People and plants conference - June 2014

Plants and People: material and immaterial resources in trans-regional flows

When: 26 & 27 June 2014

Where: The Scott Polar Institute, Lensfield Road, Cambridge CB2 1ER

The Founder and Director of Birthlight, Françoise Barbira Freedman is a medical anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, where she does research and teaches as an affiliated lecturer in the Department of Social Anthropology. It is in this capacity that she has organised this 'People and Plants' conference.

Summary

From local to vast intercontinental exchanges, flows of plants have always been accompanied by human transactions or translations on cultural, intellectual, political and economic levels. Recent research prompts us to re-assess what relationships may have been obscured in colonial projects and, more recently, in bioprospecting – relationships rarely addressed due to disciplinary boundaries.  How is our understanding of past and present, material and non-material values associated with plants being transformed across local, regional and global levels? This symposium aims to raise greater awareness not only of past flows of plants but also of the creativity presently displayed by local actors to overcome barriers set by both international law and obsolete concepts inherited from earlier anthropology.

We can regard plants as bundles of ecological knowledge, of know-how on propagation and cultivation, novel uses and key understandings about human physiology and therapeutic applications.   These bundles of knowledge are passed on and transformed along the routes over which plants are carried. Traceable over time, this process is of interest not only for the analysis of plant dissemination, , the complex continuum from wild species to cultivars and the adaptation of plants to changing climates, but also when addressing the role of plants and plant communities in structuring social relationships. New insights from chemistry, plant sciences, and the social sciences increasingly challenge past anthropocentric perspectives on plants and invite further discussion.

Changing factors such as resource depletion, climate change, hegemonic shifts, and economic disparities are affecting plant flows.  Yet they also offer incentives to develop new approaches, particularly with regards to conservation.  There is a need to address the cultural gap between the muted plant exchanges that continue to support grassroots horticulture and the new traffic of seeds and cash crops embedded in economic development. Both forms of cultural traffic not only transform regional borders but also circulate contrasting values, objects, practices, meanings and identities that are not easily reconciled.

This symposium aims to raise greater awareness not only of past flows of plants but also of the creativity presently displayed by local actors to overcome barriers set by both international law and obsolete concepts inherited from earlier anthropology.

Interest in immaterial resources associated with plants has developed in parallel with new approaches to biodiversity and conservation since the late 1990s. While international conventions and patent law give priority to owners and inventors of plant knowledge, the discourse of traditional rights supporting indigenous people’s ancestral knowledge has become entrenched in essentialist notions of communities and tradition. Pre-empting a polarization between TEK, (traditional ecological knowledge) and cosmopolitan intellectual property, and between tradition and technological innovation, a focus on the movements of plants and the material and non-material resources linked to them may allow new interpretations of what constitutes ‘knowledge’ of and  ‘cultural property’ vested in plants.

We are fortunate that two outstanding Cambridge Professors, Sir David Baulcombe from Botany and Plant Sciences and Dame Marilyn Strathern from Social Anthropology, will respectively open and close this conference.

Sir Ghillean Prance will be our keynote speaker.

For more information and booking please see the conference website.

 

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