Monday, September 7, 2015

Trekking Through Culture and Redefining Definitions by Cindy Wang

            La Selva Research Station: a hidden niche in the rainforest. The moment you step off the bus at La Selva, a thick butter of hot humidity slaps you across the face. The station seems but a clearing in the middle of a jungle, surrounded by the howls, calls, and transactions of the rainforest and its inhabitants. Socially, environmentally, this could not be farther from my norm; what I hope to learn in Costa Rica roots in an experience much deeper than what I can glean from a classroom. Already I am learning about Tico culture and how the environment and its surroundings can affect the presentation of Costa Rican peoples.
            In these two weeks at La Selva, I have had my definition of what science is fundamentally challenged. Before OTS, I had never heard of ethnobiology in terms of scientific inquiry—I wasn’t even quite sure what it meant. One of our professors, Jessica, defined the term as “the study of the biological knowledge and practices of particular ethnic groups- cultural knowledge about plants and animals and their relationships”. This not only includes how traditional peoples use plants and animals in their livelihoods, but also how symbolism and spiritualism play a role of equivocal importance. Initially this struck me as ill founded… it still does. I’ve always been taught that science is an area of knowledge stemming from faith in facts, statistics, and evidence based hypotheses; spiritualism and religious ideals have no place in this specialty. In trying to rectify this oxymoron internally, I tried to glean as much insight from our field trips as I could. In our ethnobotany tour of Chilamate, Jaime showed us various uses of native plants, such as the seeds of one plant that could be crushed to make red paint to mark warriors, or raw green papaya that can be used to burn off warts. At the heart of palms plantations we saw the junction of traditional practices- cutting and removing the “heart” of palms by hand- with the more modern techniques used to package the product for international exportation.
            In all of our excursions, I saw how traditional practices are still used in the production of some of the world’s most popular products. Living in a very modernized world, I think it is easy to forget how much we owe, and still owe, the Traditional Ecological Knowledge that generations before us thrived on. In respects to the consolation of spiritualism and science, I may not be able to rectify the comparison, but I hope to begin understanding the importance of their abutment.

At our Chilamate tour with Jamie, we painted parts of our body red by crushing the seeds of these red plants. The paint of these plants can be used for dye or to paint warriors before or returning from battle. Also, when you slapped a certain type of leafy plant onto the painted area (or any darker colored object) it left a white residue in the pattern of the leaf.

In our visit to the tropical plants plantation, we got to observe the factory workers who were preparing the plants for exportation. The woman pictured is washing and removing the seeds from this plant, which will likely be put into a bouquet for later international sale. Here is an instance of the abutment of marketing and international trade with indigenous products and practices.

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