‘How I got here’ – Tinde Van Andel

An interview with Tinde Van Andel – Senior Researcher in Ethnobotany at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Professor in Ethnobotany at Wageningen University and Professor of History of Botany and Gardens at Leiden University.

Tinde in 2017 during fieldwork on traditional rice in French Guiana (Picture by Alice Bertin)

Do you describe yourself as an ethnobotanist?

Yes, I do think I am an ethnobotanist. But depending on the audience and where I am I also call myself a botanist or a biologist, and sometimes an ecologist. I’m somewhere in between those.

What was your journey up to this point?

My whole life has been dedicated to becoming something like that, but I didn’t know when I was younger which opportunities existed for me or how to get there. I always liked plants and animals, but until I was 13 or 14 I didn’t realise there existed a study named biology in which you could focus on that. Then I realised that to become a biologist I had to also do physics, chemistry and mathematics – none of which are my favourite subjects. Luckily my father – who studied physics, worked in the chemical industry, and was a very technical person – guided me through secondary school, helping me with those subjects. If he hadn’t been there I couldn’t have fulfilled my dreams.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in the eastern Netherlands, next to the German border on a farm. My parents are not farmers, but they bought this old 17th century farm and tried to repair it, and my mother had some animals – geese, sheep, dogs, cats, chickens – so I really grew up in nature. Climbing trees, making fires, jumping in ditches. Ideal place to become a biologist!

Tinde aged 2, 1969 (photographer unknown)

When did you start drawing the ethno- element into your work?

Growing up in the countryside there was nothing to do, and the nearest town was 6 or 7km cycling, where there was nothing to do either. I wanted to get out of there, so I went to Amsterdam after high school to study biology. I didn’t really know what it was or what jobs you could do with it – it was in the late 80s so jobs for academics were rare – but I didn’t think too much about it. I found out during that time what I liked and what I liked less. I found out I don’t like microscopes because zooming in and out makes me nauseous, and there are little things you cannot see. I don’t like lab work for the same reason. I like the outdoors. My classmates said to me “oh, the botany course is horrible. You have to know the Latin names of plants and everybody fails”. But when I did it, the exam was a daisy, an oak leaf and a beech leaf, and I thought… I could have done this when I was five! People in Amsterdam don’t know oak trees, because oaks don’t grow there.

I liked botany, but not the taxonomy part. There was no ethnobotany in my study, although once we had a course on spices and I missed the first part, which I regret until today because I had been partying! For the next part I came in and everything smelt of nutmeg cigarettes, because the spice guy had just handed out these Indonesian kreteks and everybody was smoking them. It was smelling like hell! In that time you could still smoke in the classroom. Anyhow, I loved the class and was fascinated by the stories of colonial travels, the occupation of Indonesia, and the way spices were produced.

Then I did my masters in the Colombian Amazon – a vegetation study. It’s the most biodiverse place in the world so it’s very difficult to identify plants there and I was completely dependent on the indigenous community I was staying with. They knew the forest very well and I loved going with them and seeing how they classified it.

Which indigenous community were you working with?

The Muinane. It was a very small group in the Caquetá River of the Colombian Amazon. It was in ‘89 – in the middle of the Pablo Escobar war. People now know it for Narcos. There were these explosions which I read about in the newspaper as they were happening. It was very dangerous, and my parents didn’t like it. I can understand because I wouldn’t send my child there. But I went, and it changed my life. I was 22, and it was a new world. Very exciting and frightening also. I wasn’t supervised so good. They just dropped me there. But the Amerindian family I was living with were very sweet. They helped me, and I really liked working with them.

Tinde in the Colombian Amazon, 1989 (Picture by Klaas-Jan Beek)

As soon as I finished my fieldwork, the FARC guerrillas took over that area so nobody could enter, and it was occupied for years. When I graduated in 1992 there were no jobs. Most of my biology friends got a job in computer database management making good money but they lost their love for biology. I signed up for a year exchange where I got €350 per month to work in nature conservation for an NGO in Costa Rica, because I figured I’d be working with people and plants. Afterwards I knew I’d never work in nature conservation or NGOs again, because the money is always finished, and few people are really doing something. However, while there I found out they’d done a reforestation project, but nobody had calculated how fast the trees grew, so I made a little research for myself and realised that fit me much better. I thought – I can do something on my own, I don’t have to wait for other people.

So when I went back I applied for a PhD on useful plants in northwest Guyana with Utrecht University. There was an EU program that wanted to do something with non-timber forest products and they had nobody for it because people thought it was too anthropological. But I loved it! And for the first time I had money. I could do what I wanted and get things done. I always thought PhD students were stressed out and unhappy but when I was one myself I really enjoyed it. It was stressful in the end writing the thesis, but I liked writing… I just wanted to write too much.

Tinde in 1995 during her PhD research in Guyana documenting animal traps with Carib children (Picture by Martin Smeets)

After my PhD I had two children. I did some odd university jobs including fundraising, but I found out that – although it was making me money – I was not happy, because something was itching. So, I thought I might as well write my own fund with fieldwork on medicinal plants of Suriname because I knew there was something out there. I’d worked on indigenous knowledge in Guyana and observed that the plant knowledge of the Afro-Surinamese was so radically different that it must come from their African descent. But nobody had ever made a comparison between West / Central African and Afro-Caribbean knowledge – at least not thoroughly. So, I got two PhD students and myself for five years to work on that.

While doing that research I bought a bag of rice on a market stall selling medicinal plants. Some kind of spiritual rice which I didn’t understand so well. It was dark, almost black. People asked me “didn’t you read Judith Carney’s book, ‘Black Rice’?” So, I borrowed it from the library and discovered that historians had been looking for it for years and had a whole theory about it – that it was domesticated in Africa, came to the Americas with slavery, and was grown by people of African descent for centuries but had been lost. Then I went to a Society for Economic Botany conference in Charleston about African ethnobotany in the Americas and showed pictures of it, and people said “You’ve found it! You’ve found the smoking gun!”

So, I wrote a paper on it [https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12231-010-9111-6] and later Wageningen people came to me with other ideas, so we planted it in the Amsterdam botanical garden. I’m not a genomics person, however, with agriculture these varieties are so similar that DNA research is the only way to distinguish them. So that’s how we traced the Surinamese rice back to western Ivory Coast, matching it to an identical landrace in the germplasm bank – meaning that people had kept a rice variety for over 300 years and planted it secretly, to honour their ancestors. It was indeed what their ancestors ate.

Tinde conducting an interview in Suriname with rice farmer (right) and translator (left) (Picture by Alice Bertin)

These Maroons have many more rice varieties of different colours with different names, and it’s not commercial. So to continue the research I wrote a proposal to hire a postdoc to do the genomics and a PhD to help me with the fieldwork. I searched, found, and fought to get a Maroon PhD student. It wasn’t easy. He had to compete with the Dutch students who all speak good English and know exactly how to do an interview. He had a crackly Zoom connection, but I thought… He can get the story, all the others cannot. It’s a fantastic project, and now we’re getting the results. Many varieties are named after women of African descent who escaped slavery. We’re trying to find them in the archives, which is sometimes possible – writing history by means of people’s plant use.

Who has been an inspiration in your career?

Firstly, my father, without whom I couldn’t have studied biology. Later I found out that he always wanted to be a biologist, but my grandfather said you can’t make money with that. But there was a little biologist in him, and he was an avid gardener. I spent a lot of time with him, and I miss him very badly, because we could always talk biology and he loved the ethnobotany part. He also sponsored me to do fieldwork when I had no money. Secondly, my professor Paul Maas when I was doing my PhD. He’s a botanist, a real taxonomist. He’s 80-something now but still walks around Naturalis [https://www.naturalis.nl/en] and helps identify plants. Scientists can be egocentric, but his dedication is to help other people, and he sets a great example for how to educate and supervise students.

Tinde collecting medicinal plants with villagers in Benin (Picture: Alexandra Towns)

Any words of wisdom for someone considering a career in ethnobotany?

If you really like the research part, think about finding your own funding so you can shape your own career path, scheduled to your home situation. Especially for women and young mothers, because the stress can be overwhelming. Then you decide when and what type of fieldwork you do, and how long for. Whether you bring your children, your partner. You’re the boss, and every institute wants you because you already have a salary. It’s doable, but you must fight for it, and remember that nothing has to be perfect, and you don’t have to feel guilty. I’ve felt guilty going on fieldwork, but I ask my children “did you suffer from that?” And they say “No, because we also went on fieldwork!” I always took them for part of the trip. They’ve been in Brazil, Ghana, Gabon and Suriname and they still talk about it. The other tip I can give is to make sure your botany is in order, because I am a reviewer often and I see lots of bad botany. If you want to be an ethnobotanist, then ethno- is not enough. Then you should be an anthropologist. Without botany you can’t study people’s plant use.

Tinde on fieldwork in in 2010 in Nzulezo in southern Ghana with her two children (Picture by their father Christiaan van der Hoeven).

Tinde in Cameroon with Baka field assistant Jeanette

What else are you passionate about?

I work in a big natural history museum and in recent years have been working more with historians and connecting my institute to the societal debate on colonialism. Historians are fighting for evidence all the time, but in text! They fought for fifteen years over whether black rice exists in the Americas. What do I do? I go there and find it. Historians have long discussed whether it was true that people braided rice in their hair Well, go there and ask somebody! Or look into the collection and find stuff. That’s the role an ethnobotanist can play. Particularly if you work with food, you really can connect to society because people can eat your research. You can make history edible.

Tinde during fieldwork in Cameroon

Submitted by Harriet Gendall, student council member at SEB. Words 1997, reading time 10-15 minutes.

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