Geographer Robert A. Voeks’s new book will soon be available. In the mysterious and pristine forests of the tropics, a wealth of ethnobotanical panaceas and shamanic knowledge promises cures for everything from cancer and AIDS to the common cold. To access such miracles, we need only to discover and protect these medicinal treasures before they succumb to the corrosive forces of the modern world. A compelling biocultural story, certainly, and a popular perspective on the lands and peoples of equatorial latitudes—but true? Only in part. In The Ethnobotany of Eden, geographer Robert A. Voeks unravels the long lianas of history and occasional strands of truth that gave rise to this irresistible jungle medicine narrative.
By exploring the interconnected worlds of anthropology, botany, and geography, Voeks shows that well-intentioned scientists and environmentalists originally crafted the jungle narrative with the primary goal of saving the world’s tropical rainforests from destruction. It was a strategy deployed to address a pressing environmental problem, one that appeared at a propitious point in history just as the Western world was taking a more globalized view of environmental issues. And yet, although supported by science and its practitioners, the story was also underpinned by a persuasive mix of myth, sentimentality, and nostalgia for a long-lost tropical Eden. Resurrecting the fascinating history of plant prospecting in the tropics, from the colonial era to the present day, The Ethnobotany of Eden rewrites with modern science the degradation narrative we’ve built up around tropical forests, revealing the entangled origins of our fables of forest cures.
Featured photo: © Kike Calvo