Economic Botany

, Volume 72, Issue 1, pp 81–93 | Cite as

Research Methods Leading to a Perception of Knowledge Loss—One Century of Plant Use Documentation Among the Chácobo in Bolivia

  • Rainer W. BussmannEmail author
  • Narel Y. Paniagua-Zambrana
  • Robbie E. Hart
  • Araceli L. Moya Huanca
  • Gere Ortiz-Soria
  • Milton Ortiz-Vaca
  • David Ortiz-Álvarez
  • Jorge SoriaMorán
  • María Soria-Morán
  • Saúl Chávez
  • Bertha Chávez-Moreno
  • Gualberto Chávez-Moreno
  • Oscar Roca
  • Erlin Siripi


The loss of traditional knowledge, concomitant with changes in livelihoods, languages, and demographics of indigenous and local groups, is a global concern. However, documenting such loss poses serious methodological challenges. Comparing the results of contemporary studies with past research is often problematic due to methodological differences. Here, comparing studies that attempted to document the traditional ethnobotanical knowledge of the Chácobo of Bolivia, we tried to examine whether knowledge loss was really occurring across more than 100 years or was only researcher’s perception. The Chácobo are a Panoan-speaking tribe of about 1000 members, first visited by researchers in 1911, and subsequently in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Each study had different foci, but all recorded ethnobotanical data. The first more detailed anthropological report exists from the late 1960s, and ecological-ethnobotanical studies were conducted in the 1980s and 1990s. Based on available literature, in particular the botanical studies of Boom (1987) and Bergeron (1998), it seemed that Chácobo plant use now centers on income generation. Both Boom (1987) and Bergeron (1998) perceived that traditional plant use related to household artifacts and medicine, as well as traditional crop varieties had almost disappeared. Here, we hypothesized that plant knowledge documented and the perception of so-called knowledge loss observed in these depended completely on the background of the interviewers and the methods employed, and that in a sufficiently comprehensive ethnobotanical study, we would be able to document all species and uses mentioned in previous studies. We tested this hypothesis by conducting a complete ethnobotanical inventory of almost the entire adult Chácobo population, with interviews and plant collection conducted directly by Chácobo counterparts. The results verify our initial hypothesis and showed that the loss of knowledge perceived in previous studies simply was an artifact of the research methods employed. Traditional crop varieties are still widely grown, most Chácobo know, and can name, traditional artifacts, and many still know the names and uses of medicinal species. However, some knowledge, including the manufacture of artifacts and proficient identification of many medicinal plants, is limited to the older generation.

Key Words

Knowledge loss research methods historic research traditional knowledge 


La pérdida del conocimiento tradicional, los cambios en los medios de subsistencia, la pérdida de las lenguas locales, y la reducción demográfíca de los grupos indígenas y locales, es una preocupación mundial. Sin embargo, documentar dicha pérdida plantea serios desafíos metodológicos. Comparar los resultados de estudios recientes con investigaciones pasadas, no resulta fácil debido a las diferencias metodológicas. Aquí comparamos estudios que documentaron el conocimiento tradicional etnobotánico de los Chácobo en Bolivia, buscando examinar si la pérdida de conocimiento tradicional realmente ha estado sucediendo durante los últimos 100 años, o si solo era la percepción de los investigadores. Los Chácobo son una tribu Pano hablantes, actualmente conformada por aproximadamente 1000 miembros. Fueron visitados por primera vez por investigadores en 1911, y posteriormente en los años 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980 y 1990. Cada estudio tenía enfoques diferentes, pero todos registraron datos etnobotánicos. El primer informe antropológico más detallado existe desde fines de la década de 1960, y se llevaron a cabo estudios ecológico-etnobotánicos en los años ochenta y noventa. Basado en la literatura disponible, en particular los estudios botánicos de Boom (1987) y Bergeron (1998), la percepción fue que el uso de plantas por los Chácobo ahora se centraba en la generación de ingresos. Ambos autores percibieron que el uso de las plantas tradicionales relacionado con la fabricación de artefactos, la medicina tradicional, así como las variedades de cultivos tradicionales, casi habían desaparecido. Nosotros planteamos la hipótesis de que el conocimiento etnobotánico documentado y la percepción de pérdida de conocimiento observada en estudios previos, depende completamente de los antecedentes de los entrevistadores y los métodos empleados, sugiriendo que con un estudio etnobotánico suficientemente completo podríamos ser capaces de documentar todas las especies y usos mencionados en estudios previos. Probamos esta hipótesis realizando un inventario etnobotánico completo entrevistando casi la totalidad de la población adulta de los Chácobo y realizando la recolección de plantas, ambas actividades fueron desarrolladas directamente por contrapartes Chácobo. Los resultados verifican nuestra hipótesis inicial y muestran que la pérdida de conocimiento percibida en estudios previos simplemente fue un artefacto de los métodos de investigación empleados. Las variedades de cultivos tradicionales todavía se cultivan ampliamente; la mayoría de los Chácobo conocen y pueden nombrar los artefactos tradicionales, y la muchos aún conocen los nombres y los usos de las especies de plantas medicinales. Sin embargo, cierto tipo de conocimiento, incluida la fabricación de ciertos artefactos y la identificación de algunas plantas medicinales, se limitan a las generaciones más viejas.


Pérdida de conocimiento métodos de investigación investigación histórica conocimiento tradicional 



We greatly thank Ravi Ortiz, President of the Central Indígena de la Región Amazónica de Bolivia (CIRABO), and Maro Ortiz, Capitan General of the TCO Chácobo, as well as all our Chácobo friends and counterparts, and the whole Chácobo population for all their friendship and support.

Author Contributions

NYPZ and RBU designed the study; NYPZ, RBU, ALHM, GOS, MOV, DOA, JSM, MSM, SC, BCM, GCM, and ES conducted the fieldwork; ALMH curated and identified the collections and entered the original data; NYPZ and RBU analyzed the data and NYPZ, RBU, and NPZ wrote the manuscript; REH conducted the statistical analysis; all authors read, corrected, and approved the manuscript.

Funding Information

This study was funded by the National Geographic Society (Grant 9244-13) and endowment funds of the William L. Brown Center at Missouri Botanical Garden, for which we are grateful.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Competing Interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interest.

Consent for Publication

This manuscript does not contain any individual person’s data and further consent for publication is not required.

Ethics Approval and Consent to Participate

Before conducting interviews, both the permission of CIRABO and individual prior informed consent were obtained from all participants. No further ethics approval was required. All work conducted was carried out under the stipulations of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The right to use and authorship of any traditional knowledge of all participants are maintained, and any use of this information, other than for scientific publication, does require additional prior consent of the traditional owners, as well as a consensus on access to benefits resulting from subsequent use.

Availability of Data and Materials

The raw data contain the names of all participants and cannot be shared publicly. Data without participant data can be obtained upon request after an access and benefit sharing agreement with CIRABO.

Literature Cited

  1. Albuquerque, U.P. 2006. Re-examining hypotheses concerning the use and knowledge of medicinal plants: A study in the Caatinga vegetation of NE Brazil. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2:30.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  2. Baum, J.K. and R.A. Myers. 2004. Shifting baselines and the decline of pelagic sharks in the Gulf of Mexico. Ecology Letters 7: 135–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Begossi, A., N. Hanazaki and J.Y. Tamashiro. 2002. Medicinal plants in the Atlantic Forest (Brazil): Knowledge, use, and conservation. Human Ecology 30(3): 281–299.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Benz, B.F., E. Cevallos, M. Santana, A. Rosales and S. Graf. 2000. Losing knowledge about plant use in the Sierra de Mazatlán Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Economic Botany 54(2): 183–191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bergeron, S. 1998. El uso de las plantas por los Chácobos (Alto Ivón, Beni, Bolivia). La Paz: Institut Franjáis d'Etudes Andines (IFEA).Google Scholar
  6. Berkes, F., J. Colding and C. Folke. 2000. Rediscovery of traditional ecological knowledge as adaptive management. Ecological Applications 10(5): 1251–1262.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Boom, B.M. 1987. Ethnobotany of the Chácobo Indians, Beni, Bolivia. Advances in Economic Botany 4: 1–68.Google Scholar
  8. Boyd, R. and P.J. Richerson. 2006. Culture, adaptation, and innateness. In: The innate mind: culture and cognition, eds. P. Carruthers, S. Stich, and S. Laurence, 23–38. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Byron, E. 2003. Market integration and health: The impact of markets on the nutritional status, morbidity, and diet of the Tsimane’ Amerindians of lowland Bolivia. Gainesville: University of Florida.Google Scholar
  10. Case, R. J., G. Pauli and D. Soejarto. 2005. Factors in maintaining indigenous knowledge among ethnic communities of Manus Island. Economic Botany 59: 356–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Colding, J., T. Elmqvist and P. Olsson. 2003. Living with disturbance: building resilience in social–ecological systems. In: Navigating social–ecological systems: building resilience for complexity and change, eds. F. Berkes, J. Colding and C. Folke, 163–173. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Cook, F.E. 1995. Economic botany data collection standard. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.Google Scholar
  13. Córdoba, L.I. 2012. Misioneros-Patrones e indígenas-siringueros: El caucho entre los Chacobos del Beni (Siglo XX). Boletín Americanista, a.o LXII-2(65): 85–106Google Scholar
  14. Dufrene, M. and P. Legendre. 1997. Species assemblages and indicator species: the need for a flexible asymmetrical approach. Ecological Monographs 67(3): 345–366.Google Scholar
  15. Godoy, R., N. Brokaw, D. Wilkie, D. Coloón, A. Palermo, S. Lye and S. Wei. 1998. On trade and cognition: Markets and the loss of folk knowledge among the Tawahka Indians. Journal of Anthropological Research 54: 219–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. ___, V. Reyes-García, E. Byron, W. Leonard and V. Vadez. 2005. The effect of market economies on the wellbeing of indigenous peoples and on their use of renewable natural resources. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 121–138.Google Scholar
  17. ___, ___, J. Broesch, I.C. Fitzpatrick, P. Giovarmini, M.R.M. Rodriguez, N. Jha, T. Huanca, W.R. Leonard, T.W. McDade, S. Tanner and TAPS Bolivia Study Team. 2009. Long-term (secular) change of ethnobotanical knowledge of useful plants separating cohort and age effects. Journal of Anthropological Research 65(1): 51–67.Google Scholar
  18. Gómez-Baggethun, E. and ___. 2013. Reinterpreting change in traditional ecological knowledge. Human Ecology 41(4): 643–647.Google Scholar
  19. ___, S. Mingorria, ___, L. Calvet, and C. Montes. 2010. Traditional ecological knowledge trends in the transition to a market economy: Empirical study in the Doñana Natural Areas. Conservation Biology 24: 721–729.Google Scholar
  20. Haenke, W. 1958. The Chácobo in Bolivia. Ethnos 23: 100–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hanazaki, N., D.F. Herbst, M.S. Marques and I. Vandebroek. 2013. Evidence of the shifting baseline syndrome in ethnobotanical research. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 9: 75CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  22. Hart, R. and J. Salick. 2017. Dynamic ecological knowledge systems amid changing place and climate: Mt. Yulong Rhododendrons. Journal of Ethnobiology 37 (1): 21–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Heinrich, M. and R. McElrath. 2003. The evolution of cultural evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology 12(3): 123–135.Google Scholar
  24. Huntington, H.P. 2000. Using traditional ecological knowledge in science: Methods and applications. Ecological Applications 10(5): 1270–1274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. International Society of Ethnobiology. 2006. International Society of Ethnobiology Code of Ethics (with 2008 additions).
  26. Kelm, H. 1972. Chácobo 1970. Tribus 21: 129–246.Google Scholar
  27. Lozada, M., A.H. Ladio and M. Weigandt. 2006. Cultural transmission of ethnobotanical knowledge in a rural community of Northwestern Patagonia, Argentina. Economic Botany 60: 374–385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Macía, M.J., P.J. Armesilla, R. Cámara-Leret, N. Paniagua-Zambrana, S. Villalba, H. Balslev, and M. Pardo-de-Santayana. 2011. Palm uses in north-western South America: A quantitative review. Botanical Review 77(4): 462–570.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. McCarter, J. and Gavin, M.C. 2015. Assessing variation and diversity of ethnomedical knowledge: A case study from Malekula Island, Vanuatu. Economic Botany 69(3): 251–261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Monteiro, J. M., U.P. de Albuquerque, E. M. de Freitas Lins-Neto, E. Lima de Araujo and E. Cavalcanti de Amorim. 2006. Use patterns and knowledge of medicinal species among two rural communities in Brazil’s semi-arid northeastern region. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 105: 173–186.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Muñoz, V., M. Sauvain, G. Bourdy, J. Callapa, S. Bergeron, I. Rojas, J. A. Bravo, L. Balderrama, B. Ortiz, A. Gimenez and E. Deharo. 2000. A search for natural bioactive compounds in Bolivia through a multidisciplinary approach. Part I. Evaluation of the antimalarial activity of plants used by the Chácobo Indians. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 69: 127–137.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Nordenskiöld, E. 1922. Indianer und Weisse im Nordosten Boliviens. Stuttgart: Strecker und Schröder.Google Scholar
  33. Oksanen, J., Blanchet F.G., Kindt R., Legendre P., Minchin P.R., O'Hara R.B., Simpson G.L., Solymos P., Henry M., Stevens H. and Wagner H. 2016. Vegan: community ecology package. <>.
  34. Paniagua-Zambrana, N.Y., R.W. Bussmann. 2017. La etnobotánica de los Chácobo en el Siglo XXI. St. Louis: William L. Brown Center, Missouri Botanical Garden.Google Scholar
  35. ___, ___, E. Blacutt and, M. J. Macia, eds. 2011. Los Chácobo y las Palmeras. Graficart: Trujillo.Google Scholar
  36. ___, ___, C. Tellez, and C. Vega. 2014a. Los Chácobo y su historia en el siglo XX. St. Louis: William L. Brown Center, Missouri Botanical Garden.Google Scholar
  37. ___, R. Cámara Leret, ___, and M.J. Macía. 2014b. The influence of socioeconomic factors on traditional knowledge: a cross scale comparison of palm use in northwestern South America. Ecology and Society 19(4): 9Google Scholar
  38. ___, ___, ___ and ___. 2016. Understanding transmission of traditional knowledge across north-western South America: A cross-cultural study in palms (Arecaceae). Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 82(2): 480–504.Google Scholar
  39. ___, ___, R.E. Hart, A.L. Moya Huanca, G. Ortiz Soria, M. Ortiz Vaca, D. Ortiz Álvarez, J. Soria Morán, M. Soria Morán, S. Chávez, B. Chávez Moreno, G. Chávez Moreno, O. Roca, E. Siripi. 2017. Traditional knowledge hiding in plain sight—21st century ethnobotany of the Chácobo in Beni, Bolivia. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 13:57.
  40. Phillips, O. and A.H. Gentry. 1993. The useful plants of Tambopata, Peru: II. Additional hypothesis testing in quantitative ethnobotany. Economic Botany 47(1): 33–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Prost, G. 1960. Notas linguísticas de Bolivia. No. II: Phonemas de la lengua Chácobo. La Paz: Instituto Linguistico de Verano.Google Scholar
  42. Prost, M.D. 1970. Costumbres, habilidades y cuadro de vida entre los Chácobos. La Paz: Instituto Linguistico de Verano.Google Scholar
  43. Quave, C. L., and A. Pieroni. 2015. A reservoir of ethnobotanical knowledge informs resilient food security and health strategies in the Balkans. Nature Plants 1: 14021. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. ___ and Saitta, A. 2016. Forty five years later: The shifting dynamic of traditional ecological knowledge on Pantelleria Island, Italy. Economic Botany 70(4): 380–393.Google Scholar
  45. Reyes-García, V., V. Vadez, E. Byron, L. Apaza, W.R. Leonard, E. Perez and D. Wilkie. 2005. Market economy and the loss of folk knowledge of plant uses: Estimates from the Tsimane’ of the Bolivian Amazon. Current Anthropology 46(4): 651–656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. ___, E. Kightley, I. Ruiz-Mallen, N. Fuentes-Pelaez, K. Demps, T. Huanca and M. R. Martinez-Rodriguez. 2010. Schooling and local ecological knowledge: Do they complement or substitute each other? International Journal of Educational Development 30: 305–313.Google Scholar
  47. ___, A.C. Luz, M. Gueze, J. Paneque-Gálvez, M.J. Macia, M. Orta-Martínez, J. Pino and TAPS Bolivian Study Team. 2013a. Secular trends on traditional ecological knowledge: an analysis of different domains of knowledge among Tsimane’ men. Learning and Individual Differences 27: 206–212.Google Scholar
  48. ___, ___, ___, ___, ___, ___, ___, and X. Rubio-Campillo. 2013b. Evidence of traditional knowledge loss among a contemporary indigenous society. Evolution and Human Behavior 34(4): 249–257.
  49. Roberts, D.W. 2016. labdsv: ordination and multivariate analysis for ecology. <>.
  50. Rocha, A.J. and L. H. Cavalcante. 2006. Cultural significance of plants in communities located in the coastal forest zone of the State of Pernambuco, Brazil. Human Ecology 34: 447–465.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Ross, N. 2002. Cognitive aspects of intergenerational change: Mental models, cultural change, and environmental behavior among the Lacandon Maya of southern Mexico. Human Organization 61: 125–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Shackeroff, J.M. and L. M. Campbell. 2007. Traditional ecological knowledge in conservation research: Problems and prospects for their constructive engagement. Conservation and Society 5(3): 343–360.Google Scholar
  53. Shanley, P. and N.A. Rosa. 2004. Eroding knowledge: an ethnobotanical inventory in eastern Amazonia’s logging frontier. Economic Botany 58:135–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Sternberg, R., C. Nokes, P. Geissler, R. Prince, F. Okatcha, D. Bundy and E. Grigorenko. 2001. The relationship between academic and practical intelligence: A case study in Kenya. Intelligence 29: 401–418.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Stone, G.D. 2007. Agricultural deskilling and the spread of genetically modified cotton in Warangal. Current Anthropology 48: 67–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Turner, N.J. and K. Turner 2008. “Where our women used to get the food”: Cumulative effects and loss of ethnobotanical knowledge and practice; case study from Coastal British Columbia. Botany 86: 103–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Vandebroek, I., J.B. Calewaert, S. De Jonckheere, S. Sanca, L. Semo, P. Van Damme, L. Van Puyvelde and N. De Kimpe. 2004. Use of medicinal plants and pharmaceuticals by indigenous communities in the Bolivian Andes and Amazon. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 82: 243–250.PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  58. Wilkinson, L. 2011. Venneuler: Venn and Euler Diagrams. R package version 1.1–0.
  59. Zarger, R.K. 2002. Acquisition and transmission of subsistence knowledge by Q’eqchi’ Maya in Belize. In: Ethnobiology and biocultural diversity, J.R. Stepp, F.S. Wyndham, and R.K. Zarger, eds 592–603. Athens: International Society of Ethnobiology.Google Scholar
  60. ___ and J.R. Stepp. 2004. Persistence of botanical knowledge among Tzeltal Maya children. Current Anthropology 45: 413–418.Google Scholar
  61. Zent, S. and L. Maffi. 2010. Methodology for developing a vitality index of traditional environmental knowledge (VITEK) for the project. Global indicators of the status and trends of linguistic diversity and traditional knowledge. Final report on indicator n 2. Salt Spring Island: Terralingua.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The New York Botanical Garden 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Rainer W. Bussmann
    • 1
    Email author
  • Narel Y. Paniagua-Zambrana
    • 2
  • Robbie E. Hart
    • 3
  • Araceli L. Moya Huanca
    • 1
  • Gere Ortiz-Soria
    • 4
  • Milton Ortiz-Vaca
    • 4
  • David Ortiz-Álvarez
    • 4
  • Jorge SoriaMorán
    • 4
  • María Soria-Morán
    • 5
  • Saúl Chávez
    • 5
  • Bertha Chávez-Moreno
    • 6
  • Gualberto Chávez-Moreno
    • 6
  • Oscar Roca
    • 7
  • Erlin Siripi
    • 8
  1. 1.Museo Nacional de Ciencias NaturalesLa PazBolivia
  2. 2.Herbario Nacionál de BoliviaUniversidad Mayor de San AndrésLa PazBolivia
  3. 3.William L. Brown CenterMissouri Botanical GardenSt. LouisUSA
  4. 4.Instituto Linguistico ChácoboBeniBolivia
  5. 5.Comunidad Chácobo de Alto IvónBeniBolivia
  6. 6.Comunidad Chácobo de Las LimasBeniBolivia
  7. 7.Comunidad Chácobo de FirmezaBeniBolivia
  8. 8.Comunidad Nueva UniónBeniBolivia

Personalised recommendations