Ethnobotany, the study of how cultures use plants, has been a key component of ACEER’s conservation education and research strategies since our founding in 1991. The driving force behind this work was founding board member Dr. James A. Duke. Through Jim’s dedication, vision, and generosity ACEER created, with partner organizations, medicinal plant gardens to serve as plant repositories and to foster education and research. The ReNuPeRu garden along the Sucusai River north of Iquitos (now operated by Explorama Tours), a village garden in Cahuide, a community garden in Sucusari, a demonstration garden at the Los Amigos Biological Station, and another at Hacienda Concepción were all created out of Jim’s desire to demonstrate the value of the forest left standing rather than destroyed. See Facilities to learn more about these projects.
Dr. James A. Duke was the driving force for more than 25 years behind ACEER’s education and research programs in ethnobotany. Author of hundreds of scientific publications on plants, best selling books and creator of a major plant database, Jim dedicated his life to ethnobotany. He was a principal faculty member in local and international medicinal plants workshops, helped ACEER create medicinal plant gardens throughout Peru, and inspired ACEER to integrate medicinal plant education into our local Peruvian school programs for teachers and students…rural and urban, private and public, elementary and secondary. He also served as faculty in workshops for universities from around the world. Sadly, Jim passed away in 2018.
To continue his legacy, ACEER created the James A. Duke Ethnobotanical Fellowship. Each year, a Latin American graduate student is provided funds through this Fellowship in support of their ethnobotanical education and research efforts. In this way, we are keeping Jim’s memory alive, and building a new generation of scientists, dedicated to ethnobotany and its promise of a more sustainable future for the Amazon Rainforest.
Did you know that 25% of ALL of our prescription drugs come from plants? Many of them come from tropical forests like the Amazon rainforest. In addition, there are numerous other plants with medicinal and nutritive properties that are now found in over the counter supplements, teas, skin and hair care products, beverages, and more! These don’t even include food items such as chocolate, coffee, pineapple, Brazil nuts, star fruit and others that are a regular part of our lives. Yet, illegal gold mining, illegal timbering, and unchecked development is destroying the habitats where these plants live. In 2018 alone, nearly 23,000 acres of rainforest was destroyed in Peru through illegal gold mining. Medicinal plants, fruits, vegetables and nuts offer a different way, a sustainable way, for socio-economic growth in Amazonia while keeping the forest intact and fully functioning.
It’s been estimated that there might be as many as 300 commercially viable medicines yet to be discovered in the rainforest, if we can protect it so they can be found. And former ACEER board member, the late Dr. Antonio Brack Egg, former Minister of Environment for Peru, stated that there is more than enough already disturbed land within the Amazon Basin of Peru to meet all of Peru’s land use needs. Yet, it is often cheaper and easier to cut down virgin rainforest rather than rehabilitate disturbed areas. Clearly this is not sustainable. That is why ACEER’s Conservation Learning Web provides conservation education to promote sustainable use of the forest and to create a new generation of conservation leaders in Peru.
Imagine that you are a member of a culture that has thrived in a region for more than 10,000 years, relying on it for food, water, shelter, clothing, tools and medicines. You would be heir to an incredible amount of wisdom and knowledge about that region, honed over millennia. That is the experience of the indigenous peoples of Amazonia. People like the Ese’Eja of southeastern Peru.
Indigenous people view illness as a whole person experience…body, mind and spirit. Therefore, their approach to health and healing is equally holistic. And plants play a crucial role in their healing traditions. Plants are used for ceremony; employed by shamans to communicate with plant and animal healing spirits; applied topically to wounds; or taken internally for cures and treatments. In this system, the body is understood to have intrinsic healing capacity. The job of the healer or shaman is to optimize the body’s ability to heal itself.
By contrast, our medical system has evolved into what is often referred to as mechanistic. The body is seen as a collection of parts; disease is a breakdown in one of those parts; and to get better, we must seek out a “master mechanic” (doctor) to replace or fix the broken part. The belief in intrinsic healing has not been a major feature of this system, although if you look at the cutting edge work in immunotheapy for cancer treatment, we are seeing our system embrace this ancient wisdom of indigenous cultures.