Plants that speak and institutions that don’t listen

Plants that speak and institutions that don’t listen

A few years ago I wrote a chapter for a book edited by Michel Pimbert with the title ‘Food Sovereignty, Agroecology and Biocultural Diversity: Constructing and Contesting Knowledge‘. The chapter is about ‘Plants that speak and institutions that don’t listen’ and features ‘notes on the protection of traditional knowledge’ and it is based on field work I did for my PhD in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Plants that speak and institutions that don't listen

It was recently brought to my attention that Colin Tudge has reviewed the book in Resurgence & Ecologist, which is nice. Thanks Colin! Here is what he said about my chapter:

Nina Isabella Moeller describes an attempt by a German pharmaceutical company to persuade the Kichwa people of Ecuador to allow bio-prospecting – with of course shared profits, leading to wealth and modernity. The negotiations broke down. In the early meetings the Kichwa were simply bored – the men grabbed the opportunity to get drunk on free western booze. The trappings of modernity held no allure. What did appeal was a song that a woman made up on the spot that expressed her yearning to fly like a toucan.

This may simply sound bizarre – the kind of fantasising that brings out the cynic in western hard-heads. Yet it is not a million miles from the sentiments to be found in Coleridge and Blake: a longing to be with Nature, or again to be part of it. But although English Romanticism occupies a significant slice of conventional western education, it has very little influence on the strait-laced, “conventional” thinking that shapes economic and political strategy.

The cultural contrast runs deeper. For, says Moeller, when a Kichwa healer was asked how he acquired his knowledge of medicinal plants, he said that when his grandmother was sick the plants themselves came into the house and danced and told him what they could do and how they should be prepared. Such accounts reinforce the conventional western conviction that traditional peoples should be brought up to date for their own good – but we should surely be asking instead what such a story really implies.

To me it suggests that all human knowledge, the things we take to be true, rests ultimately on intuition; that intuition needs to be cultivated; and that the intuitions of peoples closer to a state of Nature may be far more refined than ours. In large part we have exchanged our intuitive powers for what Pimbert calls the “lens vision” of materialism and logical positivism: the conviction that nothing is worth taking seriously that we cannot stub our toes on and mathematicise. We have gained by this – antibiotics and IT – but how much have we lost along the way?