Q&A: People and Plants International

Tony Cunningham

People and Plants International (PPI) is a global network of ethnobiologists and ecologists that was registered as a charity in New York in 2004. Tony Cunningham, one of the founders, explains why PPI still has no office.

How did PPI come about?

PPI builds on the People and Plants Initiative, a partnership of UNESCO, WWF and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which ended in December 2004. From this initiative, PPI inherited a unique foundation of expertise, cutting-edge methodologies, and a global network of practitioners dedicated to the managed use and conservation of plants in areas of high biological diversity. Many research organizations are involved in the conservation and sustainable use of plant resources in ACP countries.

How would you characterize PPI?

In our work but also as an organisation, PPI is an experiment in doing things differently. PPI may be seen as a 'knowledge network' whose work is partly 'virtual', via the Internet, and partly hands-on, with field-based research and training courses. We do not have an office, buildings, vehicles or large overheads. Our assets consist of the knowledge and experience of our members. Essentially, PPI is a project-driven network of over 40 highly qualified practitioners operating in Africa, Australasia and Latin America, with a minimal operational structure. We are small and want to stay that way. Rather than spend our time and effort building up an organization, we prefer to help partner institutions and communities to obtain the resources they need to conduct sustainable resource management, training and local conservation work.

Could you give an example of the PPI approach in practice?

A good example of the type of partnership we are developing is PhytoTrade Africa, the Southern African Natural Products Trade Association. The members of this network, across seven countries, focus on improving local livelihoods through trade in indigenous plant resources. Representing 20,000 rural resource users, PhytoTrade Africa is committed to the development of a Fair Trade and environmentally sustainable natural products industry. They have excellent business skills but lack experience with sustainable harvesting and monitoring of plant resources. PPI is now assisting them with advisory support and training in these areas. Some time ago, you reviewed the use of handheld computers by local people involved in one of your projects.

Can ICTs contribute to the sustainable use and conservation of traditional plant resources?

The computer system we used, CyberTracker, is unique in that it has been designed to enable people with low literacy skills to record field observations. We tested the CyberTracker system in Zimbabwe, where we worked with basket makers who harvest the bark of the bird plum tree (Berchemia discolor) as a source of dye. The challenge was to develop a practical method to enable the basket makers to monitor the impact of harvesting on the health of the trees. We designed a set of icons, each illustrating a different degree of impact, which we transferred to a handheld (PalmPilot) computer. Using the touch-sensitive screen of the computer, people could record their observations by pointing to the appropriate icon. The advantages of the CyberTracker system are that it is quick and easy to use, and it allows for rapid processing, storage and retrieval of large amounts of data over long time periods. Compared with manual data collection (using pen and paper), however, CyberTracker does have some disadvantages. The handheld sets are relatively expensive, and users need regular access to a power supply to recharge the batteries, and to a PC to download data for further processing and analysis.

Are organizations other than PPI doing enough to support projects that combine traditional knowledge with modern science?

There are well designed projects out there, but over many years we have observed that large donor organizations frequently spend huge amounts of money on projects to address complex problems over timescales that are far too short (3-5 years). Projects that draw on indigenous or local knowledge or attempt to produce and market products that will contribute to local livelihoods over the long term are rare. Rarer still are grants and university courses in developing countries where young professionals are trained to carry out academically sound, applied problem solving on resource management issues in their own countries. It is these young people who are the future.


Tony Cunningham is Program Director of People and Plants International. Visit this site for information about PPI publications. PPI welcomes donations. Contact Louis Putzel for details.

30 June 2005

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