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The Gap Year Blog

Into the Wild Meets: Explorer Maria Fadiman

24 Oct 2018 12:00 PM
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Photo Credit: Flickr | Ira Serkes

Edited with permission by Frontier

Ethnobotany studies people and plants together; the relationship between and how they work together. Maria Fadiman is a speaker and academic in Geosciences focusing on conservation and ethnobotany and was made a National Geographic emerging explorer for her work. Frontier spoke with Maria on her passions with plants, her favourite places to travel and what it’s really like to be a conservationist.  

Your career has covered a variety of different elements; teaching, research, writing to name a few. Which parts do you like the most?

Ah! That is a tough question. I love aspects of them all. When I was getting my PhD I wanted to work for a conservation organization and had no intention of working in Academia. Then I started teaching as a Teacher’s Assistant (TA), and I realized I loved it! Teaching is a highlight for me. Watching students get excited about conservation and culture fills me up. Being out in the rainforest or the savannas of Africa (or anywhere exciting really) is a huge part of who I am. When I walk to a stream from a thatch hut to wash my face in the morning under a canopy of trees and toucans calling, I am in one of my favorite places to be. For me to feel like I am doing something about keeping this ecosystem intact and celebrating people’s traditional culture, helps me feel like I am doing something, and not just watching it get destroyed.  Writing about my findings and my experiences is a joy for me, especially when I can do it in essay form and let more of myself into the writing. The idea that other people can experience what they may never see is huge.

The majority of your work is in Latin America, do you have a favorite place?

I will always be connected to the rainforest in Latin America. My first exposure was working as a naturalist guide in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica, which is where I first fell in love with the rainforest. I did my dissertation in the rainforest in Ecuador, so that will always hold a spot in my life and in my heart. Having said that, the more I research and the more opportunities that come my way, I am excited about going all over the world. Opportunities to work in Tibet, the Philippines, Abaco and most recently I was part of a team working in Bhutan. I was “wowed” by them all! More recently I have been doing some work in Eastern Africa, and that has opened up my world in all kinds of ways. Any place where people are using the forest is of interest to me. 

Achuar in the Amazon in Ecuador who taught us about his plants.
Photo Credit: Maria Fadiman

If you were to choose one experience that highlighted the relationship between humans and plants, which one would you choose?

To choose one that was pivotal for me, was when I was working in the rainforest in rural Ecuador and the family with whom I worked would often give me a little something when I left; an egg or a banana. Then at the end of my time working with them, they decided to give me something big: a duck! How I was ever going to walk eight hours back to the station through the forest carrying a duck was beyond me. I kept myself pretty busy just trying to slog my own boots through the mud. Don Felipe was a local who would walk with me to my various study homes. He looked at me with the duck, and we both knew there was no way. He looked around, grabbed a leaf and then a vine and swaddled the duck and neatly tied it up with the vine, and then hung it on his back pack for the walk to the station. I spent eight hours face to face with this duck as I walked behind Don Felipe. What this moment did for me was that for all the uses I could think of for plants, carrying a duck had not been one of them.

One of your projects was exploring alternative livelihoods for poachers; did you have to change people’s perception of poaching?

I would say it was less about changing their perception about poaching, and more about getting them excited about alternatives. So, this was tree poaching, and through the work I learned that in Zimbabwe, carvers made wooden artifacts and would often poach trees to do so, in order to earn the highest possible sum of money. The highest priced items were carved giraffes, which required an entire tree. Through learning about FSC  certified wood, and visiting a plantation, as well as the items that can be carved from branches instead of an entire tree, it was getting this message out that created more opportunities for livelihood, opposed to trying to convince people to take something away.

Is there any of your findings that shocked you in regards to the relationship between humans and plants? 

The shock for me was to expand my own thinking about how people use plants. Initially I was interested only in medicinal plants. That is a realm of use that is important. However, that is not the only one. I began to realize that the plants that people use to construct their house, weave their baskets, perform ceremonies, eat… All of these were just as central to people’s livelihoods and just as important to collect sustainably. 

What has been the impact of being a National Geographic explorer and grantee? 

It has been a huge opportunity for me, and I am grateful for the people who anonymously nominated me and then those who voted. For the grants, I worked hard to earn those, and some of which were rejected like anyone. The relationship has introduced me to a world of people who are pushing the limits of research and ways of thinking. I have been lucky enough to work with various other explorers on projects that I might have done, including working with oil exploration in the Amazon, teaching Tibetan children to do ethnobotanical interviews with their elders and working, introducing children to their own ethnobotany in Abaco, and to now work for several years with another Explorer in Tanzania. In addition to the people, the connection has opened doors for me. I figure in many ways I am lucky for the opportunities, and then it is up to me what I do when I walk through that door.

Girl from the community in Tanzania with whom we are working with making booklets and the trail.
Photo Credit: Maria Fadiman

You’ve done a number of TED talks, what was that experience like?

Exciting and nerve wracking! The first one I did in Berkeley, they wrote to me “Just treat this like it is the most important talk of your life.” That put some pressure on the experience. However, actually giving the talk is a speaker’s dream. Not only are you getting the word out about something that you think is important, you have an audience who is eager to be there, to hear you and to make the most of their experience. The first one I did, the microphone box fell down my pants as I was just getting going, I had to decide what to do! I saw the clock ticking away in front of me, and I had it perfectly timed, and I had this microphone box falling down my pants. I had to stop the talk and just tell the audience (they edited that part out). The audience was supportive; we all laughed at the absurdity of it. It is that kind of group.

Do you have any projects coming up you’re particularly excited for? 

I have just submitted a grant to work with a community with a fellow explorer in Tanzania. We have made a tri-lingual useful plant booklet with the community, interviewing elders and using their tribal language to celebrate their knowledge. We are now hoping to go back to make a useful plant trail and garden, which will then be a living example of their knowledge and as a way to encourage the younger generation to learn the plant connections of their elders.

If there’s one piece of advice you could give to aspiring conservationists what would it be?

Go for it! I am lucky in many ways, and most of those opportunities came from my working hard at what I could. It really is to follow what is important to you and fills you up. The trajectory may look different than you anticipated. Give it your all and be open to what happens along the way. 

To find out more about Maria Fadiman’s work and what she researches, go to her website. You can also follow her on her social media at Twitter

By Marnie Woodmeade - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!