds are being used in the context of reproductive rights. Kk’odohdaatlno Christina Edwin, an indigenous Alaskan, and Itzel Zagal presented the lives of Latinos in Alaska who, despite being very far from their ancestral land, integrate their cultural beliefs into this landscape and connect with ancestors. They noted that the criminalisation of practising some traditions by the state has led to people feeling ‘poor’ when before they felt rich because of their cultural knowledge. Janelle Baker is working on a website for indigenous conservation and development alternatives ( which sprung out of the urgent need to address the extreme extraction of hydrocarbons plaguing the Boreal Forest – the largest forest in the world. Grounded in the North American Regional Declaration on Biocultural Diversity, the project aims to document and showcase the multitude of local values held towards the forest including food sourcing and preparation, which challenges the narrative of the forest as a wasteland which can be purged for oil. Igor Pasternak introduced us to his city of Odessa, Ukraine, and the folklore attached to wild foods. Giuilia Mattalia explored her work on the traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous Hutsuls communities living between the Romania/Ukraine border. She found that wild plant knowledge is shared between communities across the border, but that where the border is more enforced such knowledges become fragmented. And finally I talked about our extreme citizen science work with indigenous peoples in Cameroon, Kenya, and Namibia (see other blog posts for more info).

I can’t possibly cover the broad range of talks that we were treated to, but some were particularly familiar: Harriet Gendall, for example, enlightened us on biocultural revitalisation (restoring human-nature connections) in Cornwall through ancient oat varieties, and Fleur de Marie Fitzpatrick shared with us her research on Jamaican medicinal herb shops in Peckham, south London as biocultural diversity hotspots.

Whilst ‘ethnobiology’ can at first appear academic and perhaps removed from our lives and struggles, I hope this post has revealed its relevance. The current calamity of the climate crisis, ecological collapse, and cultural destruction is all about the degradation of relationships between humans and other life. Homogenisation of these relationships through ongoing colonisation (e.g. this) to fit a dominant framework of land and resources as economic commodities has led to our current path, but we must not forget, and we must promote, the myriad of alternative relationships that human groups have to land and life which are far more healthy, reciprocal, and sustainable. As Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel, the new president for the International Society for Ethnobiology, explained, ethnobiology is pivotal more than ever in forging new ways of relating to nature, in reinventing relationships. And all this is grounded in the recognition of multiple worldviews and knowledge systems.

Huge appreciation to Ina Vandebroek and David Picking for organising the conference, and the ExCiteS group for enabling my travel.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement Nos. 694767 and ERC-2015-AdG)

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