‘How I got here’ – Ina Vandebroek

Ina collecting plants for botanical identification in Jamaica in 2014

An Interview with Ina Vandebroek, Associate Curator, New York Botanical Garden. As part of a new interview series for the SEB*

~3,000 words, 25 minutes reading time.

Please describe yourself in your own words. Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?

I interchangeably use the words ethnobotanist and ethnobiologist because I see what I do as broader than just working with plants. I’m an Associate Curator at The New York Botanical Garden, where I direct the Caribbean and Latino Ethnobotany and Ethnomedicine programme. My primary focus is on interviewing people in the Caribbean but also immigrants from the Caribbean living in New York. In interviews, I explore the plants they use as foods, medicines and other subsistence uses. Though I originally came from an ethnomedicine background, my research has expanded. Researchers tend to put plant uses in narrow categories, but the people we interview do not do that, they might use a plant as a food, a medicine, as a tool, for timber, construction etc. I really like the wider definition of studying relationships between people, plants, the environment, and ecosystems broadly defined. I don’t restrict my research to just plants, as that is not the reality of life in the communities we collaborate with.

Describe your work/what you see as your mission.

My mission is about helping to amplify voices, one of those voices is about the loss of biological diversity, with the current environmental and climate crisis. Another group of voices is of the communities I collaborate with. My work isn’t just about defining a research topic and publishing it, it is not just about communicating with a scientific audience. Our work is about documenting the crises that we come across, the loss of linguistic and cultural diversity around the world, giving voice to those who don’t have one, we have a mission beyond research and that is amplifying the voices of the communities and being good spokespersons. For example, I resonate with the work of George Monbiot in The Guardian, even though he is not an Ethnobotanist, I identify myself with his writings about the environmental crisis. But ethnobotanists can add a supplementary voice to that: about the cultural crisis that is going on worldwide, the loss of cultural traditions and transformations communities face who are encroached by outsiders. You can see this in what is happening in Brazil at the moment, or with Native Americans in North America, and how their ways of life and traditions of living are pressured upon by a dominant mainstream society. Researchers can help strengthen their voices and be good allies. In addition to our scientific rigour, we should be very concerned about our moral and ethical obligations, that is what drives me but also sometimes it can be a frustrating driver in the face of challenges, seeing that it is not going well with the world, we have several urgencies and those concerns are very present.

Did you always want to be an ethnobotanist/work with nature? What/where did you study?

Originally, I studied biology, with a major in morphology and systematics, at the University of Ghent in Belgium. My story and path to Ethnobotany wasn’t straightforward, it curved in all sorts of ways and deviations before I got to this point. But it was always rooted in nature, even before I studied biology. As a child I was always engaged with nature, for example I had my own herbarium. At the age of 10, I would go with my girl-friend to collect plants and we had a sort of competition about who would collect and dry the nicest plants. It was more of a large booklet than a real herbarium, she and I would go collect plants with plant guides to identify them and then show off who made the nicest specimens. I also had a rabbit called Musti and several guinea pigs, and would grow food in my little corner of our family garden for them – carrots, salads and radishes. That love for nature was already there when I was a child.  

Ina and guinea pig, in front of her parents’ apple and cherry orchard in Belgium

I think our education system has changed for the better, but when I was studying I had to choose strictly biology, there were no options to add social sciences such as anthropology, or history. Biology had a very narrow definition. So, after my Bachelors in Science, I then fell into a PhD in animal behaviour and neuropsychology: I had the opportunity to do it, but it was not something I wanted to keep doing long-term, I got pushed into that field without really deciding on what I loved to do at that time. I wanted to be a ‘good girl’ and study hard, to show I was qualified. When you are young you are figuring out a lot of things, at least it was like that for me, and I was conflicted between loving biology, literature, anthropology and how to bring them all together.

After my PhD, I realised I didn’t want to be in a laboratory for the rest of my life looking at brain cells, I felt it was super reductionist and felt rather trapped. It was a moment of crisis, but those are often also moments of opportunity. I asked myself: What do I really like to dedicate myself to? The answer was plants, culture, medicine, nature. Next, I wondered: How do I bring all of those together? It was then that I read a newspaper article about Ethnobotany and I had a realisation THAT is what I want to do. So, I knocked on the door of Patrick Van Damme who was on the University of Ghent, in a department then called the Faculty of Applied Agricultural and Biological Sciences. I volunteered to write proposals and do a Post Doc. Patrick agreed but said I needed anthropological training, so I took classes offered by the Belgian Development Cooperation. I also went to Utrecht University in the Netherlands and that was a transformative moment in my career, this course with Paul Maas, Marion Jansen-Jacobs, Tinde Van Andel, Niels Raes, and other staff from the herbarium there. It was a 7-week intensive course in Neotropical plant family identification. 8 hours a days, 5 days a week, each day learning about a new tropical plant family. It was very practical and hands-on, and I loved it. It was very infectious, the passion that Paul Maas and the other botanists had for their plants. And to get to know someone like Tinde Van Andel and the work she was doing, was incredible.

Things need to come to you at the right moment, but also important is meeting people who inspire you.

Ina and Jason West discussing the uses of a palm species deep in the John Crow Mountains, Jamaica in 2019

Who has been the most influential person(s) on your career?

My earliest career influence was probably Paul Maas and Tinde Van Andel, but I continue to be inspired and influenced all the time by many people, from all over the world: Ana Ladio from Argentina, Natalia Hanazaki from Brazil, David Picking and Rupika Delgoda from Jamaica. And there are so many other ethnobotanists who are doing great things:  Andrea Pieroni from Italy, Robert Voeks from the USA, Renata Sõukand from Estonia. It is about building a network and an academic family that sustains you to be your absolute best. This is why it is so important to go to meetings to get to know and talk with all these wonderful people.  There so many others and if I pick out just a few, it means I skip all the others who are also my inspirations. I love to read my colleagues’ publications. And I love to listen to the viewpoints of the next generation of scientists and artists: My former Teaching Fellow at Yale School of Forestry Shrabya Timsina, my graduate student Ella Vardeman, Dominican-American artist Joiri Minaya, to name a few people. The drive of these young people is infectious.

Importantly though, it is not only about ethnobotanical colleagues, but also about the unsung heroes from the communities who are my wise teachers in the forest (or bush as they say in Jamaica). They may have no formal university degrees but we would be nothing without them, so this is important to emphasise. Ultimately, we are all family. I’m drinking a cup of hot chocolate from the Amazon right now, it was a gift from Dr Almecina Balbina, a Brazilian ethnobotanist who lives and works in Acre. These gifts transcend research. This is all about building a family, community, friendship and sharing.

Ina with Costa Rican colleagues “Tin” Agustin Contreras Arias, Luis J. Poveda, Rafael Ocampo, and American ethnobotanist Marc Williams in 2016

What part of your career are you most proud of?

I think the community guidebooks that I’ve written together with colleagues and students: Two in Bolivia and one now in Jamaica, because again this goes beyond the standard mission of scientists publishing for academia and their peers. I’m allergic to the use of the word informant when we interview someone for research. We are not the CIA, we are not extracting information. We are collaborators, colleagues and we should be committed to giving back to the communities that support us. There should be no excuse that it is extra work, or that there is no funding for it, I know students doing a PhD are super busy but this should be a basic outcome.

Community guidebook from 2016, with Ina’s colleague Dr. David Picking from The University of The West Indies, Mona

Can you share a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought ‘what the heck am I doing here?’

I had been working in Bolivia with a PhD student. That research resulted in the guidebook ‘Guia de plantas medicinales de los Yurakares y Trinitarios del Territorio Indigena Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure, Bolivia’.  Only 500 copies were printed and distributed to communities within Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Sécure, TIPNIS) in Cochabamba. It was not printed elsewhere, and it is so special, I still keep my own copies securely wrapped. After we had finished the collaborative research with the communities of the Yuracaré and Trinitario indigenous people there, the Bolivian Government, financed by the Brazilian Government, announced the construction of a highway through the national park, which caused a lot of disruption amongst the communities who were living very secluded. They are very small communities of people, dispersed, some are several hours from each other, with little public transportation and many have to travel by foot, so some communities welcomed this road development, others were completely against it, but there was no prior informed consent (PIC) from the government. It turned communities against each other and caused a lot of trouble and conflict. That was a moment of deep grief for me because all of a sudden, I saw the effects of that development, the disruption, the conflict that, in certain instances, turned violent. It really filled me with sadness and it was a moment of reflection about the documentation of plants and traditional uses: but how useful is that in the middle of a giant development conflict? In the face of such conflict while being in the park with two Bolivian students we had to turn back and leave the area. It made me think about the value of research and ask how does it improve lives? The reality is that people are very poor and then there is conflict. I really wondered what we were doing at that point. It was a very sad moment.

Ina and her student Rebecca travelling on foot in Territorio Indigena Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure (TIPNIS), Bolivia, in 2001

How do you see the future of ethnobotany?

I’ve just got virtually together with 28 colleagues from around the world to work online on a viewpoint paper for Nature Plants (June 2020) about reshaping the future of ethnobotany after the Covid-19 pandemic. We were linking up as scientists to make a plea that we need more collaborative and socially-oriented work beyond ethnobotany and biology to communicate better to other disciplines and the outside world, we need much more of this. This pandemic crisis will surely influence how we interact with each other as humans, and the impacts of social distancing, so we have to reflect on how we will respond to that in the field. We cannot put community members at risk, especially the older people who have a lot of idiosyncratic knowledge about the environment built up throughout their lives. It is so important to have this reflection together.  

Apart from that, together with my colleagues, I’d like to see a more socially just and engaged ethnobotany and ethnobiology because, as I said before, it isn’t just about documenting and asking research questions and writing papers and peer communications, we are working in situations where we see this decline in biocultural diversity – not just plants, animals and insects, but also transformations in culture and traditional societies. A lot of communities are still living in poverty, how do we take that into account in what we bring to the world? I’d like to see that become a more inherent part of the conversation. Sustainability is an overused word, but you know as a Society we should come together more: The Society of Economic Botany, the Society of Ethnobiology and the International Society of Ethnobiology and the International Society of Ethnopharmacology all have different agendas or foci, but it would be great if we could find common ground more often, build bridges to come together on certain topics that unite all of us. It would benefit all of us I think.

It is important to reflect on the racial legacy of ethnobotany and ethnobiology and decolonise the field, a very difficult conversation to be had, but we need to acknowledge that we are rooted in a deep and troubled colonial history. We know about the stain of that history, but we need to talk more about how we can help build a more socially just future in a critical way. The time is long overdue to be part of the solution and take a united stand against racism in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), but our job doesn’t end there. We need to push further, be uncomfortable, and do the inner anti-racism work , to be better allies for Black, Indigenous and People of Colour, and amplify their voices and contributions to our discipline.  

What would be your advice for a student of ethnobotany?

My first tip is to really do a psychoanalysis of yourself. Why do you want to study ethnobotany? Why does it matter to you? What are your motivations? What is comfortable and uncomfortable?  Ask whether you are culturally sensitive enough? E.g. suppose you are vegetarian/vegan and you go to a community and they roast you an Agouti. Will you say that is against your ethical beliefs? That may have an influence on the community you work together with. On the one hand, you should reflect on what is important for you, but on the other what is important for the community. How do you weigh that up? When you gather research data, ask yourself: Whose knowledge, whose power, whose voice, whose Intellectual property? These are difficult questions, but they are questions that you need to face before you go into ethnobotany.

Have you any ‘must read’ ethnobotany books?

Well, there are the classics: Gary martin, the ethnobotany methods manual, I still consult it. Also, for practical advice on “how to” in the field, Miguel Alexiades, an ethnobiologist from  the University of Kent, Selected Guidelines for Ethnobotanical Research: A Field Manual. For Applied Ethnobotany, there is People, Wild Plant Use and Conservation by Anthony Cunningham. Then for the botanists there is Tropical Plant collection by Scott Mori and Amy Berkov. For more specific reading around my field of research, the Caribbean, I recommend the historian Barry Higman’s Jamaican Food: History, Biology, Culture, which is great. I also love the Dictionary of Jamaican English, a linguistic dictionary by F.G. Cassidy and R.B. La Page that contains a lot of useful archival information about plants. For a taste of anthropology, I recommend Zora Hurston’s Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. And finally, One Blood: The Jamaican Body By Elisa Sobo.

Ina learning how to cook “rundown” (a one pot dish of tubers and pumpkin cooked in a reduction of coconut milk) in the forest, Jamaica 2015

What is your favourite plant and why?

It’s pretty hard for me to pick a favorite because I love all plants big and small, but if you would twist my hand I would say that one of my favourites is Cinnamodendron corticosum, known as wild cinnamon, an endemic wild spice tree that is rare and confined to the John Crow Mountains in eastern Jamaica. Hans Sloane already collected this tree in the 18th century.
The bark of this tree is valued locally as a spice but unfortunately, it is also getting rarer and rarer, and overharvesting might be one of the reasons for this. There exist only a handful of known herbarium collection localities for this species. So, as a starting point, we are trying to find more individuals of this tree, and use this locality data for niche distribution modelling to predict where else it could grow. The next step would be to start community cultivation efforts. It is so important that emblematic cultural species like this can survive. Because they represent the link between Nature and Culture that so many of us have lost or are losing.

What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?

I’ve been so busy with work the last couple of years but I love writing poetry and have written some reflections about field work in Jamaica. The caveat here is that I need time and be in the right mind-set, but after being so busy the last few years, I realise the last one I wrote was 5 years ago! There is such an urgency to do so many things “right here right now”, that I haven’t done enough ‘light’ things. I love photography, I don’t even have a big camera, my smart phone is an instrument that doesn’t easily intimidate people, so I often get really great pictures with it. I also love to cook, it builds a connection with people in the communities where I work, I love to learn to cook good food from them. It is how I stay connected with both my own cultural heritage as a Belgian and the people with whom I work.

How shall I name

The treasure I never found?

The Wisdom I gathered while searching?

The parts of my soul I left behind?

Scattered over several nations?  

Ina Vandebroek, ‘Bush Girl’, Poetry (Isuu, 2016)

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*An interview with SEB Student committee member Kim Walker, May 2020. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences. To read more of these, click on the Interview/Bio category in the side panel. If you have someone you would like to recommend for interview, please email Kim at students@econbot.org

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