COVID-19: Reshaping the future of ethnobiology research after the pandemic

COVID-19: Reshaping the future of ethnobiology research after the pandemic

Nature Plants publication on how COVID19 turned a research domain upside down

In an article in the journal Nature Plants, researchers question the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on research in ethnobiology, a key discipline for biological and cultural conservation around the world. Among the authors, Farid Dahdouh-Guebas mangrove specialist, professor at VUB and ULB and originator of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Tropical Biodiversity and Ecosystems (TROPIMUNDO) in collaboration with ULB and Sorbonne University among others.

Ethnobiology is devoted to the study of past and present relationships between humans, cultures, and the biophysical environment, with a focus on knowledge, cognition and the traditional use of plants and animals. Transdisciplinary in nature, ethnobiology is also a field-based enterprise: researchers explore different biological and cultural landscapes around the world and interact with indigenous communities and their ecosystems.

The pandemic triggered by the SARS-CoV-2 virus is shaking our world and ethnobiological research is no exception to it.

In a viewpoint article published in the journal Nature Plants, twenty-nine researchers from around the world point to several issues: How will the pandemic affect indigenous communities, their traditional knowledge, their subsistence or the management of natural resources? And how will the global crisis affect interactions between researchers and local communities?

"Given the role of ethnobiology in the conservation, sustainability and ethical use of bio-cultural diversity, the answers to these questions will be crucial" emphasize the authors, under the direction of Ina Vandebroek of The New York Botanical Garden (USA).

Farid Dahdouh-Guebas, from the VUB research group Ecology & Biodiversity, is one of the authors of the article. He studies the social-ecological system of the mangrove forest. As a coastal system containing a unique flora and fauna, mangroves thrive along tropical coasts and play a vital role for local populations as protection against ocean surges and as a source of income and food. He comments that within this type of social-ecological system, it is inevitable that at some point compromises will be made between respecting well-intentioned measures intended to protect public health, and the daily survival of local fishermen. Another effect of the global crisis could be the collapse of the markets. The animal and insect markets often coexist with markets for food and for medicinal and ritual plants, and therefore form a very rich source of transmission and even production of local knowledge. It is therefore very likely that a loss of these ethnobiological resources will have an impact on wild and cultivated local food plant production systems.

Finally, for researchers who use participatory methods as a socio-ecological approach to unveil indigenous and local knowledge systems, the pandemic could leave a deep scar. The panic it has generated has already stigmatised certain cultural groups in countries strongly affected by Covid-19. In addition, since Covid-19 is (correctly) perceived as life-threatening for vulnerable groups – who are often key study participants in an ethnobiological study – face-to-face encounters will become more difficult. "We have put our ethnobiological research on the floristics and ethnobotany of useful plants and community health in the Caribbean and New York City and on the social-ecological system of mangroves in America, Africa and Asia temporarily on hold to reorganise the sampling procedures while respecting the rules of social distancing" specify Ina Vandebroek and Farid Dahdouh-Guebas.

According to Vandebroek, “One of the silver linings of this pandemic, is that it pushes researchers to look for new and intensified ways of communicating with each other and the general public about the global environmental and cultural crises, which ultimately affect all life on earth. We can offer a renewed commitment to interdisciplinary research, teaching, and outreach, in an equitable partnership with local and indigenous communities.”

Vandebroek, I., A. Pieroni, J.R. Stepp, N. Hanazaki , A. Ladio, R.R. Nóbrega Alves, D. Picking, R. Delgoda, A. Maroyi, T. van Andel, C.L. Quave,  N. Y. Paniagua-Zambrana, R.W. Bussmann, G. Odonne, A.M. Abbasi, U.P. Albuquerque, J. Baker, S. Kutz, S. Timsina, M. Shigeta, T. Pereira Ribeiro de Oliveira, J.A. Hurrell, P.M. Arenas, J.P. Puentes, J. Hugé, Y. Yeşil, L. Jean Pierre, T.M. Olango & F. Dahdouh-Guebas, 2020. Reshaping the future of ethnobiology research after the Covid-19 pandemic. Nature Plants.


Scientific contact (EN-FR-NL-IT:

Farid Dahdouh-Guebas

Systems Ecology and Resource Management

telephone number via press officer VUB

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