Is traditional culture a tool for medicinal plant conservation with the

Is traditional culture a tool for medicinal plant conservation
with the Antanosy of Madagascar?
Linda Lyon, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of Natural Resources
Washington State University
[email protected]
This research will investigate the role of cultural evolution within the Antanosy and
whether cultural evolution fosters conservation of forests as well as culture itself. My
previous research with the Antanosy showed that particular forest products, specifically
medicinal plants, are integral for the survival of the traditional culture. In terms of
natural resource conservation, villagers explained that forested land was becoming scarce
due to its conversion for agriculture resulting from population increase. Villagers also
saw a decrease in particular forest products, such as trees used for construction purposes.
However, villagers did not perceive medicinal plants as becoming scarce. I propose that
the Antanosy are preventing the loss of medicinal plants in order to preserve their link
between medicinal plants and their traditional beliefs. In order to understand this process
and aid in local conservation of medicinal plants, I will conduct an ethnobotanical
investigation to review the effects of land tenure politics, gender, kinship, local
conservation practices, and shamanism on medicinal plant use and conservation.
All cultures are evolving (Bodley 2000). Yet some domestic-scale cultures use
specific techniques, such as population control, to keep from becoming a larger society
(Bodley 1979). If the Antanosy culture is evolving to a global-scale, then scarcity of
medicinal plants may not be important and might go unnoticed. If, however, the culture
were maintaining itself at a domestic-scale, with traditional beliefs, then other reasons
might explain why culturally important medicinal plants were not perceived as becoming
scarce. If this is the case, there might also be an interest of the local people to protect
medicinal plants.
My hypothesis asserts that the Antanosy are part of an evolving culture yet are
preventing the loss of medicinal plants to maintain a link to their traditional customs.
This hypothesis emerges from my understanding of the Antanosy to be a culture whose
future is firmly embedded in their past. This is evidenced by their continued beliefs in the
effectiveness of shamanism, tributes that must be made to their ancestors, and use of
traditional agricultural systems, such as slash and burn agriculture. Yet according to
Flannery (1972), the Antanosy have many characteristics that label them as evolving in
complexity to a political-scale society. Finally, if the Antanosy have an interest in
preserving their cultural identity, then the elements for conserving medicinal plants are
already in place.
The impact of cultural change on conservation is almost completely missing from
ethnobotanical research. Within the study of traditional cultures there are two schools of
thought. Development agents often see cultural change as progress, whereas
anthropologists maintain that much cultural change results from the impact of
globalization on indigenous cultures. The impact of cultural change needs to be
identified in terms of how the local people themselves perceive themselves and what they
want for their future. Without a clear understanding of this perspective, integrated
conservation and development projects, resource management projects, and
ethnobotanical studies are severely limited. This research offers academia, researchers,
and development agents information and a research model for understanding a group of
people, the Antanosy, who are crucial to providing an environmentally sound buffer zone
to one of the countrys few national parks. This research is an imperative source of
information derived through a descriptive cultural ethnology of the Antanosy with
quantifiable results. Given the important implications of this study, it will offer a new
future to community-based conservation schemes.
This research will provide a complete floristic inventory of forest products used
by the Antanosy with a description of medicinal plant remedies. This research and plant
inventory is part of a collaboration between the University of Tulear in Madagascar,
National Malagasy Forest Service (Eaux et Foret) and its results will be made available
internationally via the Global Ethnomedicinal Information Retrieval System (GEIRS). In
addition this research will provide 1) an evaluation of the status of globalization of the
Antanosy culture in terms of interest in preserving traditional culture, 2) an appraisal of
interest in medicinal plant conservation that statisticlly demonstrates the most effctive
group of villagers for a particular project, 3) a documentation of traditional beliefs, tenure
systems, gender, and kinship patterns that affect the use and management of medicinal
plants, and 4) the financial support and training of an Antanosy student throughout all
aspects of ethnobotanical field research in his native region to enable him to use this
research towards his own academic goals.