With the help of a few locals, Voeks established a baseline of 45 known medicinal plants. He then questioned a group of local Afro-Brazilians about the plants and their medicinal properties.
Among other insights, Voeks found that Afro-Brazilian elders, especially illiterate women over the age of 50, retain a wealth of knowledge about the medicinal properties of local plants.
The finding refutes the perception held by some scholars that the "immigrant" status of 19th-century Afro-Brazilians precluded them from sufficiently learning how to incorporate the local flora into their daily lives.
"It is intuitive that someone arriving in the South American rain forest isn't going to have the same mastery [of the local plants] as an indigenous group," Voeks said. "But people have the same requirements and the same needs in any rural folk society."
Afro-Brazilians drew from their African traditional plant knowledge. They also incorporated insights from indigenous populations who were also enslaved. In doing so, they established a knowledge of South American plants that continues today, Voeks said.
Voeks reports that Afro-Brazilian youth share very little of this ethnobotanical knowledge with their elders, a phenomenon he says is seen in many other rural societies that have traditional cultural relationships with plant life.
Voeks attributes this loss to formal education. "In a way, being proficient in this sort of [traditional] knowledge connects the young to a perceived backward history that they are keen to distance themselves from," Voeks said.
He noted, for example, that knowledge of how a plant can be used to cure diarrhea may seem irrelevant to some.
Voeks says that unless ethnobotanical knowledge is more widely recognized and steps are taken for its preservation among Afro-Brazilians, it may disappear.
"My sense is that the lion's share of ethnobotanical knowledge will be lost during the coming generation," Voeks said.
Judith Carney, the UCLA ethnobotanist, says that efforts to preserve Afro-Brazilian knowledge are important, particularly in educational settings.
"Brazil's recent emphasis on teaching about African history in primary school is a step in the right direction," Carney said. Carney notes that school lesson plans should also highlight the cultural aspects of ethnobotanical knowledge, particularly its role in Afro-Brazilian survival, cultural identity, and resistance to slavery.
The rest of the world may enjoy spin-off benefits, too. According to Voeks, researchers at the Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santa near Lençóis are studying the medicinal properties of Estradeira-vermelha to determine if the plant, indeed, has the power to encourage pregnancy.
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