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A field scientist reflects on how indigenous knowledge can enhance tropical forest management

Managing the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests

Charles M. Peters
Yale University Press
208 pp.
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To the untrained eye, an indigenous orchard can look like a trackless wilderness. In truth, many places that Westerners think of as “wild” are far from it. In many parts of the tropics, for example, local people have produced and managed forests consciously and precisely, often in ways that have been sustained for hundreds or thousands of years.

In Managing the Wild, botanist and tropical ecologist Charles Peters tells rich stories about indigenous forest management, which he accumulated over nearly four decades of fieldwork in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Australasia. Through an engaging blend of natural history, ethnobotany, and personal anecdote, Peters aims to change the perception that local people exploit natural resources with no regard for the future.

Traveling chronologically through his career, Peters begins with an investigation of an ecological enigma in southern Mexico, where ramón trees (Brosimum alicastrum) grow in unusually dense stands over Mayan ruins. This pattern, he discovers, is best explained as a relic of careful phenotype selection by ancient Mayan foresters (with temple-dwelling fruit bats playing a contributing role).

In lowland Amazonia, he studies the effects of fruit harvesting on the camu-camu (Myrciaria dubia), a small tree that is submerged by flood waters for half of the year, when its vitamin C–packed fruits are eaten by fish. He finds that the population is resilient to intense harvesting but is naturally ephemeral, shifting as the river’s course migrates.

In the greater Mekong region of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, Peters and his colleagues study the sustainability of wild-collected rattan—a commodity worth billions of dollars. And in New Guinea, Brazil, and Myanmar, he works with locals to develop, or try to develop, scientific timber inventories and sustainable management plans.

Peters’s stories are engaging and memorable, evoking the style of Forsyth and Miyata’s Tropical Nature and Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. Like those works, Managing the Wild is more than a naturalist’s autobiography. Throughout his rollicking tales, Peters expressly highlights rural people collecting, analyzing, and applying sophisticated forest inventory and growth data—producing homegrown scientific information to sustainably manage their resources.


A Dayak woman carries farm equipment in a rattan basket. Dayak gardens look wild but are carefully cultivated.

In the dry forests in southern Mexico, for example, locals harvest the sugary leaf bases of several species of wild agave to produce mescal, a smoky liquor. In the absence of data, the practice looks bad: The agaves, which only flower once before they die, are dug up before they have a chance to reproduce. Overharvesting could decimate agave populations, leaving little incentive for a community to conserve local patches of dry forest—the most threatened ecosystem in Mexico. With guidance from Peters, one such community collected data on the stock and production of wild agave populations over 5 years. At the end of the study, they were able to demonstrate that their practices were maintaining the agave populations (giving cause for a celebratory toast). When incorporated into a sustainable management plan, such data can form the basis for locals to shore up their land tenure situations.

Through such examples, Peters builds a case in favor of governments giving rural people greater control over their local forests. A long attention span is not needed; the vignettes are as short as a few pages. But for readers who find the contents light, technical manuscripts are cited in the endnotes.

The book is not all lighthearted. Some stories relate cases where traditional practices were lost—such as a rural community in Mexico that overexploited tree bark for artisanal paper and caused the local extirpation of the best bark-producing tree species; or a community in Myanmar that discontinued the planting of thatch palm (Livistona jenkinsiana) around rice fields because the people thought that they might be displaced, again, by the military before they could harvest it; or the Miao farmers in China whose fallow cycle was disrupted when they were offered cash to plant exotic monocultures in one of the largest payment-for-ecosystem-services projects ever undertaken. The somber implication is that sustainable management systems are difficult to restore once they are lost.

Indeed, Managing the Wild relates confirmatory stories about the sustainability of traditional management practices and describes aspirations about sustainability in the future, but examples of communities that transitioned from overexploitation to robust, sustainable management are lacking.

Peters’s stories and his overarching message that local people can be good for nature are likely to resonate with resource managers, conservation advocates, researchers, students, and policy-makers, but Managing the Wild should be accessible to anyone curious about tropical forest ecology.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO 63110, USA.