An interview with Rainer W Bussmann, Professor and Head of the Department of Ethnobotany at the Institute of Botany, Ilia State University, Georgia and co-director of Saving Knowledge. Previously director of William L. Brown Center at Missouri Botanical Garden. Past president of SEB. His work focuses on ethnobotanical research and the preservation of traditional knowledge, in the Andes, the Caucasus, and the Himalayas.
Header image of Rainer Bussmann with “Mura,” Bakuriani Alpine Botanical Garden. (Photo Narel Y. Paniagua-Zambrana)
Describe yourself in your own words. Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?
I am an Ethnobotanist, although this is slightly narrow, but I am obsessed with plants and what people can do with them. By training I am a Vegetation Ecologist and Taxonomist.
Describe your work/what you see as your mission
My ethnobotanical work started out as simple taxonomic assistance to anthropological colleagues. I identified the plants and they asked questions (and it was impressive to see how much one could ask about!). But based on this I soon focused on how to design better ethnobotanical studies, and how these could contribute on improving the livelihoods of the people I work with, while at the same time promoting conservation. Within our discipline I see food and gastronomy as a particularly important sub-discipline. Food in general, because it represents the basis of any livelihood, and traditional food plants are the most important “ingredient” to confront global change, and of course to feed a growing population. At the same time traditional food plants can provide interesting ingredients for supplement and food ingredient development, and thus contribute to sustainable community income. Gastronomy, because I love to cook and to eat, and believe that gastronomy is an excellent tool to bring ethnobotany to a wider population. I also believe that we as ethnobotanists should engage in activism and application of what we do. I have co-founded various NGOs in this field, because I think it is our responsibility as scientists to apply our knowledge. To me there should be no boundary between academic ethnobotany and its application.
Maybe in contrast to many colleagues I do not see medicinal plants as particularly interesting. Much of the global pharmacopoeia has actually been documented, and in fact most papers reporting on medicinal plants are highly repetitive (including mine). I also do not believe that traditional knowledge of plants will provide us compounds to treat lots of important diseases. This was an interesting idea in the 1980s, but since then synthetic drug discovery has won the game. Sure, one can argue that natural compounds have contributed many base structures for allopathic medicine. However, over the last decades very little has come out of the “botanical” drug discovery pipeline, and even less has contributed to improve the livelihoods of the traditional knowledge holders, while at the same time causing increasingly polemic and hostile discussions in our discipline. Plants are much more important as compound sources for the supplement and food ingredient industry.
Did you ever think you would be an ethno/botanist growing up?[Or work with plants?]. What did you want to be when you were a child?
All my ancestors were farmers and winemakers (although my mothers’ parents had become barbers). But I was the first academic in the family. While as child I spent lots of time exploring the local forests, pastures and stables, I never felt encouraged to work with plants. But there must have been some fascination for ethnobotany in me – I always used to make “herb cocktails” for customers in my grandmother barber shop that I did not like. A little later I started collecting insects, and breeding butterflies – which of course needed fodder plants, which got me into botany. However, at that point I regarded traditional plant use as something quaint and antiquated. But at age 12, I knew that I wanted to become a botanist, and work at a large herbarium, exploring the world collecting plants. So I started mapping our local flora (our Federal State had a already a citizen science program along those lines) – and cause constant anxiety for my parents, who were afraid I might end up as a peat body in our local sphagnum bogs. I started publishing simple botanical papers and giving classes and leading excursions in botany at the local adult college when I was 14. I never considered studying anything but Botany.
Rainer Bussmann “Dabbling in agriculture” around 1970. (Photo RW. Bussmann)
What/where did you study? Do you think this inﬂuences you in any particular way? If you were not an ethnobotanist, what would you be?
I studied biology at Universität Tübingen in Germany – the only university I actually applied to, because it is one of the oldest in Europe, going back to 1477, and I had heard it had a long tradition in botany. Fortunately I did not get discouraged when some undergraduate tutor told me that botany only led to unemployment, and that I should study microbiology or genetics, which was the fashion of the time. What I loved about Tübingen was the breath of what you could chose to study. While staying true to botany, I also did minors in plant physiology, zoology, parasitology and paleontology – with lots of field excursions. For my diploma (MSc) thesis I decided to go to Kenya and study the floristic composition of African mountain forests, which then led into a doctoral thesis on the same topic. Again, plant use at that time had no importance for me – like many young and eager conservationists I actually saw people as “destroyers” of “my” forests (not realizing that they of course had used the resource for a long time). But at least I did some work on regeneration / germination of local timber species, which the Anglo-colonial foresters had always ignored, focusing on plantations of pines, eucalyptus and cypress. And I greatly admired the plant knowledge of my local guides, who in fact had many more tools than myself for identification (including smells of the plants, color of latex etc. etc.), and of course knew all the uses
What got you interested in ethnobotany?
When writing up my doctoral thesis in Kenya, I spent lots of time in high class safari camps, because I liked the tents, everything worked, the food was great – and it was overall cheaper (and of course much nicer) than renting a place in Nairobi. Funny enough, one evening at dinner, some guy walked up to my table and asked if he could join. The guy turned out to be the then President of the Board of the San Diego Museum of Man, who was planning to finance an ethnobotanical expedition to Southern Ecuador. In the course of the conversation, it became clear that the expedition needed a plant taxonomist – an opportunity that I decided to take. That in essence is when my ethnobotanical work started. As a “sideline” it also started my conservation and NGO career. During the expedition, I convinced the respective donor that the highly biodiverse mountain forest ecosystems of the region, were scientifically unexplored, and would merit in-depth study. This led to the purchase of about 4000 acres of cloud forest, the construction of “Estación Científica San Francisco” one of the largest research stations in Latin America, and the foundation of “Nature and Culture International,” an NGO that is by now protecting over 20 million acres in the Americas, and as which’s vice-president and scientific director I served for over a decade. This effort, in turn, allowed me to help create and coordinate the largest and longest running tropical ecology program ever financed by the German Science Foundation (DFG), which have been continuously running since 1997. However, I have always continued “regular” botanical work, and still enjoy classic expeditions.
What made you choose your current research themes in ethnobotany?
Ultimately the research themes “chose me.” Ok, I was always interested in mountain floras, given that I grew up close to the alps. My original focus in conservation got me interested in sustainable use of plant resources, and that in turn in the implementation of the Convention on Biodiversity and its attached Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit sharing. This led to trying to implement ethnobotanical studies where the original knowledge holders were actually involved in all aspects, from planning and conducting the fieldwork, to publishing (and repatriating!) the results.
Who was the most influential person(s) on your career? Was there ever an act of (kindness/fate) that changed your life course?
From an ethnobotanical perspective all the people I have worked with in the field, and who have taught me all I know about plant use, and with whom I have shared countless meals and beverages. And in this sense, one of my grandfathers, who taught me that we are all created equal, no matter where we come from, what we believe and practice, what ethnicity we have, and how wealthy we are. And, of course, my wife Narel Paniagua, who is an excellent botanist and ethnobotanist in her own right. We are simply a fabulous research team!
At school, one of my teachers who encouraged me to engage in botanical collection to document the local flora, and all the other “pastime” botanists I worked with, and who also encouraged me to publish very early on, and to start teaching at the local adult college.
At university of course my professors who encouraged me to “study broad”, and especially my thesis advisor, who always was there to support his “students in Africa” while giving us as much liberty as we wanted.
What was the highlight of your career? A moment you were proud of?
Hm, there are a few. The publication of my first “critical” paper on forest destruction and management in Kenya (which in turn led to an interesting “interview” with the Kenyan secret service and long delays in my mail for months). The establishment of “Estación Cientifica San Francisco” in Ecuador and Nature and Culture International as NGO, and the German Tropical Ecology Program mentioned above, and turning William L. Brown Center at Missouri Botanical Garden from what was largely a bioprospecting program into a research powerhouse focusing on ethnobotany, climate change, ethnopharmacology, botanical discovery, and protection of traditional knowledge, with projects on five continents. And finally of course, the formation of the Department of Ethnobotany here at the Botanical Institute, which in turn is quickly becoming one the most cited ethnobotany programs in the world.
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?
I can think of three. When setting up Estación Científica San Francisco we were accused of biopiracy, because we did not want to bribe some corrupt local counterparts and officials.
During the time I was on the SEB council and society president, I was also council member of all our other societies (SoE, ISEthnopharmacology, ISEthnobiology, Economic Botany Section of BSA) and tried hard to get the societies to unite, given that many of us are members in more than one. That essentially was an utter failure, as everybody was keen to keep doing their own thing.
When leading the William L. Brown Center, to realize that there was no support whatsoever in the administration to confront issues of racial injustice, both in St. Louis and at a global level (it was the time the Trump travel ban came into force), which was the main reason to leave St. Louis.
What would be your top advice for a student of ethnobotany?
The most important experience during my studies was definitely never being put off by locked doors and restrictions on participation in courses and internships. If there is an interesting event, it is always worth a try! I did my major internship while I was still undergraduate, started working as a course assistant in the 4th semester and had the necessary courses for my major and my three minor subjects behind me after the 6th semester. You shouldn’t let yourself be put off by locked professorial doors. If you do not try, it is already a “no” – so why not taking a chance? It might actually work!
Always remember that we are all equal. You are not any better / more important / more intelligent or whatever than your local counterparts, just because you are w scientist. Never forget that without THEIR PARTICIPATION and THEIR NOWLEDGE none of your research would ever get done, and none of your papers written. Try to involve local participants in all aspects of research, from design, to fieldwork, to publication, and do not forget to give the knowledge you documented back to the communities in a format they want and can use.
Don’t think being a researcher is more “interesting” than being a farmer! Essentially it involves lots of days doing exactly the same – writing another paper, revising a paper rejected by a journal, reviewing papers…..Oh, and you should do lots of reviewing! If you think you have no time for reviews (because you need to write your thesis, another paper, or whatever), think a moment about the fact that some colleague (who is also busy) will have to act a reviewer for YOUR paper…..
Do what you really like to do, i.e. follow your passion! Do not just do a project because there is money out there – nor stick with a job because it is well paid or because it has prestige. Follow your ethics!
Never let people tell you that you are not qualified to do something because of who you are or what condition you have. I for example have Asperger’s Syndrome – I do not like to be surrounded by many people, and I hate small-talk, even more so when it involves academics that have no broad education in say history (if I were not an ethnobotanist, I would have become a historian), world religions etc. etc., and I certainly do not show a lot of empathy. One might think this would be detrimental for a career that involves lots of people interaction and endless hours of interviews. Turns out the contrary is true – I can completely concentrate on interview participants and tune out any distractions. It also helps to write and publish, and to be a reasonably good editor – although we with Asperger’s are known to be somewhat legasthenic.
How do you see the future of ethnobotany? i.e. new trends, areas not yet researched, areas that are over researched? What do you see as the most important mission of ethnobotany for the future?
The future of ethnobotany, in my opinion, lies in applied research, especially in the food sector. And this research needs to be fully participatory at all levels. Ethnobotanical studies need better designs INVOLVING the local participants in the process. And we need better taxonomic training for ethnobotanists. Too many students – as well as more advanced researchers – have almost no clue how to collect a good voucher, and how to identify it. This needs to change.
Ethnobotany is a science of people and plants, and it involves face to face contact. The current pandemic has made this even clearer. Training local interviewers is the best way to collect lots of good data, while at the same time protecting vulnerable communities.
Data studies, i.e. lists of useful species, especially medicinal plants, are still one of the most common outputs of Ethnobotanical research. While not particularly interesting, they provide data for meta-analysis, and thus have their place. However, good ethnobotanical studies need to take history, culture, ecology etc. of the area one works in into account, to be able to, together with the local participants, analyze the data from a cultural perspective.
Favourite ethnobotanical researcher?
Colleagues who inspire me most are people who show that you can do fantastic research and excellent publications without falling into the “auto-promotion” trap, people like Ina Vandebroek, Andrea Pieroni, Renata Soukand, Lukasz Luczaj, all of whom I also regard as friends. Also one of my university professors – Klaus Drumm, who was a specialist on algae, but at the same time an incredible ethnobotanist who actually “practiced” ethnobotany at home.
Have you any ‘must read’ ethnobotany books?
Hard question. First of all I would recommend a good general botanical book – like Strasburger’s Textbook in Botany. There is no ethnobotany without a serious understanding of botany and plant ecology as a science.
What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?
What is downtime? I always loved collecting plants (also lichens, fungi…) and I love cooking. So my “downtime” is simply doing what I always do – working with plants, but somewhat outside an academic context. I have also been gardening / farming (which makes one very humble I think, because it helps understanding how difficult the life of many of our research participants actually is).
Like many ethnobotanists, I love to cook and to eat, and I do like making wine. This of course makes perfect sense to me – if you are working with people and plants, it all comes together at the kitchen table-
And of course, I love dogs – you will almost never find me anywhere without at least an “adopted” dog.
I do not care about sports. While I recognize the benefits, practicing some kind of sport or going to the gym always felt very boring to me. I prefer long walks with my dogs, which also allows me to think. However, what most people do not know is that I have been doing quite a bit of mountain climbing, and at some point, lots of Krav Maga.
What is your favourite plant and why?
My favorite plant is Nigritella nigra, a tiny blackish alpine orchid, with a wonderful chocolate-vanilla smell (and no apparent use). As “useful” plant maybe mountain-ash (Sorbus aucuparia) with its beautiful reddish-orange fruits, which make for great jam and tasty spirits. But bring me any interesting species and I will be happy.
*This interview was organized by Maroof Ali Turi, PhD student, Anhui Normal University Wuhu China. Follow him on twitter @marufali059. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences.