The Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden
By Terry C. H. Sunderland
During the months of June and July of last summer I had the good fortune to undertake a period of study at the above Institution followed by a hectic study tour of the United States. I also had the fortuity to be eligible for an air pass (for a price equivalent to one internal flight) that allowed unlimited stand-by air travel during my stay. Hence, not only did I visit and study at the I.E.B. but also Harvard Botany Libraries, the Gray Herbarium, Missouri Botanical Garden and Space Biosphere Ventures in Arizona, Arnold Arboretum, the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum and Gardens, Mount Washington National Park in New Hampshire, the Saguaro National Monument, the Desert Museum and the Grand Canyon National Park (the last three being in Arizona). In all I visited 15 cities on 20 flights and clocked up 50,000 air miles in the process’
The stimulus for this trip stemmed from participation on an Operation Raleigh expedition to Panama in 1988 where I was fortunate enough to be involved in a project studying the ethnobotany of the Guyami Indians, anthropologically one of the most stable tribal groups in Latin America. It was the first time I had travelled to the tropics and to witness on one hand one of the most botanically rich environments in the world and the interaction of the indigenous population within it, and on the other, the vast tracts of land that were being “developed” and subsequently denuded seemed an inherent and moral paradox. The illogical nature of tropical deforestation and species destruction ran in complete contrast to the Guyami attitude to their environment; that it is not an infinite source of economic exploitation but a potentially finite resource to be revered, treated with respect and care, and in the case of the Guyami, even worshipped. Thus I have become very interested indeed in the conservation of the tropical forests and in particular studying and identifying alternatives to deforestation; that is, sustainable economic development.
Much of the present-day research and study into tropical forest dynamics and conservation biology is being undertaken in the United States and it was the aim of this tour to visit and study at the I.E.B. and the other major tropical research institutions, gathering information both for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; reporting on the methods, strategy and practicalities of tropical research, and for myself; researching further into the Guyami ethnobotany and gathering information for two papers for submission for the Kew Diploma.
The I.E.B. was founded in 1981 by Professor Ghillean Prance who subsequently became its first Director. Initially set up in response to meet the critical nutritional and energy needs of an expanding population by identifying new forms of food and fuel, the I.E.B. has broadened its sphere of research and through its aim to find botanical solutions to human problems, it has led to the concentration of its studies towards the relatively new science of ethnobotany (the study of indigenous peoples uses of plants). However, emphasis is given to those plants and peoples predominating in the tropics, as these areas are currently at the most risk from denudation, where 70% of all plant species originate and where the potential for greater botanical discovery is enormous. The Institute’s study focuses mainly on the Neotropics concentrating mainly on Amazonian plant resources. Scientists at the Institute concentrate their research efforts in four principle areas; food, energy, medicine and conservation.
Food: with over 90% of the world’s nutrition coming from fewer than 20 major crop species, this lack of genetic diversity and variability means that the world’s food supply is highly vulnerable to disease, blight and drought. Thus the Institute seeks to identify and increase the stock of plants available as sources of nutrition. For example, Dr. Steven King in his doctoral dissertation, identified two Andean tuber crops particularly high in starch; Oca (Oxalis tuberosa L.) and Tropeaolum tuberosum L. Both plants are currently being field-trialled in Peru, under the auspices of the I.E.B. and show considerable promise for possible widespread cultivation. Field trials are also occurring in North America and Europe, including the Henry Doubleday Research Association in England.
Energy: with many sources of fossil fuels likely to be depleted by the middle of the next century, the Institute is trying to identify plants that can provide renewable energy substitutes and to develop their potential.
Medicine: nearly half of all prescription drugs used in the West originate in plants. However, with the destruction of natural habitats, numerous species already utilised for medicinal purposes by local cultures are fast disappearing. We may each day be losing a potential cure for cancer or even AIDS with each plant that becomes extinct. The I.E.B., through its study of ethnobotany, is trying to locate and study tropical plants as sources of new medicines.
Conservation: because of the accelerating destruction of tropical forests, it is essential to establish a balance between conservation and utilisation of natural ecosystems to preserve biological diversity. This is arguably the most important ro1e of any conservation-minded organisation; to investigate the use and management of local plant resources, to preserve germplasm of the plant species it studies and to use the data for the conservation of natural ecosystems is the culmination of all previous study and surely the primary goal of tropical conservation. This also must be the most difficult aspect of conservation management and is possibly why (arguably) tropical conservation is not really proving effective to date on a practical level. The political and social barriers to such conservation efforts seem to be enormous and to persuade governments to adopt western conservation plans must be an awesome task, though one which, I am sure, the I.E.B. is taking in hand.
The I.E.B. does not solely concentrate on identifying plants and cataloguing their uses. For example. Dr. Christine Padoch, an anthropologist whose research on economically promising fruit species is based in the Peruvian Amazon, has also studied the ecology, production. uses, propagation and marketing of these fruits; an important aspect if conservation study is to mean anything at all. This proves that an inter-disciplinary organisation such as the I.E.B. is essential if botanical research is to lose its highly esoteric and perhaps outdated image and to be able to provide suitable and feasible alternatives to destruction. For any kind of sustainable development management plans to occur at all in the tropics, ecologists, botanists, anthropologists, sociologists and economists must all work together, otherwise all the valuable field research undertaken will remain in journals, periodicals and lengthy monographs of no practical use whatsoever. I believe that this is what makes the I.E.B. so unique and enables It, as an organisation to utilise its field work in a practical manner. To be able to walk through the offices and talk, not only to botanists and ecologists, but to hear the anthropologists point of view was truly enlightening. Many scientists have been criticised for their rather unhelpful attitude toward students, yet in New York, most of the office doors were open, the scientists were more than keen to discuss their work and did not mind the intrusions and intellectually mediocre questioning of an ill-informed, yet keen, student.
The funding of a particular scientist’s research is not, as is the case at Kew, based upon a salaried, permanent post. Each scientist has to rely upon grants and fundings allotted to his or her particular field of research, i.e. the scientist has to raise his/her own funding for periods of study and to make provision for his/her own salary. As an example, one research associate told me that he sometimes spent as much time writing application letters for funding as he did writing up research results. This obviously is the result of differences in funding (Kew is, in the main, Civil Service funded, whilst the I.E.B. receives no direct Government funding and relies upon bequests and grants) and due to this the scientists at the I.E.B. are very dedicated indeed. Access to all facilities is 24 hours and the facilities are used 24 hours. It did seem that each scientist had a very high turnover of work and this shows in the publication success of the Institute. Although this kind of funding process is no doubt difficult and in many ways frugal, it does allow for greater flexibility of study. For example, I was told that if a scientist wished to undertake a project overseas for a period of time and could raise the adequate finances, then it would be possible to undertake the research as long as it was beneficial to the Institute. Very few requests of this type were refused. Although, as anywhere, the I.E.B. did not have as much financial backing as it would like, the morale of the Institute as a whole seemed very high and each person working there was very excited about the work being undertaken.
Many of the scientists are visiting lecturers to Universities and Colleges e.g. Yale, CUNY and the Institute runs a Doctoral programme in Economic Botany and Systematic Botany in collaboration with Lehman College, CUNY. Also the scientists are involved with other conservation organisations and are present on steering groups and other consultative panels.
As is probably evident, I thoroughly enjoyed my three weeks at the Institute. I managed to complete a lot of my own work and ,enjoyed hearing about other peoples; especially as they were so keen to share their knowledge. It was very interesting to observe an organisation so unlike anything in the U.K. and very enlightening, not only from a conservation standpoint but from an administrative one as well. The work being undertaken by the Institute is both relevant and highly inspirational, it is only a shame that their sphere of research could not be extended to include all tropical forest areas which are under threat and no doubt hold invaluable plant resources. However, the lack of adequate funding and manpower for such research is an understandable barrier to I.E.B. study in tropical Africa, Asia and the Far East. Nevertheless research into all tropical areas must be intensified before the denudational processes can be reversed and only an organisation such as the I.E.B., that has already proved effective tropical researchers, can undertake this seemingly infinite work. Now that an organisation solely devoted to economic botany has been proven a success it can, and should, be used as a role model for the founding of future tropical research organisations which are essential if we are to turn the tide of tropical deforestation.
I wish to thank the Kew Guild, the Bentham-Moxon Trust and the Hallet Science Fund for their generous financial support for this trip and would also like to extend my thanks to Professor Prance for his inspiration and enthusiasm.