INTERVIEW – 2021 DISTINGUISHED ECONOMIC BOTANIST DR. PABLO EYZAGUIRRE

Trained as an anthropologist at Yale (PhD in 1986), the work of Dr. Pablo Eyzaguirre has been transdisciplinary, at the intersection of agrobiodiversity conservation, food and nutritional security and rural livelihoods. Dr. Eyzaguirre is a creative thinker and leading expert on home gardens and agrobiodiversity, traditional food crops and biocultural landscapes. His work has contributed to understanding resilience and adaptation of traditional farming communities to climate change. Furthermore, he has worked to integrate agrobiodiversity and sustainable livelihoods into the management of biosphere reserves and protected areas. Dr. Eyzaguirre spent most of his career at Bioversity International. His early work started with fieldwork in West Africa and expanded to most regions of the world. His scientific research falls within the remit of the Society for Economic Botany which bestowed its award of Distinguished Economic Botanist of 2021.

Here is an interview with Dr. Eyzaguirre highlighting key points in his career and sharing some with us.

Lukas: When did you first realize your interest in the relationship of people and plants, and what motivated you to take this as your career path?

Pablo: It came through my PhD research which I conducted in Lusophone Africa in the first decade after independence from Portugal. It was a turbulent and hopeful time. I initially planned to focus on farming systems research and compare plantations with traditional farming practices in Mozambique. But there was a bomb attack by apartheid South Africa and the renowned research director, Ruth First was killed. That changed the plan, and I went to the island nation of Sao Tomé and Príncipe in West Africa to compare cocoa estate plantations with traditional forest farming. That was more of a political economy study. But at a time when food imports were severely limited, people revived the production and consumption of crops that were seldom accounted for in the official or scientific literature. In fact, many of the foods that people were eating and selling, such as Solanum nigrum for example, were described as poisonous or inedible in the scientific literature. The few botanical guides or official documents on food production and consumption were not that useful as they were missing the local knowledge. Here I also became interested in the divide between wild and cultivated plants. Smallholder farmers are not that strict on what is wild and cultivated and there is a constant back and forth process of cultivated plants going ruderal and wild plants being domesticated and cultivated. And I began to document these practices.

After completing my PhD, I taught anthropology for two years in the US before returning to full time research at ISNAR in The Hague. There I worked with agricultural research institutes around the world, documenting the importance of participatory research engaging farmers and recognising their local knowledge on traditional crops. After that, in 1996, International Plant Genetic Research Institute (IPGRI), now Bioversity International, created a position for a social scientist. That was a new approach to plant genetic resources and the conservation and use of genetic diversity in crops and farming systems. I was lucky to get that position. Empowered by a new job, I developed a project with a strong gender aspect, where we worked largely with women scientists to investigate the role of women farmers in the diversity and production of traditional leafy vegetables in Africa, and to document their wide distribution and economic importance. This work was based on the knowledge of rural women who were managing on-going domestication, production and marketing. Together with FAO, we found that many local greens and condiments were important if not crucial to healthy and nutritious diets. Further, we realized that many plants that were considered not important economically were actually quite important. Some African leafy greens are exported to global markets and cities like London, and Brussels. So this was how I got interested in the relationship of people and plants and what areas I chose to focus on providing and maintaining nutritious foods.

At IPGRI, my colleagues and I developed the concept of “neglected and underutilized species”, which is actually a social category. These species are important for rural people, yet they are neglected rather by science and markets. Unlike much of the current interest in “lost crops” and “super foods”, we have come to understand that some of these neglected crops are not necessarily designed to be major crops. It is important to understand the crops in their ecological and cultural context.

While at IPGRI/Bioversity we continued to focus on the in-situ conservation of crop genetic diversity as we observed the shift from a rich diversity of local cultivars to modern varieties. Notably, many local farmers were maintaining many traditional varieties and when we asked them why, the most common answer was because of the taste (the organoleptic properties). These traits were at times not considered by plant breeders. Nutritionists often ignored nutritional composition or taste and cooking differences among varieties. We began to address this gap with FAO and various research institutions and community organisations. My principle has always been to look first at existing crop diversity before developing and bringing new varieties or species.

In the later stage of my career, I looked mainly at the cultural aspect of food and agriculture. Then it was time to retire, and I went back home to Chile where I have a farm with a home garden. Here I entered a truly personal and spiritual relationship with my cultivated and wild landscapes and the plants that I grow and protect. We need to foster a healthy attitude to land and plant use, which is not always easy to achieve in the current world.

L: Could you describe what has been the main mission of your work?

P: The main mission and goal of my work was to bring out the voices of forgotten people in marginal areas. There are so many aspects and voices of the natural and agriculture world that are little heard. I think that is very important, to do more listening and less speaking and more reading and less writing. Unless you are a young researcher, by all means we need to hear more from you and what you think. 

L: You have done a lot of research on agrobiodiversity and home gardens. Do you see this kind of research area still growing, or in which direction this will be heading?

P: I think the homegardens work, in fact, is getting the most frequently cited with new citations coming every day. Humans keep the most important resources nearby, and this is in the homegardens, not in the most remote and distant ecosystems. So I think it is still an important field and we should keep promoting it. Also, lots of plants were domesticated in homegardens. Lots of interactions and spontaneous crosses leading to new diversity happen even in semi-urban allotments. Unfortunately, most of the research and projects nowadays are short-term, which is not good for observation of changes and for research in general.

L: For a long time, you have been contributing to the conservation of local crops, traditional landscapes and biocultural diversity. Have you identified any successful strategy for achieving these goals in the context of a rapidly changing world? Or what actions do we need to prioritize (a system perspective which can go beyond research)?

I think it is important to focus on the landscape rather than on particular species, to identify certain important landscapes – centers of biocultural and wild diversity. Every country has these places “biocultural landscapes” which also include wild areas that are important for natural and socio-cultural interactions. Putting biodiversity into genebanks is important especially for future production. However, countries should work more on conserving landscapes and promoting regional products. We subsidize lots of unuseful or unhealthy things, so we should be able to also subsidize the landscapes and promote links with cultural pride in local foods and biocultural landscapes. 

L: You have also worked on agrobiodiversity as a core of diets and traditional food systems. My PhD study assessed the relationship between agrobiodiversity and diets in rural Indonesia. In the field, I noticed that traditional foods are cooked less frequently due to time requirements for their preparation and changing lifestyles (more can be found here). Would you have an idea how to address this issue and dietary transition?

P: Obviously, there needs to be an appreciation of the changes in lifestyles and food habits, but we can help traditional foods transition as well. A good example are African leafy vegetables that still have a place in food markets and diets even as people move to cities. These foods may provide economic and job opportunities through small-scale food processing. In many countries, we found that simple equipment like jars might be missing, so that has to be addressed. Having a nutritious plant growing in the field is important but we need to find ways to make that food available in a new context. Unfortunately, the whole cultural change turns cooking into a competitive process, you know, like master chefs, foodies and superfoods etc. This is caused mainly by changes in education and social media and advertising. In the past, schools used to teach “home economics” and basics of cooking and processing. This is now missing, even though it could create jobs. We should also not forget the strong connection of rural-urban linkages. In terms of diet, my colleague Timothy Johns always used to say that there is no perfect diet. There is a diet that allows you to survive in a particular environment healthily. In any case, we have to stop looking at perfect diets and superfoods and look at it more systemically. Diet should be a cultural thing.

L: Has there been a specific result or achievement that has been a gratifying moment of your career?

P: I am surprised about the number of citations of my publications. However, I am most happy for having the chance to meet remarkable people and colleagues from Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and the Americas. It has been a great pleasure to work with these dedicated and generous people with great insights. This field might not give that much money, but you will certainly meet interesting and nice people. This has been extremely gratifying for me. Also, working with young and curious people is inspiring.

L: What is the main lesson you learned in your work that you would like to share with other ethnobotanists and young researchers?

P: Get as much experience as you can in the field early on. It is essential and it provides you with experience, ability to look comparatively, and opportunity for a career in the end. It is also important to attend various conferences and meet with other researchers. There is no single solution for current problems. Get ready for diverse solutions in different contexts and ecosystems. Young researchers should also look into the “ignored” research areas and delve into it. Then the ideas will start emerging.

Submitted by Lukas Pawera, SEB Student Representative (paweralukas@gmail.com)

More about Pablo’s research in this recording of the SEB fall symposium on careers: here.

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