Manuel Lizarralde, a professor with a dual appointment in environmental studies and botany, grapples with questions of people and the environment on a daily basis in his teaching and research. A native of Venezuela, Lizarralde has focused much of his work on the relation of indigenous Latin Americans to the environment, including the types of areas they inhabit and their use of plants. He studies ethnobotany (how people use plants) because the indigenous knowledge of local plants is very rich, and all of these cultures are rapidly changing and the information is being lost.
While at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received three degrees in anthropology, Lizarralde worked on a major project mapping indigenous populations, and the regions that haven't been heavily modified are areas where indigenous people live.
It is the job of ethnobotanists to record and understand this before the knowledgeable elders die, says Lizarralde. As development increases, sweeping changes come to peoples and ecosystems that have remained intact for thousands of years. Half of the world's rain forests have been destroyed in recent times, and indigenous populations have disappeared along with them.
"How can we, the developed nations that are 21% of the world's population, feel comfortable in this standard of living when the rest of the world is not?" he questions.
"We provide income to the developing nations but we consume and pollute disproportionately," Lizarralde says of the developed world. "How can we tell them to stay in their indigenous lives without all the commodities that we enjoy?"
Lizarralde does not feel comfortable with this contradiction. He favors protecting the environment and he favors social justice. "Sometimes it seems as if the two are incompatible, because people want to have what we have," he states.
Lizarralde poses such complicated issues to his students, drawing from his background in botany, geography and anthropology. Lizarralde teaches a seminar on indigenous people, development and biodiversity, and a seminar on indigenous use of tropical rain forests. He currently teaches classes on ethnobotany and environmental anthropology.
View the anthropology department website. View the environmental studies website. View the botany department website. View the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment website.
"I want to bring the human dimension and the role of indigenous people into discussions on conservation. The only way is through constant dialogue and exchange of information. There are a lot of problems that could be avoided if we were well informed about the affects that humans have on the environment." - Manuel Lizarralde
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