Michael Gilmore: Connecting plants and people — Amazon Connections (Summer 2010/Issue 3)

By Natalya Stanko

Who is Michael Gilmore?

Michael Gilmore with achiote painted on face by Maijuna natives - Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACEMichael Gilmore is an ethnobotanist—or a scientist that studies the relationship between plants and people—and an assistant professor at George Mason University’s New Century College. He has collaborated with the Maijuna of the Peruvian Amazon for more than 10 years. Gilmore is currently completing a four-year project that maps the Maijuna’s natural resources and their cultural significance. He is collaborating with Plowden and other researchers to preserve the biology and culture of the Maijuna. Gilmore is a key Center advisor and board member.

Gilmore believes in community-driven research. He doesn’t ask what he needs, but what the community needs. “Right now the Maijuna children only know a small fraction of what the elders do. They don’t know the important plant species,” he says. That’s why Gilmore’s next goal is to set up an ethnobotanical garden that facilitates this type of learning in the Maijuna community. Gilmore has a big laugh accompanied by a hearty handshake and boundless energy.

 Who are the Maijuna?

Michael Gilmore pointing to proposed road through Maijuna traditional land - Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACEThe Maijuna are a group of about 400 people in four villages in Loreto Province, Peru. In the last few years, the villages have united to form a federation in an effort to block the development of a proposed road that would destroy their ancestral lands. [See Editor Update at bottom of article].

Michael Gilmore and FECONAMAI directors at 2009 Maijuna Congress - Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACEThe Maijuna trust Gilmore, and they have appointed him an official advisor to their federation, FECONAMAI.

Gilmore likewise greatly respects the Maijuna. “The Maijuna said, ‘We’re saying no to this road, and that’s final,’” said Gilmore. “Indigenous people in Peru have been incredibly marginalized. They’re not looked at as people by some in Peru, but as animals. For them to get up, to say something really powerful, that takes a lot of guts.” The future of the road—and of the Maijuna—is still unknown.

Why ethnobotany?

Gilmore said that something was missing from his undergraduate biology curriculum at Colorado State University. He wanted to learn about the human component of biology.

After college, Gilmore and a friend “wandered about Indonesia” for four months. They visited small indigenous communities where they learned to make loincloths and bows and arrows from local plants. “I was impressed by how integrally involved plants were in these people’s lives,” Gilmore said.

After his trip, Gilmore knew what he wanted to study—the relationship between plants and people. True to his character, Gilmore thought big and wrote a letter to Richard Evans Schultes, the father of modern ethnobotany. “And he wrote me back!” said Gilmore, still surprised and flattered today.

Gilmore earned his PhD in botany from Miami University. He first visited the Maijuna with his advisor, ethnobotanist Hardy Eshbaugh, and then returned a year later after learning basic Spanish. Gilmore now also speaks basic Maijuna.

What have the Maijuna taught Gilmore?

Michael Gilmore with Maijuna colleague Sebatiao - Photo by Campbell Plowden/CACESebastian, Gilmore’s best Maijuna friend, has taught him what friendship means. “I feel like, on the most basic level, he really has my back,” Gilmore said. “He’s really taking care of me.”

The Maijuna have also let Gilmore experience a different way of life. “In the U.S., we get swallowed up by our fast-paced life,” Gilmore says. “Take a deep breath. Take life one day at a time. Slow things down. Appreciate everything.”

Editor’s Update: According to a conversation with Dr. Gilmore in early May 2011, the political climate in the Peruvian province of Loreto has shifted to support for creating a Regional Conservation Area that would include the four main Maijuna villages and the forest in between.  The completion of a Rapid Biological Inventory of Maijuna lands conducted by the Field Museum of Chicago and Gilmore’s mapping work will support this process.  This protected status would effectively halt plans to put a road through Maijuna ancestral lands.

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