Supporting Indigenous Knowledge

A new biocultural training aid launches today, developed with the support of Birkbeck and the British Council. It is part of a project to reconnect indigenous communities with artefacts and botanical specimens.

The Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden launches the Manual of Ethnobotany: Plants, Artefacts, and Indigenous Knowledge today, developed with the support of Birkbeck and the British Council. This is one of the outputs of a pioneering collaborative project between British and Brazilian institutions. It aims to reconnect indigenous communities with a collection of artefacts and botanical specimens gathered by British botanist Richard Spruce in the nineteenth century, with the view to support and guide indigenous biocultural research initiatives. The publication is the result of a programme of biocultural research that brings together scientific and indigenous knowledge about plants and their uses, institutional collections, systems of classification and worldviews.

Dr Luciana Martins, Reader in Latin American Visual Cultures and part of the project team said: “The biocultural artefacts that survive in British institutions provide an incentive for indigenous researchers to recover their histories and ways of making things, a knowledge that has been interrupted by missionaries that went to the region in the early twentieth century, adding value to their traditional knowledge and practices."

The scope and content of the training manual were developed during a workshop in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, in the Amazon, in November 2016. Participants of the Tukano, Tuyuka, Desana, Yebamasã, Baniwa, Koripaco e Pira-Tapuya ethnic groups presented their ongoing research on agrobiodiversity, material culture, forest landscapes, the cultivation of Baniwa chilli and the annual environmental cycles of the river Tiquié. The latter study is related to a long-term programme of collaboration between ISA and indigenous researchers in the region, named ‘indigenous agents of environmental management (Aimas)’.

Originally in Portuguese, the Manual is being translated into Baniwa and Tukano in digital versions. Dagoberto Lima Azevedo, a Tukano researcher who participated in the workshop in São Gabriel da Cachoeira, is also responsible for the translation into his own language (one of the three officially recognised indigenous languages in the municipality).

He said: “We are preparing the translation into indigenous languages to strengthen and give more visibility to our work. In this way, we are responding to the local demand for botanical knowledge in the Amazon, to be disseminated through both schools and local associations.”

Dr William Milliken, ethnobotanist at Kew Gardens, emphasised: “Our project has helped to set up a framework of collaboration on the Alto Rio Negro, but it is only the start. We need to keep working, both across the Amazon and beyond.”

Developing from an initial collaboration between Birkbeck and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, project partners include the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden, the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi and the Federation of Indigenous Organizations of Rio Negro (Foirn). Supported by the Newton Fund – British Council, the project brings to light data and artefacts collected in the Brazilian Amazon that have survived in British institutions for more than 150 years.

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