Learning with Elders: Human Ecology and Ethnobotany Explorations in Northern and Central Vietnam

By Whitney, Cory William; Min, Vang Sin et al. | Human Organization, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Learning with Elders: Human Ecology and Ethnobotany Explorations in Northern and Central Vietnam


Whitney, Cory William, Min, Vang Sin, Giang, Lê Hong, Van Can, Vu, Barber, Keith, Lanh, Tran Thi, Human Organization


Introduction

Vietnam has experienced many rapid changes in recent years, leading to economic growth for the country but also to the loss of biodiversity (FAO 2011b), increased poverty (Mellor and Desai 1996), and food insecurity (FAO 2011a) among the rural poor. Consequently ethnic minority communities are experiencing major challenges in maintaining their way of life within the rapidly industrializing region (Baulch et al. 2007; Lanh 2009). Vietnamese government programs and international organizations focusing on rural development and poverty reduction have had little impact in terms of sustainable community development, particularly for ethnic minorities in highland areas. Typical approaches are often short-term and largely top-down and based on outsiders' ideas about how to reduce poverty (Baulch et al. 2007; Lanh 2009; Wilshusen et al. 2002), particularly regarding land ownership and forest policy (Sowerwine 2004). The consequences are both that the community does not benefit from the efforts and there are unwanted social impacts leading to disempowerment, as the people are made passive rather than active in their own development (Luong 2003; SPERI 2013).

Studies suggest that some ethnic minority societies have the tools and practices necessary for the conservation of biodiversity (Agrawal 1995; Baird 2013b). While not all indigenous peoples are necessarily conservationists (Li 2002; Tsing 1999, 2005), it is evident that, with some communities, empowerment and self-determination to enact their customary laws and practices should be explored as a measure of preserving and restoring indigenous culture and biodiversity (Shengji 1991; Xu et al. 2005). In the Mekong area, this is of critical importance to the great biodiversity and diversity of culture (Baird 2013b; Lanh 2009). Furthermore, indigenous communities around the world have asserted their "inherent rights to self-determination" and the conservation of cultural and ecological resources for future generations (IPO 1991); in their own words, indigenous communities assert that this conservation ethic is not only a responsibility to coming generations but also about a relationship with nature, which is "at the core of our existence" (Kari-Oca Declaration 1992) based on a "distinct spiritual and material relationship" that is "inextricably linked to our survival and to the preservation and further development of our knowledge systems and cultures" (Kimberly Declaration 2002).

The following work attempts to understand and record the methods and modalities of ethnic minority groups' conservation activities and traditional knowledge as they relate to plants and ecosystems. It looks at the relationship between efforts for conservation and the spiritual and practical use of traditional plants in ethnic minority communities. The elders observed and interviewed in this investigation represent some of the last practitioners of the traditional ethnobotany knowledge and practices of the Dao, Hmong, Kinh, Ma-Lieng, Sach, Tai, Tay, and Xinh-Mun ethnic communities of northern and central Vietnam (SPERI 2013).

Existing research describes the ethnobotany knowledge of ethnic minorities in Vietnam, both on farm (Canh et al. 2005; Trinh et al. 2003) and in the forests, particularly for the Dao people (Sam 2012; Sam, Baas, and Kessler 2008; Sowerwine 1999). In Laos, most ethnobotany information is related to important export commodities (Ketphanh 1995; NAFRI 2007). In Thailand, studies have focused on homegardens and highland communities' use of medicinal plants (Anderson 1986; Anderson 1993; Pake 1987; Srithi et al. 2012a, 2012b; Vidal and Lemoine 1970). Some evidence from research with Cambodian indigenous peoples suggests that unsustainable harvesting of Scaphium affine (Mast.) Pierre by cutting down trees for malva nut fruit can be prevented with community support (Baird and Dearden 2003) likewise for Dipterocarpus spp. harvesting for wood resin (Baird 2009). These findings warrant deeper investigation. …

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