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Challenging the Status Quo in Ethnobotany: A New Paradigm for Publication May Protect Cultural Knowledge and Traditional Resourc

In recent years, the discipline of ethnobotany has become increasingly associated with the search for new medicines and other products from plants. Ethnobotanical-based selection of plants has gained in popularity as a means to identify which plants (of the estimated 250,000-500,000 existing species) contain relevant compounds for exploitation. This approach to biological prospecting uses the plant knowledge of indigenous cultures, either directly (through ethnobotanical research) or indirectly (through access to published ethnobotanical data), as a means of pre-screening plants for medicinal or other properties of interest, thereby increasing the chances of finding marketable products. Such drug discovery programs have claimed potential societal benefits in areas such as medicine, economic development, and conservation.

Ethnobotany's involvement in this pursuit has caught public attention and has largely polarized the discipline. In The Nature and Status of Ethnobotany, anthropologist Richard Ford (1994) defines ethnobotany as "the study of direct interrelations between humans and plants," and describes the discipline as concerned with understanding the meaning of plants within a culture. Many ethnobotanists would argue that biological prospecting for plant products of use to another culture (i.e., usually mainstream society) is a form of economic botany rather than ethnobotany, and is motivated by goals that can run contrary to the ethnobotanical objectives of promoting and protecting biological and cultural diversity.

The economic focus of biological prospecting, including the use of patents and other intellectual property mechanisms to protect "discoveries," has highlighted important issues concerning indigenous rights, cultural knowledge, and traditional resources. It is clear in many cases that current intellectual property protection regimes are neither adequate nor appropriate for protecting cultural knowledge and resources. Yet it seems that indigenous communities are increasingly forced to consider employing intellectual property rights -- often to prevent others from doing so first -- to protect these resources.

Issues related to protection of cultural knowledge ought to be addressed well before the point at which employing formal intellectual property rights mechanisms seems the only alternative. Significant control lies at the point of decision about publication and dissemination of knowledge to the academic and wider communities (Bannister & Barrett, 1998; Bannister, 1999). This reality raises important questions about the contribution (intentional or otherwise) of ethnobotanical research and publication to the appropriation of cultural knowledge and resources. A more "precautionary" approach to ethnobotanical inquiry would assist indigenous communities in protecting cultural heritage and intellectual property rights.

How Ethnobotany Contributes to Biological Prospecting and Cultural Appropriation

Through direct or indirect means, ethnobotanists have been drawn into the biological prospecting movement. Indigenous rights proponents Darrell Posey and Graham Dutfield (1996) argue that the ethnobotanical literature (journal articles, databases, and field collections in particular) serves as a major source of information and ideas for researchers and industries with commercial objectives. End users of this information are often third parties who have had no direct contact with the indigenous communities whose knowledge they are appropriating. Furthermore, access to such information is typically unrestricted and unconditional; researchers are not legally required to ask permission, recognize indigenous rights to intellectual property, or provide compensation for use or misuse of cultural knowledge. The public domain, simply put, is free game for free enterprise.

This situation threatens serious consequences for relationships between ethnobotanical researchers and indigenous community members, and for the future of the discipline. Ethnobotanical studies that detail information on plant species, preparation methods, and medicinal or other uses by indigenous societies usually do so as part of establishing the broader, contextual framework necessary to understand the complex relationships between plants and humans. Documenting such contextual details can be essential to understanding and meeting the community's expectations for research. No information, however, is exempt from third-party exploitation once it is released into the public domain. After studies are published, the original intentions for research may thus be undermined by unintended contributions to what historian Mary-Ellen Kelm (1998) calls "a colonizing archive of data." The problem is compounded when indigenous peoples are unaware of downstream uses of their knowledge or resources (as is often the case when cultural knowledge is appropriated by third parties).

Publication assists in public acknowledgement of the source of cultural knowledge and resources, and in the sharing of this information for the overall benefit of humankind. Publication, however, also abets the exploitation and appropriation of knowledge and resources, especially those sufficiently divorced from their cultural context. Publishing ethnobotanical research has, ironically, become a medium for appropriation of the cultural knowledge and biological resources it is meant to protect. This dilemma is compounded by the norms of academic research.

Publishing Dilemmas

The so-called "publish or perish" dilemma is a familiar part of academic culture. Sharing data and conclusions with the scientific and wider communities is considered a fundamental tenet of the scientific ethos, and publication remains a central criterion for academic rewards and advancement. In ethnobotany, however, it seems that a "publish and perish" dilemma has arisen for researchers who release culturally-sensitive information (such as medicinal plant data) into the public domain. Such publication may erode the trust of indigenous research partners, infringe upon the rights of indigenous peoples, and undermine the goals of ethnobotany. On the other hand, the "publish or perish" dilemma still applies: withholding research data may curtail an academic career, neglect legal obligations to employers, and ignore a moral obligation to share potentially beneficial information with society. Academic research guidelines, ethical review criteria, and professional codes of conduct rarely acknowledge these emerging issues.(1)

Under such circumstances, decision-making often involves weighing potential harms and benefits, aiming to maximize beneficial outcomes and minimize overall harm. But decisions should not be limited to this kind of calculation, which assumes we know and can weigh the relative costs of harms and benefits. The issues raised by publishing indigenous plant knowledge are intensified by the significant uncertainties surrounding subsequent impacts on indigenous communities whose value systems, priorities, expectations, and time frames may differ from those of the academic community. While it is expected that reasonable effort will be made to foresee, forestall, and disclose adverse impacts of research, it is accepted that not all effects can be anticipated at the time research is initiated. As anthropologist Michael Brown (1998) suggests: "the Law of Unintended Consequences reigns supreme; there will always be unforeseen effects, both good and bad, when information enters the public domain." Due responsibility of researchers is therefore the central question.

Researchers should explicitly recognize the powerful role that publications can play in protecting or exploiting cultural knowledge and resources. Potential harm to indigenous communities may even justify renewed consideration of the norms of scientific publication. This is particularly important as evidence indicates that indigenous peoples are increasingly uncomfortable sharing cultural knowledge outside their communities due to uncertain consequences. Guidelines are needed to acknowledge the social, political, and economic complexities involved in dissemination of cultural knowledge, and to assist in ethical decision-making in light of these uncertainties.

A Precautionary Approach to Publication

The precautionary principle is one viable framework for guiding decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. Simply stated, the precautionary principle advises that when in doubt, we should err on the side of caution. More specifically, when potential exists for serious harm, anticipatory and preventative measures are warranted even if conclusive scientific proof of harm is lacking. This principle originates in German environmental policies in the 1970s. It has since gained international acceptance and has been applied in treaties, declarations, and legislation on biodiversity, conservation and human health. The International Society of Ethnobiology has recently incorporated the principle of precaution into its Code of Ethics. It should also be applied to ethnobotanical research and publication.

The precautionary principle does not set out specific decision-making rules. Rather it offers a framework based on a set of guiding principles, including: (i) protection of the environment; (ii) recognition of potential harm and persistent uncertainty; (iii) proactive and anticipatory action; (iv) open, inclusive decision-making processes; (v) reversal in burden of proof; and (vi) assessment of alternatives.(2)

While the consequences of our actions cannot always be predicted, the potential for harmful outcomes compels us to consider proactive approaches for preventing harm rather than relying strictly on compensatory measures after harm has occurred. For example, while benefit-sharing and up-front compensation are important considerations in ethnobotanical research, these are reactive rather than proactive measures and may prove inadequate. An obligation to share benefits accrued from research based on cultural knowledge typically results only when direct links between local communities and researchers exist. Research based on published ethnobotanical studies is already in the public domain and is often perceived to be free of obligation, even if cultural knowledge was key to subsequent findings. In this way, publication can serve to circumvent the spirit and obligations of benefit-sharing.

Similarly, publication may circumvent third-party accountability and just compensation for harm. Without engaging in direct interaction with indigenous communities, third parties may remain unaware of the kinds of harm that could stem from knowledge appropriation. Researcher commitment to ongoing, interactive dialogue with communities would be invaluable to better understanding potential consequences, and thus would assist in predicting and preventing harms in future.

The precautionary principle also suggests that affected communities should have a key role in defining, assessing, and averting harm. This is particularly important because perceptions of harm are influenced by social and cultural factors. Learning from first-hand experiences and insights of indigenous peoples would assist in prediction, assessment and management of specific and cumulative research impacts on others, and may help to reduce uncertainties resulting from singular research perspectives. Direct participation in impact prediction and assessment also grants indigenous peoples a positive right and confers an active responsibility.

A precautionary approach to ethnobotanical research and publication does not mean that all research and publication on traditional plant medicines should cease until conclusive proof of safety is offered. This is an impossible standard and a common misinterpretation of the precautionary principle. Cultural harm sometimes results if cultural knowledge is not promoted and disseminated. The approach suggested here is action-oriented; it first compels us to acknowledge problems or limitations and then challenges us to seek out alternative approaches for redress. The goal is not to halt medicinal plant research and publication altogether, but to adjust the research approach so that it acknowledges and attempts to prevent both existing and potential problems.

Alternatives to the Status Quo

What forms might alternative approaches to research take? As indicated, biological and cultural context is essential to appreciate the broader knowledge systems of indigenous societies. Yet many journals that publish medicinal plant research give little consideration to the importance of biocultural background material and instead focus on the "discoveries" or products of research. Editorial boards could address this dilemma by allocating adequate space for biocultural information that clarify relationships between cultural knowledge and research findings.

Editorial boards might likewise require mandatory full disclosure of the indigenous sources of any cultural information cited in articles considered for publication, whether or not the information was obtained directly through research or indirectly through the published literature (unless, of course, it was clear that permission for publication was contingent on confidentiality or anonymity). This would help ensure that a level of recognition consistent with academic citation and credit is given to indigenous individuals and their communities. It would also facilitate contact with communities who wish to be consulted if further use of data or resources is sought. Such credit could be extended to field collections and literature-based databases.

Posey and Dutfield (1996) recommend that researchers include in their publications prominent statements informing readers as to the origins of the data and the moral obligations arising from further use. While such statements might lack legal clout, they may significantly raise awareness within the academic community about the concerns of indigenous peoples.

Indigenous partners in research should be entitled and encouraged to review and comment on publications, research grant proposals, and research records, and to maintain a direct role in the research process. Indigenous contributors should be considered for co-authorship on research papers. It may be possible in some cases to establish and support community-based alternatives to conventional publication avenues. Communities participating in research could then easily access research material and maintain a comfortable level of control over its dissemination. These initiatives are consistent with participatory, community-based research methods and with the precautionary principle. The Secwepemc Ethnobotany Project in British Columbia (Canada) is one such collaborative research program.


Supporting indigenous rights to protect cultural knowledge will clearly challenge some academic policies that inadvertently encourage exploitation, such as externally-imposed research agendas and timelines, denial of resources to enable active community participation, academic rewards based on publication, industrial partnerships that focus on applied or patentable research, and university ownership policies. It will also challenge university administrations to examine and amend inconsistencies within their policies and anticipate the need for new policies -- those explicitly related to indigenous intellectual property and cultural heritage rights -- in research.

Many academics still publish based on the concept of free exchange of information, without regard for current assaults on the public domain. But until appropriate legal means exist for supporting indigenous rights to protect knowledge and resources -- and to protect these from privatization by others -- publication in ignorance serves to further disadvantage indigenous communities. As lawyer John Barton (1994) put it, "the question is one of drawing a rational line between a scientific world of free exchange and a proprietary world of controlled exchange." This is a question all researchers ought to consider. Researchers must be informed and honest about the state of the public domain so that indigenous peoples, or indeed any research participants, can make informed choices about what it means today to share cultural knowledge with the wider public.

References & further reading

Bannister, K.P. (1999). When Promotion and Protection Conflict: Indigenous Knowledge and Traditional Plant Resources of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation. Paper presented at the 98th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Chicago, IL (manuscript in preparation for publication).

Bannister, K.P. and the Secwepemc Cultural Education Society (1997). Letter of Consent for the Secwepemc Ethnobotany Project: Ethnopharmacology of Secwepemc Traditional Medicines. Submitted in partial fulfillment of Ethical Review by the Behavioral Sciences Screening Committee for Research and Other Studies Involving Human Subjects. University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Bannister, K.P. & Barrett, K. (1998). Weighing the proverbial "ounce of prevention" versus the "pound of cure": A Role for the Precautionary Principle in Ethnobiological Research. Paper presented at the 6th International Congress of Ethnobiology. Whakatane, NZ (manuscript in preparation for publication).

Barton, J.H. (1994). Ethnobotany and Intellectual Property Rights. In Ethnobotany and the Search for New Drugs. Ciba Foundation Symposium 185. Chadwick, D.J. & Marsh, J., eds. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons. Pp. 214-221.

Brown, M.F. (1998). Can Culture Be Copyrighted? Current Anthropology. 39:2, pp193-222.

Ford, R.I. (1994). Ethnobotany: Historical Diversity and Synthesis, in The Nature and Status of Ethnobotany. 2(nd) edition. Ford, R.I., ed. Ann Arbor: Anthropological Papers, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan No. 67. Pp. 33-49.

Kelm, M.E. (1998). Colonizing Bodies: Aboriginal Health and Healing in British Columbia, 1900-50. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Posey, D.A., & Dutfield, G. (1996). Beyond Intellectual Property: Toward Traditional Resource Rights for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. Ottawa: IDRC.

(1). For an exception, see the Code of Ethics of the International Society of Ethnobiology at

(2). We have elsewhere described in detail how the precautionary principle can be applied to ethnobiological research and publication issues. (Bannister & Barrett, 1998) We include a summary of this discussion below.

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