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Yanomami Ethnobotany, The Importance of Plant Resources in a Changing Cultural Context
In our interdisciplinary study of traditionally useful plants among the Yanomami Amerindians of the upper Orinoco, Sierra Unturan and Ocamo area in Venezuela we are trying to elucidate the importance of native plant resources in its changing cultural context (CCC). The role and evolution of medicinal plant usage among the Yanomami is being investigated as well as the indigenous concepts about edible plants, poisonous plants and the overal perception and recognition of plants by different groups. It is our aim to document the traditional knowledge about plants which is in danger of being lost with time in a CCC. The pharmacology of ten plants used in Yanomami phytotherapy will be investigated at the Department of Pharmacy at the Eidgenössischen Technischen Hochschule Zürich (ETHZ) and one plant studied at the level of its chemistry.
The Yanomami live in a close relationship with the forests they inhabit and plant resources are of great cultural and economic value to them. Traditional subsistence depends on a considerable variety of cultivated and wild plants. So far, our study has let us to believe that traditional diet (taking advantage of a great spectrum of wild plants) provide the Yanomami with the necessary active plant natural products to deal with certain illnesses. The concept of medicinal plant usage seems to be more dynamic than previously thought. We want to document the plants named and/or used by the Yanomami using standard anthropological and botanical methods. It is our aim to return the information we extracted from the indigenous groups. This work, which is being carried out under the supervision of Prof. Sir Ghillean Prance (Kew) and Prof. Otto Sticher (ETHZ) might eventually lead to an illustrated publication of the 200 most important plants in Yanomami culture. Such a publication, combining tradtitional and scientific information about plants, could serve the Yanomami as a basis for the sustaineable development of their habitat. We think that an awareness about indigenous management of wild plant resources is likely to be crucial in the now inevitable process of aculturation of ethnic groups in the rainforests. The Venezuelan government has been slow to exercise its juridiction over the Yanomami area, preferring to delegate ist responsibilities to missionaries or the National Guard. Recently, however, the Ministry of Envirionment has been given authority over the region through the creation of the Biosphere Reserve. So far, very little has been achieved by the Ministry of Environment and European Community funding has been withdrawn last year. It is therefore necessary to promote small national and international projects, the aim of which is to document what is currently called biodiversity.
We have invited the Venezuelan botanist Ana Narvaez Córdova from the Fundación Instituto Botánico de Venezuela to participate in the fieldwork. The invitation had been made possible through additional funding by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). There is also some degree of partnership between the ETHZ and the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) through a "letter of intention" (carta de intención) and exchange of information and data related to the project. Furthermore, a formal contract between the Ministry of Environment of Venezula (MARNR) and the ETHZ has been signed in January 1999. As it was not either possible nor sensible to carry out research in Venezuela without such a legal document, we had to make it a major topic in our research project. This contract, the elaboration of which took several months, now provides the legal basis for exportation of plant material, the intellectual property rights of the Yanomami as well as the Venezuelan Biodiversity Laws about Phytogenetic Resources. As this contract was the first international contract ever signed by the MARNR, there is, of course, a lot of space for future improvments, especially what involvment of the indigenous groups at a national level is concerned. We understand that our case is somewhat experimental and we therefore think that it might help to rise opinions, suggestions as well as motivate foreign researchers to persue a legal approach to the dilemma of doing ethnobotanical research in the tropics.
Jürg Gertsch e-mail: email@example.com