The Interplay of Language & Knowledge: Plant Species Used by the Chácobo

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Traditional knowledge hiding in plain sight – twenty-first century ethnobotany of the Chácobo in Beni, Bolivia

Paniagua Zambrana NY, Bussmann RW, Hart RE, Moya Huanca AL, Ortiz Soria G, Ortiz Vaca M, Ortiz Álvarez D, Soria Morán J, Soria Morán M, Chávez S, Chávez Moreno B, Chávez Moreno G, Roca O, Siripi E
J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2017 Oct 10;13(1):57
PubMed Central: PMC5634836

Beni Department of Bolivia
Beni Department of Northeastern Bolivia [Source: TUBS, Wikimedia Commons]
Investigators from the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Missouri Botanical Garden and Instituto Linguistico Chácobo conducted an ethnobotanical inventory of the indigenous Chácobo population, with interviews and plant collection conducted directly by Chácobo counterparts in the Beni department of northeastern Bolivia.

Writing in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, the team describes the Chácobo Ethnobotany Project, in which they trained 10 indigenous Chácobo participants in ethnobotanical interview and plant-collection techniques. In turn, the interviewers collected ethnobotanical information from 301 Chácobo participants, representing almost the entire adult Chácobo population.

About the Chácobo people (from the paper’s Methods section):

“The Chácobo belong to the Panoan linguistic group, which includes about twelve tribes (Chácobo, Pacahuara, Matis, Matses, Yaminahua, Ese Eja and others). At the end of the 1890s, the Chácobo lived as semi–nomadic hunters and cassava and maize cultivators, probably in two groups, one with six families and one with four, in north Bolivia, between Lake Roguagnado and the river Mamore, south of their current territory. During the rubber boom in the early 1900s, they were forced by more aggressive tribes to move north, where rubber tappers, who also brought disease and epidemics to the tribe, threatened them. While other tribes were enslaved to work in rubber stations, the Chácobo managed to avoid most of the outside influences. Their first permanent contact with the outside world occurred only in 1953 with members of the the Tribes Missions, and in 1954 the Bolivian government established an agency about 15 km from the current location of Puerto Limones. The missionary linguist Gilbert Prost arrived in 1955 under the auspices of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL)…. In 1964, Prost managed to buy a territory in the north of the Chácobo’s ancestral lands, forming the community of Alto Ivón, and most of the remaining population moved there. In 1965, the Bolivian government finally assigned 43,000 ha of land to the Chácobo, although this area was less than 10% of their original territory. The influence of the SIL caused profound cultural change among the Chácobo, including the reported abandonment of traditional costume and dances in 1969. The official indigenous organization of the Chácobo (Central Indígena de la Región Amazónica de Bolivia (CIRABO) estimates a current population of the Chácobo community of about 1000 people…. The current territory of the tribe according to CIRABO encompasses 450,000 ha, and is roughly equivalent to the original extent of the tribe’s ancestral lands.”

Dysphania ambrosioides, formerly Chenopodium ambrosioides
Dysphania ambrosioides (Chenopodium ambrosioides) [Source: USDA, Wikimedia Commons]
The project documented 331 plant species used by the Chácobo people, including a large number of plants with specifically medicinal uses. Medicinal plants included Allium cepa, Allium sativum, Anacardium occidentale, Chenopodium ambrosioides [Dysphania ambrosioides], Cymbopetalum brasiliense, Mangifera indica, and Tapirira guianensis, among others.

The team worked exclusively with Chácobo interviewers in an effort to avoid the limiting influence of foreign interviewers. In their Discussion, the authors note a possible link between traditional knowledge and traditional language, with indigenous language proficiency correlating with ethnobotanical knowledge:

“The observation that local and indigenous languages often package rich traditional ecological knowledge has led to the question in many studies of whether indigenous language abilities influence plant knowledge, i.e. if native language speakers have a higher knowledge than participants only speaking a mainstream language. In our study, the link between language proficiency and other metrics of traditional knowledge (plants and uses reported) does support at least the correlation of these variables, and suggest the possibility of simultaneous language and knowledge retention (or erosion).”

Read the complete article at PubMed Central.

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