Monday, March 31, 2014

Faces of Ethnobiology: Anita Heim

My name is Anita Heim and I grew up in a small city in Hungary. Since my childhood I was driven to work for preserving nature and protecing traditional people in developing countries. It took me a long path til I arrived to the field of ethnobiology. I started as an ecologist, then I explored marine biology and the field of natural resource management. I gained several years of experience at an environmental NGO, as well as I was actively involved in a grassroots organisation in Australia. At the present I live in Australia and finished my masters in Protected Area management. Through the experience and life lessons in the last couple of years, I developed a great interest in Preserving Traditional Ecological Knowledge and supporting traditional livelihoods that also helps preserving natural resources for the generations to come.

South Pacific is a region that fascinates me with its rich cultural and environmental facets and the wealth of knowledge and wisdom people possess.

One of my memorable experiences that I like to share here is from Vanuatu. I had a conversation with a young man, John, on Efate on the main island of Vanuatu. He told me the story about his passion that he just recently rediscovered after he worked for over a decade to pursue another dream. A dream of becoming rich and leave his country. Now, he is not sure anymore.

Couple of months ago, he received a visit from his grandfather and his old mate from his island where he was born. The two men came to an Elders meeting held on Efate. Every night, when John arrived back home exhausted from his work in the tourism sector, the two men started the night of storytelling. John was really annoyed at first, as the only thing he wished for after his busy day of work was to have a good sleep. But this didn’t happen. The night grew longer and longer with endless talking. The same has happened the next day, and the following one. But the stories told by the two old fellows were magical, wise, healing, surprising and it felt like home for John. He was suddenly shocked, how much he has forgotten about the place he grew up, and how much he never listened, because he was interested in a different world outside. After this time of transformation and awakening, John decided to return home, and record these stories. It happened that he has an amazing talent of drawing, and his goal is to prepare an illustration of these stories, and create a book.

I was so grateful for his story, and made me think a lot. How many other young people may be out there in Vanuatu, who are on the brink of transformation. It just needs to happen to reconnect with their roots again. Despite of the fast changing world, many communities still own diverse knowledge about natural patterns, food preparation, medicine, harvesting and fishing methods, which helped them to survive and sustain within their resources for a long time. They are able and active to transfer this knowledge towards the next generation, but the young people need to be willing, interested and open for this wealth of knowledge. I aim to investigate incentives that encourage young people to carry on with their traditional livelihood in their communities. Therefore I would like to find out the most important driving factors that keep young people in certain communities practising the traditional lifestyle, and investigate whether these incentives are unique to the communities. I’m interested why these incentives are not present in other communities with similar socio-economic-environmental features.

But there are also so many areas in the developing world, facing food security crises where Traditional Knowledge has been stamped out and liquidated through exploitation, civil wars, modern slavery ( just to mention a few). This leads to my other research interests; the application of permaculture practices along with ethnobotanical knowledge in local communities with highly unstable economical situation. In many developing regions of the world, food security and micronutrient malnutrition are burning problems. Establishing permaculture home gardens and larger permaculture community systems with native plant and animal species can provide people not only with a large variety of food, but also firewood, medicine, livestock feed and surplus for trade and barter. I aim to survey existing grassroots movements and projects in developing countries, how those programs incorporate traditional knowledge and traditional practises in permacaulture systems, as well as look into the greatest challenges that they face and possible solution options. I’m hoping with this reasearch I will be able to assist in the emergence of new permaculture projects as well as to enhance the incorporation of traditional knowledge into these projects.

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