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Ethnobotanist presses for preservation of tribal knowledge

Samoan healer Mariana Lilo
The late Samoan healer Mariana Lilo is pictured here preparing a water solution of Homalanthus nutans, from which the anti-AIDS drug prostratin was discovered.  

January 3, 2000
Web posted at: 11:33 a.m. EST (1633 GMT)

By John Roach

Tribal knowledge kept by indigenous cultures, crucial in matters of conservation and healing, is an endangered species owing to the rapid expansion of Western technology and customs, ethnobotanist Paul Cox suggests in the Jan. 7 issue of Science.

Yet, as the new century dawns, he sees hope. "If we are thoughtful, I think we can use technology to support rather than erode indigenous cultures," said Cox, who works at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai, Hawaii.

In doing their part for tribal preservation, Cox and several colleagues are assembling an archive of tribal knowledge at the botanical garden. Cox also conducts a summer course for qualified graduate students about methods for documenting tribal knowledge.

His greatest fear, one shared by many in the arts, sciences and humanities, is that tribal knowledge will vanish before it is recorded. In turn, the means to treat disease with plant species and environmentally benign methods of agriculture, hunting and gathering will also be lost.

"Clearly, it is in the interests of Western societies to help protect indigenous cultures," Cox writes. As an example, he cites the case of Epenesa Mauigoa, a 73-year old tribal elder from Western Somoa, who gave an interview that led to the development of the antiviral drug prostatin, effective against the human immunodeficiency virus-type 1.

For Cox, the crux of the tribal knowledge issue is how to prevent advancing Western technology from wiping out indigenous culture. He talks of an elder from the Gosiutes tribe who told him her grandchildren would rather watch television than listen to stories about her life.
Paul Cox
Paul Cox is an ethnobotanist at the National Tropical Botanical Garden on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.  

"I am not an advocate of restricting choices of indigenous people, and so I think it inevitable that all indigenous peoples will eventually encounter Western technology and western ways," said Cox.

"With a little effort, we could reduce the amount of cultural erosion we cause in indigenous cultures by better respecting the dignity of indigenous peoples and by working carefully with traditional leaders," he added.

One way the United States could show some respect, Cox said, is to sign the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity which calls on participating nations to preserve, protect and promote indigenous knowledge.

Cox allows that the promotion of indigenous knowledge could even be carried out via the crowning achievement in Western technology — moving pictures. "How refreshing it would be to see a film entirely made about indigenous people, a compelling film that average Western folks would go see," said Cox.

High-school and college curriculum in indigenous languages is another way to promote tribal knowledge, he said.

"How sad it will be if in three or four centuries all that is spoken in the world is English, Hindi, Mandarin, Russian, Japanese and a handful of European languages," said Cox. "We will also lose much healing knowledge and much conservation knowledge embedded in indigenous cultures."

Copyright 1999, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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