A study of two Balkan ethnic groups living in close proximity finds that traditional knowledge about local plant resources helps communities to cope with periods of famine, and can promote the conservation of biodiversity.
Understanding how human groups obtain, manage and perceive their local resources — particularly the plants they use as food and medicine — is crucial for ensuring that those communities can continue to live and benefit from their local ecosystems in a sustainable way. The study of these complex interactions between plants and people is the aim of an integrative discipline known as ethnobotany, which is based on methods derived mainly from botany and anthropology1. Most ethnobotanical research reveals that traditional knowledge about local edible and healing resources is suffering an alarming decline2, especially in Europe3. However, writing in Nature Plants, Quave and Pieroni4 suggest that wild plants still have an essential role for communities living in the mountains of Kukës, one of the poorest districts of Albania. Their results also show how preserving local knowledge is linked to maintaining biodiversity.
The mountains of Kukës lie in the Balkans, a hotspot of cultural and biological diversity that has suffered major political and economic shifts over the past three decades. Quave and Pieroni studied two culturally and linguistically distinct rural Islamic ethnic groups (the Gorani and Albanians) that, despite living in close proximity in this region and facing similar environmental and economic conditions, have remained relatively isolated from one another. The two groups use wild plants in different ways, giving the authors an opportunity to investigate the role of cultural factors in shaping how the local flora is understood and used in daily life, health practices and, ultimately, survival. Among the various quantitative techniques used, the authors designed a simple but innovative tool to compare the cultural similarities and differences between the two groups' use of plant species.
The researchers report significant variation in the plant species used for medicinal purposes by the two ethnic groups. A plausible explanation for this is that the spread of health-related lore requires a high degree of affinity, because trying a new remedy requires a great deal of trust5. Health is a sensitive topic, so people accept advice mainly from knowledgeable relatives or friends belonging to the same ethnic group6. Moreover, many traditional remedies have a highly symbolic component, and the mechanisms by which they are believed to bring about healing can lie — totally or partially — in the remedy's cultural meaning7.
Quave and Pieroni find only two species, Urtica dioica and Rosa canina (Fig. 1), that were widely used by both ethnic groups, and both species are edible. Generally, there was much more convergence in the food plants used by the two groups. The researchers suggest that this can be explained by the importance of wild edible species in ensuring food security. The robust local lore concerning these plants serves as a reservoir of knowledge, preparing the groups to cope with periods of famine or the scarcity of staple foods8. When food is scarce, cultural boundaries seem to be more permeable, because the survival of the group is at stake.
Another issue for consideration is the fact that some species are used medicinally by one group, but sold to plant traders by the other. People assign higher values to species that they use in their daily lives than to those that are harvested for marketing, which, as the authors point out, can have a major effect on the conservation of these resources. The group's relationship with the resource is much more intimate in the former case. Indeed, many regularly used plant species are of great cultural significance and have a prominent place in the local collective memory. They are part of local histories and narratives — they represent the essence, personality and identity of their community.
This study demonstrates that cultural values have a major effect on traditional local knowledge. Sustainable exploitation of local biodiversity is much more likely for resources that are emotionally valued than for those that are used in an impersonal way, as a source of income. A report published last year9 posited that many indigenous communities that have successfully conserved biodiversity in their locality do so by combining an extensive and experiential knowledge with an intensely respectful emotional engagement with nature. Furthermore, the report suggests that our inclination to conserve biodiversity is a function of the number and intensity of our emotional attachments. Therefore, if traditional local knowledge is forgotten, biodiversity is also in danger of being lost, as is happening in some sacred forests and habitats that are in the process of being transformed and degraded10.
Studies such as Quave and Pieroni's can help to integrate traditional local knowledge with efforts to conserve biocultural diversity. By focusing on the point of view of people who are or have been deeply dependent on their local resources, these studies can promote culturally appropriate, sustainable development strategies. Unfortunately, this integration has received little support, and the implications of integration are yet to be properly evaluated. Future ethnobotanical studies should build on the innovative approach taken by Quave and Pieroni when testing the role of cultural factors in the distribution and preservation of traditional local knowledge, by comparing the authors' results with larger data sets from informants and communities gathered in other regions worldwide.
Finally, the authors have demonstrated that quantitative techniques for analysing ethnobotanical data can lead to a deeper level of understanding within the discipline. We suggest that quantitative techniques should thus be further explored. Ethnobotany has a key part to play in studies of how ethnic groups can benefit from and coexist with their ecosystems. Policy and decision makers should take into account the views and traditions of local communities, particularly in rural regions with economic and social instability.