Profile: Michael Balick

Part of the Biodiversity Crisis Curriculum Collection.

Michael Balick

Michael Balick (r.) with Hortense Robinson, a traditional healer from Belize. Photo courtesy of Gregory Shropshire/IX Chel Tropical Research Foundation.

For generations, people everywhere have learned about the healing properties of their local plants. As habitat is destroyed and people turn from their old ways, this wisdom may be lost. To help preserve it, ethno­botanist Dr. Michael J. Balick—Vice President for Botanical Science Research and Training and Philecology Curator, Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden; academician; writer; editor; and conservationist—studies how indigenous people use plants around the world. He also works with traditional healers in New York City, observing herbal medical treatments by healers of Chinese and Caribbean origin, and explores the nonmedicinal use of plants: “I am currently working with the Brazilian government and colleagues to domesticate the Babassu palm. It is a palm tree that gives a rich oil, provides charcoal for energy, animal feed, and other products of great value, all of which can contribute to the well-being of the local economy.”

Dr. Balick gives the same advice provided by traditional healers in Belize, where he does much of his fieldwork: “It is your world, and you have the responsibility of managing it. Do it from a place of understanding. Be aware of the vulnerability of all species, and the need to maintain a balance in the natural world… Remember, one person really can make a difference.”