Interview with 2016 DEB Tony Cunningham

By Sandra Bogdanova

Is there a better way to end this year than by listening to some lifetime wisdom? This time it is our Distinguished Economic Botanist (DEB) of 2016 – Anthony (Tony) Cunningham. He is an internationally known ethnobotanist from who has seamlessly linked his work at the interface between nature and culture with a successful fine art practice. A true source of inspiration for every ethnobotanist.

For over 36 years, Tony’s research and art have been influenced by the power of place, the beauty of nature and the wisdom of local people in the remote areas of Africa, Asia, Australia and the Pacific. His books “Applied Ethnobotany” (2001) and “African Basketry, Grassroots Art from southern Africa”Âť (2006,) along with his on-going work with Southeast Asian textile weavers, are a testament to his respect for cultural knowledge and the power of place on his work.

  1. What led you to the world of ethnobotany? How did it all begin?

Good question. All SEB members have wonderful “origin stories” to tell. Enough for a book…which would be like a strong rope of woven threads, for many “how did it all begin” stories have common threads. In my case, three stimuli were a catalyst. First, my grandfather, a kind man and Zulu linguist, who worked in remote areas and had respect for all people, across all cultures. Second, my parents: a father, an artist and architect who loved African art and environment and a mother who love plants and gardening. Then thirdly, what brought these components together was a book on my grandfathers shelf: Mairn Hulme’s 1954 Wild Flowers of Natal, which featured most of the plants in the area I grew up, giving their Zulu names and uses. So those “footprints” from other people were the start of a trail I have followed all my life, despite apartheid, no jobs for ethnobotanists, and, at the time, no detailed “how to do it” ethnobotany methods manuals.


  1. Could you describe a typical day at work?

I am the worst person to ask that question, as I don’t have a “typical day at work.” Or a “typical day” depends where I am working. Which might be teaching in Papua New Guinea, doing fieldwork with Indonesian colleagues in eastern Indonesia (I go there in three days time), or in Africa, where I recently completed a study on illegal logging and ripple effects onto ivory poaching, or my home office in Fremantle, Australia, where I currently live, or from my home in South Africa. It is in southern Africa where I have my strongest “sense of place” and where I will return in three years time. Simply put, I haven’t had a “real job” since 1984, when I finished my PhD. All the rest of my life has been working on “soft grants.” Or none. But I get up really early, work long hours, with the common threads are that I don’t have TV at all (which saves a great deal of time), nor Facebook or Twitter. If the weather is bad and I am at home, I deal priority issues first (I make lists). If the weather is fine I go out fishing from a sea kayak as the sun rises, then have breakfast, make an espresso, and start my day….


  1. You’ve encountered cultures around the world. How have you chosen where to settle and down the roots?

I haven’t settled yet. But I know where I want to be. At the moment, I think of myself as a migrant worker away from my African home, to which I will return. Yet I feel comfortable in many parts of the world, with which I have been privileged to build up close connections with wonderful people and places over many years of collaborative work: India (particularly Tamil Nadu); China (especially Yunnan and Sichuan); Western Highlands, Papua New Guinea; and then, most of all, East and southern Africa. So as my art website indicates, I think of myself as “Gondwanan” (see: www.


  1. What can you say about the role of local communities for ethnobotany?

This is a complex question, which needs more space to answer. But the close connections between place, plants, and culture are not only important in terms of “roots” and the past, but also “shoots” and the future. Local knowledge, which is eroding in many places, is so important at many levels, including adaptation to climate change.


  1. Can you describe your academic and/or professional philosophy?

While I wear an “academic hat,” trying, as a person not on any salary, to keep publishing (which is an important responsibility for all of us). I am an “applied problem solver” by nature, who having seen the damage done by academia chopping up the integrated, multi-disciplinary real world into single disciplinary themes, has tried to do transdisciplinary work as much as possible. Mainly applied to real world issues: conflicts between people and conservation areas, for example.


  1. You’ve had a long and successful career—do you have any general life and/or professional advice for young and aspiring ethnobotanists?

If you love learning new things and intellectual challenges, then ethnobotany (or better still ethnoecology) are the fields for you. This is an incredibly exciting time for ethnobotanists and ethnoecologists. New techniques (such as genomics and accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating) offer amazing opportunities for linking with older methods and for research collaborations. Never be satisfied that you know enough. There is always more to learn. Try to save time by giving up time-wasting things, so you can “go down the rabbit hole” following information trails of credible, peer reviewed research that connects to what you do. Try to be the best at what you do. And expect hardship. Expect to be knocked back. But be determined, resilient, professional, and above all, passionate. For that is what will get you through thirsty, sweating places with biting flies or boring bureaucracy.


  1. Is there a study or collaboration that you wish you could find time to work on (past or present)?

I wish I had opportunities to teach more, particularly if there was a field course component. I love teaching at all levels, from the village level in southern Africa to teaching well-established Papua New Guinean researchers and scholars. But I am rarely paid to teach and without a salary, cannot afford to do so pro bono very often. So if there are visiting scholar grants out there, let me know!


  1. What do you read or study in your free time?

I am currently reading two thoroughly enjoyable books. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (by Yuval Noah Harari) and The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humbolt, Lost Hero of Modern Science (by Andrea Wulf). But some days, I am tired of reading. So that is where fishing (good weather) or watching a movie (most recently “Brooklyn” about Ireland, choices, and sense of place) are something I do. One can only read so much…then I need a break!


  1. We have noticed a decline in membership, especially with students in the past years. Do you have any advice for reversing this trend?

This is an unfortunate trend. And it can be reversed. SEB has been pro-active at asking established scientists to mentor younger SEB members on chosen themes. “Teaching Tuesday” and the workshop that I was part of at the previous SEB meeting in South Africa was great fun. Probably for me most of all, meeting such super-smart, keen young people who will go on to do great things. Perhaps a variety of short thematic field trips that were low cost and affordable after or before SEB meetings are an option. Or universities and SEB trying to get endowments or grants for guest teachers within established courses. Enthusiasm is infectious. Particularly in a field situation, where people can experience plants through taste, touch, and through the stomach! That can reverse the trend.


  1. While you are an inspiration in our field and a legend in your own right, you have also worked with and been friends with many legendary ethnobotanists across continents. Do you have any stories or wisdom from working in that environment that you could share with our members?

Always be open to new ideas. Grasp opportunities and take risks. Trust scientific methods and always think creatively. In some cases, what we thought was rock solid information turns out to crumble like sand. Be skeptical of “legends.” We are all human. And fallible. I have seen some “legends” behave very badly in local community situations. And there is no excuse for that.


  1. What is the most recent direction you have taken in your career, and why?

I have recently renewed my work as a fine art print maker. I studied etching in the early 1980s, moved very heavy etching press around for years, within Africa and Australia. But the technique is slow and less versatile for me. So I have been using a different method of doing GiclĂ©e prints, with the designs now expanded to textiles. My most recent exhibition was 10 – 28 February 2016 at Kidogo gallery in Fremantle, Australia and went very well. I don’t have Facebook, but the gallery does


  1. What do you see as your legacy?

On the ethnoecological (and ethnobotanical) science side, my legacy is in two parts: publications and people. Publications (such as my book Applied Ethnobotany: People, Wild Plant Use and Conservation (2001, Earthscan), which is published in Chinese, Spanish, and English) have been useful, I think. But can be updated and improved. Ideally, “living documents” in the form of online, easily updated resources would be best. But most of all my (and I think as scientists, our) most powerful legacy is through the people we work with, inspire, and who also inspire us. Particularly young people. That is the SEB opportunity. And the challenge.



Tony Cunningham at his Fine Art exhibition at Kidogo, 2016

The story first published in the Spring 2016 issue of Plants and People, the Newsletter of the Society for Economic Botany. Find it here.


Sandra Bogdanova is a Student Representative to the SEB Council 2015-2017 . She holds a BA in Archaeology from Vilnius University, MA degree in Indigenous studies from UiT the Arctic University of Norway. Over the years, she has been working on projects in Norway, Finland, Lithuania, China and India that use community-based research approach, combine environmental education, local plant knowledge, and heritage food. Currently working with herbal medicine she is also an independent scholar, practitioner and a member of British Beekeepers Association (BBKA). You can follow her research and activities here:

One thought on “Interview with 2016 DEB Tony Cunningham

Add yours

  1. Worked with Tony on NTFP in Africa, one of the greatest guys, Him and Bruce Campbell are an inspiration. Keep up the good work


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: