*An interview with Ulysses Paulino de Albuquerque, professor at the Department of Botany, Federal University of Pernambuco
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~2,750 words, ~20 mins read
Please describe yourself in your own words. Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?
I graduated in biology and both my MSc and PhD were in the area of plant biology. For a long time, I defined myself as an ethnobotanist, but given the interdisciplinarity of ethnobotany, I started dialoguing more and more with professionals in other fields and gradually my research interests expanded. Nowadays, I would say that I work primarily in the field of ethnobiology, with a particular focus in the interactions between people and plants and with a theoretical framework that range from evolutionary psychology, classic botany and ecology, genetics, and ecological anthropology. My main research interest is therefore to understand human evolution in relation to natural resources, for which I use a very interdisciplinary approach.
Describe your work/what you see as your mission.
I feel engaged in three different missions. When I began to study ethnobotany, at the end of my undergraduate studies, I realised that there was a huge gap in reference texts, manuals, textbooks and methodological protocols for those starting in the field. Everyone that was embarking in the study of plants and humans in Brazil would come across this difficulty. Almost subconsciously, I took on myself the responsibility of writing/producing didactic material, as I did not want another generation of students with interests in ethnobotany and ethnobiology to undergo the same difficulties I went through. In 2004 I founded a publishing company, called NUPEEA, with the aim of publishing introductory books in ethnobotany/ethnobiology in Portuguese, aimed mostly at a Brazilian and Lusophone public. Over the past 15 to 16 years we have published a series of books covering this gap in literature in Brazil and I consider this to be one of my main missions and contribution.
Another mission is to collaborate with other researchers to develop a theoretical framework for ethnobotany and ethnobiology. For the past 5 yeas, alongside my collaborators, we have been pulling together research efforts to advance ethnobiology theories.
A third mission is to endow people with the expertise and capability to further ethnobotany in Brazil. Given that the discipline is still emerging in the country, there was need to form qualified professionals and develop skills in the area. Today I am very proud to have contributed to training ethnobiologists who are now working in different regions in Brazil.
Do you consider your early educational background in biology and botany as influential to what you do today in any particular way?
They were important in my early trajectory, but I am very distant from them today. My research interests moved beyond the concern with plant biology exclusively to consider the relations between human and natural resources; this is the main object of ethnobiology and of my research. I see the humans-plants relationship, as essentially an ecological relation, in which humans are just another species in the ecosystems. As I started to understand this relationship better, I began to distance myself from the more ‘classic’ plant biology approach, concerned with taxonomy, physiology, anatomy, and started to slowly migrate to the more ecological and evolutionary aspects of this relationship. This perspective opened up a very different dimension in my work.
What got you interested in ethnobotany?
When I started my undergraduate studies in biology, I was mostly interested in animal biology, and did not like botany at all. I struggled with the compulsory disciplines in plant biology. At the very end of the course, I enrolled to a discipline on systematic botany with Prof Laise de Holanda Cavalcanti Andrade (my friend and mentor) that had the objective of exploring the relations of humans and plants, as in ethnobotany. I was very much taken by it. Throughout the whole of my undergraduate programme in biology, I really missed the humans – we learned a lot about plants, animals, microorganisms, but where were the humans in it? It felt that humans were not a part of biology. When Prof. Laise presented the possibility of ethnobotanical research, I had the realisation that this was what I wanted to do.
Did you ever think you would be an ethnobotanist growing up? What did you want to be when you were a child? If you were not an ethnobotanist, what would you be?
I would be working in medicine. Some of the research I do today has some overlap with medical research. As a child, I wanted to study medicine for two main reasons. When someone from my family fell ill, I felt powerless and felt really bad for being unable to help. As a child, I used to say that I’d be a doctor. At the end of high school, I felt in love with biology, and said to my then teacher that I was going to do my BSc in biology. He did not encourage me to pursue it and advised me to study medicine instead, for he considered it more comprehensive. Today, I disagree with him and regard biology as a much wider field. I tried to go to medical school, however my marks were insufficient, so I finally went for biology. When I started my BSc, I had the feeling that I was doing the right thing and found really hard to choose what modules to take because I loved everything.
What made you choose your current research themes on the relation between humans and plants and how does this relate to your field experience on Brazilian ethnobotany (particularly the Caatinga ecosystem) and Afro-Brazilian medicine?
I started to do research in ethnobotany with a project on Afro-Brazilian religions, a topic that Laise, my teacher of systematic botany, proposed I should focus on for my final dissertation. During the research, I started to reflect on the relations between humans and plants through a religious perspective and on how people maintained a sacred relationship with nature. Plants play a central role in Afro-Brazilian religion. The name of many African divinities in fact is directly related to those of specific plants. There is a Yorubá saying that goes “Kossi Ewe, Kossi Orixá”, which means there is no gods without plants. In other words, the use of plants is conditional for the continuation of their religion and ritual practices. When enslaved Africans arrived in Brazil, they did not have access to the plants they had back home, so they were compelled to make adaptations. In an article I published a few years ago in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, I argue that these adaptations followed mainly three different strategies: (1) they started using local plants that were available in Brazil; (2) they substituted plants considered equivalent in their worldview; (3) they began to import their native plants from Africa, which was often smuggled in slave ships and, after the end of slavery, through trade. The Afro-Brazilian religion is ultimately an act of resistance, as they found ways of giving continuity to their practice in the most adverse conditions. Nowadays, they use plants of different origins and have also incorporated plants used by the native peoples from Brazil in a very intricate system of exchange of ritual practice and religiosity.
The Caatinga is the main ecosystem of the Brazilian northeast, where I am based. When I started my studies, this area was largely overlooked in ethnobotany, so my research efforts throughout my career concentrated on understanding the relationship of people and plants in this ecosystem in particular. The Caatinga is marked by periods of intense droughts, lasting 8-10 months a year, and irregular rain fall over the other 2-4 months. Someone who lives in the Caatinga, or caatingueiro, needs to cope with this climatic seasonality. But how this affects the people living there? More recently, I have been interested in understanding the human mind and how it modified/adapted to be able to cope with environmental challenges. Today I am very interested in understanding the evolution of mind in relation to the human interactions with nature. Some of the findings or theoretical innovations that our group proposes to the scientific community were based on the use of medicinal plants in this environment. For instance, there are several seasonal herbs that are scientifically recognised as efficient in treating certain conditions. However, they are neglected if compared to certain trees that are perennial, less abundant and less effective. One of the hypotheses we developed to explain why people prefer trees over herbs in this environment is that the trees offer them a sense of security: they are available as a resource all year around – while the herbs, although more abundant and effective, are not. This mental bias for security and survival is valid not only in the Caatinga, but also in other ecosystems. Recent studies in evolutionary psychology have described this kind of bias as ‘adaptative memory’ or bias that unconsciously privileges the remembrance of information that is crucial for our sense of security and survival over other information. Children, for example, can better recall information on poisonous plants and animals than on those that are not.
Who was the most influential person(s) on your career? Was there ever an act of (kindness/fate) that changed your life course?
A very important person during my PhD was the ecologist Prof Marcelo Tabarelli. I was strongly influenced by his lectures and consider this a turning point for me as a scientist. Being a scientist in a developing country, where research is not valued or appreciated, is extremely challenging. Brazil has been undergoing a process of ‘brain drain’, with many people moving out to carry on working and doing research. Many people inspired me throughout my career and encouraged me not to give up, some of them are probably unaware of it. Among them, are Dr. Ina Vandebroek from the New York Botanical Garden, Dr. Julio Hurrell from the University of La Plata in Argentina, Dr. Ana Ladio from University of Comahue in Argentina, Dr. Rainer Bussmann from Ilia State University in Georgia and Dr. Robert Voeks, the editor of the Journal of Economic Botany, who always stimulated me to reach my research objectives. In Brazil there are also very important people who inspired me to carry on working and researching, especially as collaborators, such as Prof Natalia Hanazaki, Prof Nivaldo Peroni from Federal University of Santa Catarina.
What was the highlight of your career? A moment you were proud of?
I am most proud of the moment I was able to look back at what I have done, and to what other researchers around me had done, and try and systematise that in terms of theoretical contributions. This happened last year when we proposed a first theory originated from ethnobiology, which is the ‘social-ecological theory of maximization’. I was proud to feel that I was reaching the mission of contributing to the development of theory in the field. This theory tries to explain how we look at natural resources, how we chose the resources to be used, and once selected, how we organise knowledge around these resources. In general terms, this social-ecological theory postulates that all the criteria that we use in selecting natural resources is often based on maximising gains and reducing loss. For example, returning to the question of the trees and herbs from the Caatinga, what is the best strategy, to use the herbs as they are more powerful, although they are only available 2-4 months a year? Or to use the trees, even though they are not as potent, they are present all year around? This evaluation of risk dictates the human behaviours in relation to natural resources.
And a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought what am I doing/how the hell did I get here?
The low point of my career was in the beginning, when I felt prejudice from the academic community against ethnobiology. This was very strong in Brazil back then; it has improved more recently but it is still an issue. Ethnobiology and ethnobotany were seen by researchers from other fields as low quality science, or even as a hobby or non-science. This was a very traumatic experience for me, and I hope the new generation of ethnobiologists won’t feel the same prejudice I experienced. One of the things I did to try and redress this, with the support of colleagues such as Prof. Romulo Alves (ethnozoologist) and Prof. Elcida Araujo (ecologist), was to create the first PhD programme in ethnobiology in Latin America – and also a new journal – , which started in 2011 at the Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco, in a consortium with three other local universities. It was a dream come through, and I am very proud that now there is a PhD programme to receive students from different disciplines that are interested in studying the relationship between biota and human beings.
What would be your best advice for a student of ethnobotany? (maybe 1 or 2 tips, or things you had wish you had known as a student? How do you see the future of ethnobotany?
Study how science works, philosophy and methodology. Improve the art of scientific thinking as this can be applied to any subject matter, produce quality research, contribute to the scientific community as well as to the communities we work in collaboration with. Embrace social engagement in your research. Ethnobotany places itself as a mediator between academic knowledge and local or traditional ecological knowledges. Realise that the people we work with have demands and needs that we as scientists can help with and contribute to. In sum, strengthen yourself as a scientist but also be socially engaged.
Ethnobotanical research has the potential to have an important social impact in critical areas in the years to come, such as food shortage and security, nutrition and medicinal services. An engaged science, focused on answering questions that are relevant socially and addressing real problems, especially to the most vulnerable population, is of utmost importance for the future of ethnobotany.
Favourite ethnobotanical researcher?
A person I started reading while on my BSc and MSc and that I am extremely grateful to for all the opportunities and friendship this person offered me throughout my career, is Prof. Robert Voeks, from the University of California. Every time we talked, I felt encouraged by his supportive and stimulating words, and this is especially meaningful when it comes from people who we especially respect and admire. Thank you so much Bob!
Do you have any ‘must read’ ethnobotany books?
The manual on ethnobotany by Prof Miguel Alexiades. I would also recommend the volumes covering topics on theoretical and methodological aspects of ethnobotany and ethnobiology produced by our research group and edited by Springer and Elsevier, that were published between 2014 and 2019: Methods and Techniques in Ethnobiology and Ethnoecology (V. 1), Evolutionary Ethnobiology, Introduction to Ethnobiology, Ethnobotany for beginners, Methods and Techniques in Ethnobiology and Ethnoecology (V.2), and Ethnozoology. These volumes were conceived as a part of our mission to stimulate people starting their careers in the field.
What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?
I am fanatic about horror and suspense movies, I watch many on my free time. I also like reading fiction and fantasy which creates imagined worlds and sceneries, like Lord of the Rings. My main hobby is writing fictional stories, especially chronicles and short stories. Two of my fictional works have been published in Brazil. I am also passionate about the local culture of Pernambuco, the state where I live in the Northeast of Brazil, and its musical scene, which is very eclectic, mixing external influences with local traditional rhythms.
What is your favourite plant and why?
I have two favourite plants. The “Aroeira do Sertão” (Myracrodruon urundeuva), which is one of the most important medicinal plants for the people living in the Caatinga. It is very versatile medically and is the first plant people usually mentioned in field research in the area. I also like the Jurema Preta (Mimosa tenuiflora, syn. Mimosa hostilis), which is a sacred and hallucinogenic plant used in Afro-Brazilian and indigenous rituals. This is one of the first plants I studied and was the subject of a book I published with the anthropologist Clarice Novaes da Mota entitled The many faces of Jurema (As muitas faces da jurema).
*An interview with Dr. Cinthya Lana and SEB Student council member, Kim Walker. 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 would like to interview someone, please email Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org