Adapted from Brent Berlin’s presidential remarks to the Second International Congress of Ethnobiology in Kunming, China, 1990

The discipline of ethnobiology has come of age in the latter half of the 20th century. A growing number of scientists from a broad range of traditional disciplines now regularly conduct research at the interdisciplinary boundaries of anthropology, botany, zoology, archaeology, pharmacology, geography, sociology, linguistics and related fields. Ethnobiology is truly an interdisciplinary field that combines the intuitions, skills and biases of researchers from all of these areas. In the broadest possible sense, we are united because we share the goal of reaching an understanding of the complex relationships, both present and past, that exist between human societies and their plant and animal environments. We hope to discover and codify the ethnobiological knowledge that underlies traditional peoples’ perception and management of their biological environments.

Thai market place The coming of age of a discipline is most often manifested by the formation of a collaborative professional society. While a number of regional societies of ethnobiology have been formed in various parts of the world, (for example, the Society of Ethnobiology in the USA, the Society de Ethnobiologie en France, the Group of Ethnobotanists of Latin America, the Society of Ethnobotany of India) no international federation representing the full field had yet emerged by the late 1980s. From an organization point of view, the discipline came of age internationally in the summer of 1988 when the First International Congress of Ethnobiology was held in Belém, Brazil. Without any doubt, the first Congress was primarily made possible because of the considerable and almost single-handed efforts of Dr. Darrell Posey. Dr. Posey continued to work positively in support of the society and for its sustained growth.

More than 600 delegates participated in the Congress from 35 countries, including representatives from 16 indigenous organizations. The Proceedings of the First Congress have been published in three volumes representing hundreds of pages of material on all aspects of ethnobiological research. A major result of the First Congress was the founding of the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE). Officers were elected, committees were formed, and sites selected for future congresses. At the close of the first congress, founding members joined together to forge a statement of guiding principles that represent the goals and ideals of ethnobiologists and ethnobiology in an international context. The result of these deliberations was The Declaration of Belém.

Bindi powder for sale at city market, Bangalore Karnataka India 2005. Photograph by Janneli F. Miller

This declaration explicitly recognizes the continuing destruction of ecosystems throughout the world, especially in the humid tropics. While the biological implications of such global losses are considerable, the Declaration goes further to include the human implications of these developments, stating that “(indigenous) peoples have been stewards of 99% of the world’s genetic resources.”

The Declaration of Belém makes another significant point: the knowledge underlying the resource management practices of the world’s indigenous peoples is directly tied to the maintenance of the biological diversity of the planet. When the world is no longer informed by this knowledge, either because this knowledge is depreciated as misguided or misinformed, or because the repository of indigenous knowledge is lost forever due to forces of rapid social change in the societies in which this knowledge is reposited, biological diversity will necessarily be decreased significantly.

By addressing the issues of intellectual property rights and documentation and dissemination of the rational uses of natural resources by native peoples the ISE has shown that it will actively work for the promotion and maintenance of ethnobiological knowledge.

The Declaration also calls for action in the area of native peoples’ awareness and recognition of the inherent value of their own ethnobiological knowledge. It urges ethnobiologists to make the results of their research available to the indigenous peoples with whom they have worked, and calls for dissemination of these results in the native language. The Declaration also advocates the development of ways to promote the exchange of biological information among “…indigenous and peasant peoples regarding conservation, management, and sustained utilization of their biological resources.”

Naox Niex: Use of the foot during spinning. Guizhou Province, China. Photograph by John Amato.

There is a growing, developing awareness among indigenous peoples of the need for exchange of information on resource management with other indigenous groups. This can be seen in the activities of numerous indigenous professional societies and so well indicated by the PEMASKY biological programs of the Kuna of Panama. The remarkable advances that have been made in computer and communication technology make it feasible to imagine an indigenous information exchange throughout the world. We, as ethobiologists, may increasingly consider our role to be advisors and consultants to native peoples to make this revolution in information exchange a reality.

Although our society is young, the future of the ISE is bright and full of promise. The ISE can, and should, work toward implementing the goals outlined in the Declaration of Belém while at the same time making new and concrete proposals that help indigenous peoples maintain and codify their understandings of human relationships with the biological environment.