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The Diversity Of Plants, Plants As Food, Plants As Medicines And Drugs, Ethics In Ethnobotanical ResearchConservation of ethnobotanical resources

Ethnobotany is the study of the relationships between plants and people. Most often, however, the term is used in relation to the study of the use of plants by aboriginal people living relatively simple, pre industrial lifestyles.

Plants have always played a central role within indigenous cultures. Plant products are used as food, as sources of medicine, and as raw materials for the weaving of fabrics. In addition, wood is commonly used as a fuel for cooking and to keep warm, and as a material for the construction of homes and for manufacturing tools. The indigenous knowledge of particular species of plants useful for these purposes is a key cultural adaptation to having a successful life in local ecosystems.

Plants are also crucial to humans living in an advanced economy, such as that typical of North America and Europe. Almost all of the food consumed by these people is directly or indirectly (that is, through livestock such as cows and chickens) derived from plants. Similarly, most medicines are manufactured from plants, and wood is an important material in construction and manufacturing. Therefore, an intrinsic reliance on plant products is just as important for people living in modern cities, as for those living in tropical jungle.

It is true that substitutes are now available in advanced economies for many of the previous uses of plant products. For example, plastics and metals can be used instead of wood for many purposes, and synthetic fabrics such as nylon instead of plant-derived textiles such as cotton. Similarly, some medicines are synthesized by biochemists, rather than being extracted from plants (or from other organisms, such as certain microbes or animals). However, alternatives have not been discovered for many crucial uses of plants, so we continue to rely on domesticated and wild species as resources necessary for our survival.

Moreover, there is an immense diversity of potential uses of wild plants that scientists have not yet discovered. Continued bio-prospecting in tropical rainforests and other natural ecosystems will discover new, previously unknown uses of plants, as foods, medicines, and materials. A key element of this prospecting is the examination of already existing knowledge of local people about the utility of wild plants. This is the essence of the practice of ethnobotany.

The conservation of plant biodiversity

Most species of wild plants can only be conserved in their natural ecosystems. Therefore the enormous storehouse of potentially useful foods, medicines, and materials available from plant biodiversity can only be preserved if large areas of tropical forests and other natural ecosystems are conserved. However, deforestation, pollution, and other changes caused by humans are rapidly destroying natural ecosystems, causing their potentially invaluable biodiversity to be irretrievably lost through extinction. The conservation of natural ecosystems is of great importance for many reasons, including the fact that it conserves ethnobotanical resources.

The conservation of indigenous knowledge

Ethnobotanical studies conducted in many parts of the world have found that local cultures are fully aware of the many useful species occurring in their ecosystem. This is particularly true of people living a subsistence lifestyle, that is, they gather, hunt, or grow all of the food, medicine, materials, and other necessities of their lives. This local knowledge has been gained by trial and error over long periods of time, and in most cases has been passed across generations through oral transmission. Indigenous knowledge is an extremely valuable cultural resource that ethnobotanists seek to understand, because so many useful plants and other organisms are known to local people. Unfortunately, this local, traditional knowledge is often rapidly lost once indigenous people become integrated into modern, materialistic society. It is important that local indigenous peoples be given the opportunity to conserve their own culture.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical Background