ECO-SEA: The Ethnobotanical Conservation Organization for South East Asia
Field Research

Labuan Bajo, Western Flores. Modern development has not yet infiltrated most of Western Flores - many villages do not have motorized vehicles, electricity, telephones or paved roads. Yet tourism has gained a hold in the port city of Labuan Bajo, a trans-Island highway runs through the middle of the districts, and telephone stations are being set up. The communities included in our research are perched on the edge between retaining traditional practices and maintaining their distinct linguistic heritage and succumbing to the cultural homogenization which has occurred in much of the Indonesian archipelago.

In the ecologically diverse Manggarai district, we have the uniquely exciting opportunity to survey an array of indigenous communities who speak a recorded 30-50 different languages and live in a range of widely varying ecosystems, all within an area no larger than the state of Delaware. Some villages are located next to the main road, others are scattered on hillsides and can only be reached on foot.

Photo shows a view of a mixed cropping system in a valley 15-20 km outside the district capital of Ruteng.

In this roadside market of not more than five stalls, vendors sell a mix of native and non-native fruits. From L to R: kedongdong, rambutan, jambu (water apple), avocado, banana crisps (plastic packets) and bananas hanging overhead; soursop behind the rambutan, papaya behind the jambu. Of these fruits, avocado, soursop and papaya are non-natives introduced from Latin America by the Portuguese traders in the 16th-19th centuries. ECO-SEA's long-term research will investigate the production and trade of native fruits and the extent to which non-native fruits have permeated local markets.

Mat-makers in Ranaloba village, holding a tikar (pandan mat) in front of their house. Persons participating in ECO-SEA's field project will work together with local community members, many of whom have never had close contact with Westerners. Our research team is committed to pursuing cooperative teamwork which respects the insight and expertise of persons trained either in traditional or academic settings.

A semi-circular traditional rice field lies one-half hour outside the district capital of Ruteng. The ethnobotanical material we collect in the field - information on how different communities use edible fruit species in household practices, ceremony and medicine - has never before been systematically collected by researchers. Scattered floristic studies have been published by Dutch and Indonesian researchers, but no comparative studies have been performed to date.

Traditional food from Manggarai district: rice steamed in bamboo and coconut palm leaf packets. A typical day in the field will include brief terminology reviews, guided interviews with community members, sampling of traditional foods, photographic sessions, mapping exercises and collection of plant specimens and ethnobotanical artifacts; and will end with participatory data analysis and group debriefing sessions.

stir-fried termites

A traditional Manggarai diet is made up of more than fruits, vegetables, and roots. It also includes insects which are an excellent source of protein. Insects such as termites, caterpillar larvae and dragonflies are abundant, diverse, and readily available, and in earlier times provided a critical supplementary food source during periods of crop scarcity. We are beginning to document these traditional entomophagy practices by recording recipes to prepare this traditional food as well as collecting and preserving insect specimens as vouchers within the community-run Tado Research and Education Center on Flores Island.

View of Mt. Ranaka, Ruteng Nature Preserve - one of the many montane parks scattered throughout the Indonesian archipelago- from the north side. Flores is said to be home to around 40 volcanoes, some of which are still active. More intrepid flora researchers will have the opportunity to participate in hikes to survey fruiting species hillside and montane flora at elevations from 1000 - 2000+ meters above sea level.

A traditional house in Ulupulu village, Ngada district with grass roof (made of a native grass alang-alang - Imperata cylindrica, a grass managed by farmers for centuries as a source of livestock fodder and roof thatching) and bamboo walls, raised above the ground on wooden poles. Native communities on Flores Island still retain many of the "old ways" in housing construction, agricultural practices, planting and harvest ceremonies and social relations.

Mt. Abulobo, sacred semi-dormant volcano, Ngada district (viewed from the north). Participants on ECO-SEA expeditions will witness and participate in several traditional/religious ceremonial events, both on Bali and on Flores. We will learn about ancient ethnobotanical customs and legends originating from a number of distinct cultural sources.

A rare banana variety (pisang kapal) from Sumbawa Island. Documenting traditional knowledge amongst the indigenous communities of Western Flores, where the average village elder is said to distinguish at least 700 species of plants, and preserving it in permanent form for local, national and international access will contribute to the active conservation of a rich heritage which up to now has gone largely unrecognized, and is in danger of significant erosion.