Case Study: The Belize Ethnobotany Reserve Project

Part of the Biodiversity Crisis Curriculum Collection.

CASE STUDY, John Thomas

Andrew Ramcharan, snakebite healer, Belize. Photo C Michael J. Balick/The New York Botanical Garden.

The extensive rain forests in the small Central American country of Belize are facing growing threats from development and logging activities. In response to these threats, in 1988, the Belize Ethnobotany Project was established with the goals of studying and conserving local knowledge of plant diversity and the plants’ traditional medicinal uses.

Among the groups organizing this project were the New York Botanical Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany, the Ix Chel Tropical Research Foundation, and the Belize Center for Environmental Studies. This project merges the activities of traditional healers, local farmers, pharmaceutical researchers, and ethnobotanists, who study how cultures understand and use plants for both medical and religious purposes.

As part of the project, local healers banded together to form an association to help conserve and teach traditional knowledge and to preserve Belize’s plant diversity. One important result was the designation of a 6,000-acre parcel of lowland forest as a reserve. Plans are being drawn up to help manage this reserve as a place where plants used in traditional medicine can be harvested and conserved.

Another goal of this type of conservation unit, known as an ethno-biomedical forest reserve, is to determine how quickly different medicinal plants grow back after harvest. This would allow healers and reserve managers to determine the levels at which these plants can be sustainably extracted. By learning how to manage plant harvests, it may be possible to protect the biodiversity of forest reserves while providing healers and the Belize population with widely used traditional medicines.

This is an excerpt from THE BIODIVERSITY CRISIS: LOSING WHAT COUNTS, edited by Michael J. Novacek, a publication of the New Press. © 2000 American Museum of Natural History. To order the book, call 1-800-233-4830.