Lab Rats

Healthcare from the forgotten land

Recalling a formative field trip

Lori Bystrom 7 February 2010

Untapped fields: ethnobotany

This experience only confirmed to me the importance of preserving traditional knowledge and researching its potential value

Some people may not regard their first summer as a graduate student as being particularly memorable, but for me it was my first field research experience abroad and something I will not easily forget. That summer my graduate advisor invited me to the Dominican Republic to search for a research project and to assist him with his undergraduate research program. This program was divided into different groups: marine biology, ornithology, entomology and ethnobotany. I helped out with some of the group activities while learning valuable information from the experts. The most interesting of these experiences was with the ethnobotany group, which probably had something to do with to the reason I came to grad school – to travel and study how people utilized plants while learning more about phytochemistry.

The ethnobotany group coordinator – a young female postdoctorate and, I might add, former gymnast – led us enthusiastically on our ethnobotanical adventures. We visited a small town not too far from our makeshift research facility near the beach. The postdoctorate had already established some contact with the people we were interviewing and so walking into people’s homes or on their property was not as strange as I had first envisioned.

One of our most successful interviews was with a family consisting of a man, woman and several children. The man had us gather in a circle outside their small run-down house and told us information about various medicinal plants that could be found in the area. Throughout the discussions the man had the children fetch some of the plants he talked about. To my amazement, the children knew not only how to identify, but to locate and utilize these medicinal plants. They knew how to use their only available resource – their natural environment.

I was very impressed by the children’s knowledge, because you often hear of younger generations dependent on failing healthcare systems and the loss of traditional ways. This experience only confirmed to me the importance of preserving traditional knowledge and researching its potential value. I became convinced that this type of information is important for people who have no other means for survival, especially for the younger generations who are forgetting this traditional knowledge as they integrate into more modern lifestyles.

A few days after the interviews were conducted, my group was informed that we were not allowed to leave our research station due to the danger of a revolt or possible attack against anyone that appeared to be a tourist or associated with a resort. According to reliable sources, the unrest had be sparked off because some land had been redistributed and taken away from the local people for development of what I could only imagine would be for resorts or for other commercial purposes. It took a whole week before traveling outside our research facility was deemed safe and that our group was allowed to finally travel to the city of Santo Domingo.

As I sat on the guagua (bus) on our way out towards the city, I looked outside in shock as we passed nearly a dozen or so shacks that had clearly been flattened down by bulldozers near the region we conducted interviews. It was one of the saddest sights I had ever seen. I couldn’t help but wonder where the kids from those homes would go and whether they could continue to rely on the environment or if they would be forced into cities with unreliable healthcare.

I hoped that they would not forget the land they grew out from.

Other articles by Lori Bystrom