Event #2- Ethnobotany

Studies on the Biocultural Diversity of Micronesia

On Monday, November 18, 2013, I attended a lecture called “Studies on the Biocultural Diversity of Micronesia: Plants, People and Health in a Changing World” by Dr. Michael J. Balick. Dr. Balick is the vice president and director of the of Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. He is extremely knowledgeable on the field of ethnobotany, especially in the area of the Caroline Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Through Dr. Balick’s talk, I learned how plants affect the culture of Pohnpei, as well as how globalization affects the islands of Pohnpei and Palau through the lens of his ethnobotany research.

Dr. Balick first introduced the field of ethnobotany in respect to global change. He explained that ethnobotany is the study of the relationships between plants and people. The father of ethnobotany is Richard Evans. Dr. Balick gave an example of the effect plants had on humans by comparing the loss of forest in Brazil between the 1940s and 1990s. He spoke of the languages, and that there are only an estimated 6,800 languages left in the world and only 600 have enough speakers to ensure their survival past the end of this century, which is a survival rate of less than nine percent. Dr. Balick also suggested the idea of devolution-because of modernization, there is less knowledge of living things, therefore knowledge “devolved.” His research in Pohnpei, Palau, and Kosrae confirmed this idea of devolution.

In Pohnpei, Dr.Balick addressed the effects endemic plants had on the culture of the island. In one example, he mentioned the Filoboletus manipularis singer, which is a bioluminescent mushroom. The native people refer to the mushroom as the “ghost’s ear”, and parents will often threaten to send their misbehaving children out to the mushroom fields to the ghosts for punishment. The refering to the mushroom as part of a ghost, and the threatening of parents to send their children to the mushroom fields show that culturally, ghosts are an important part of the Pohnpeian belief system.

One of the most significant plants Dr. Balick mentioned that had an impact on the Pohnpeian culture was the sakau plant, similar to the plant we know as kava. Dr. Balick stated that the Sakau plant holds the culture together because of its power and respect. The community comes together to pound the sakau plant, and the first person to sip the juice is the most senior chief. Pohnpeians believe that the sakau decreases in power as more people sip from the community cup, therefore, the order of sipping the juice is from the most powerful person and so on. An interesting aspect of sakau is the Pohnpeian use of the plant to show different meanings. There are over twenty-two “types” or “names” of Sakau based on the intention and declaration of purpose. For example, the sakau used for asking for forgiveness has a different name for the sakau used for celebration. However, the sakau in actuality is the same exact plant in its being. The naming sakau for different purposes is extremely unique and has never been recorded. Some other uses for sakau includes solving differences- sakau holds the chemical dihydrokavain which produces and anti-anxiety feeling. These characteristic also displays the enormous cultural impact plants have on Pohnpeian culture. In fact, the Pohnpeian-English dictionary contains 10,000 words, and 20% of these words are plant names.

An example of the effect of globalization has on the Caroline Islands is with canoe-making on the island of Palau. In older generations, canoe-building was an important skill necessary to survival. However, surveys found that there an extreme drop in knowledge of how to make a canoe and few people know the skill today. The lack of knowledge in this skill shows how globalization affected the island– knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic superseded knowledge of canoe-building. Globalization and exposure to world outside of the island lead to changing of means of survival. Now, one in five people on Palau work government jobs, and a survey done by Dr. Balick showed that government workers know less about canoe-making than others with different jobs. Coincidence?
Some constraints to preservation of traditional knowledge Dr. Balick emphasized was individualism and television, both results of globalization. Individualism affects traditional knowledge because in former times, the community would come together to survive, including building houses/canoes, and finding/cultivating food. In modern times, less emphasis is placed on the community, and more on an individual’s productivity, resulting in less emphasis on these cultural traditions. On another hand, television provides a distraction from these traditions. Dr. Balick explained how the island children are enthralled by television and are much more willing to watch television than engage in learning traditional skills. Both of these constraints demonstrate the negative effect globalization has had on preserving and maintaining traditional knowledge and culture.

This talk was interesting to me because I found similarities in the effects of globalization has on the culture with the effects globalization has on language. In my Linguistics class, I learned that a big part of language loss is globalization and people moving toward a dominant language, usually English. Globalization also changes the attitude of people. In Palau, less people want to learn their traditional practices in favor of new and more exciting ideas, such as television. Similarly, globalization changes the attitude of people with language in that they would rather learn and speak the new dominant language everyone else is speaking, rather than use their native language. As a result of globalization, both traditional practices and languages are dying out.


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