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Travel Report: Natasha Ferenczi, Sociology & Anthropology

April 14, 2014
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Natasha Ferenczi, a PhD Candidate in Sociology and Anthropology, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award to further her research in Costa Rica. Her report:

Seekers and botanical healing trajectories:  Embodied experiences and knowledge production

This research tracks movement in characterizations of plant medicine, a floating concept, as it travels along translocal networks connecting North America and Latin America, to capture different states of emergence in the way people are talking about and using plant medicine.  What patterns the variation in how epistemologies of botanical healing are constituted as they enter neoliberal cultural frameworks?  What kinds of roles do emergent plant popularities in North America, and non-indigenous people’s involvement in the conservation of traditional indigenous medicinal knowledges, play in how knowledges and practices are carried forward? I explore a variety of subjective and material constructions of plant medicine, to inquire into the way meanings, practices and uses of botanical medicines carry over or change from one context to another, how they are shaped by and shape different relationships to place, landscapes and ecologies, and how they are modified to situational needs and subjective embodied experiences. 

This ethnographic, doctoral thesis research asks, “what is plant medicine?” and follows nodes of different networks connecting the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Talamanca area of Costa Rica, and Kona, Hawai’i, from 2010 to 2013.  I have spoken with North American founders of organizations dedicated to traditional medicinal knowledge conservation in Costa Rica and Hawai’i, ethnobotanists and anthropologists, indigenous Bribri and Cabecar peoples in Talamanca and Afro Caribbean people in Puerto Viejo, indigenous and Afro Caribbean rights activists, scientific researchers and bioprospectors, businessmen and women, an indigenous Hawaiian healer, Latin American botanical healers, and American and Canadian herbalists, naturopaths, and cottage industry producers of plant medicine in Vancouver, Costa Rica, and Hawai’i.  I conducted “observant participation” (Tedlock, 1991, p. 69) while gardening and harvesting on farms, on herb walks, during plant collection excursions in the jungle, in herbal shops, in people’s homes, while processing medicines, in courses and workshops, at conferences, political gatherings, Saturday markets, community meetings, rituals, in healing huts and clinics, and in indigenous usuri (sacred houses) in Talamanca.  I also regularly volunteered at a soup kitchen run by Americans for the indigenous community.  My data records personal narratives of people’s experiences working with plant medicines and individual healing trajectories. My observations of embodied, spatial and performative aspects of people’s experiences and ways of talking about botanical medicines, speak to how medicines and medicinal knowledges are travelling, and emergent patterns in how “botanical medicines,” and their efficacy, are conceptualized.  This highlights the way the physical environment takes on different meanings in different contexts, drawing out those distinctions materially, epistemologically and ontologically.  I am currently processing and analyzing the large amount of data collected, which I will soon share with the public through academic publications and conference presentations.

To conduct research in the jungle during the rainy season is not without its challenges, as rivers swell, paths become mudslides, and mosquitoes, (and the illnesses they carry) thrive.  These circumstances also contributed to a better understanding of challenges facing small isolated communities in the mountains, and people’s relationships with landscapes.   With the support of a GIRTA I was able to carry out a substantial investigation of states of emergence in medicinal plant movements and the politics and processes that shape the practices of herbalist practitioners working at the borderlands of globalized western societies. 

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