As societies, traditionally we tend to view exotic plants as being more valuable than native plants, or as having more useful properties. That’s why my homeland, New Zealand, now looks very much like British countryside and why much of California is infested with teasel from Europe and eucalyptus from Australia. It’s also why much of Indonesia has many invasive legume trees that are helpful for soil but for which more appropriate local species exist. And that’s one of the keys—for most of these “helpful” and “useful” plants that so often become serious weeds—native versions, or species, exist. It’s just that they are undervalued and underutilized compared to exotics.
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The large land-bridge island that Ambai’s called home was thought to be fairly well-known regarding biodiversity, but was relatively “unimportant” since it was thought to hold no endemics—plants or animals that occur only there. My first published paper, in 1991, was on the reproductive biology of a poorly-known species of microhylid frog. With my friends’ intimate knowledge of the forest, several other papers followed including new species descriptions of several fishes and frogs. In fact, we “discovered” two freshwater fishes and one marine fish as a direct result of this language learning. Of course, my Ambai friends knew all about them long before science got to them. These and a number of frog species all turned out to be endemics—restricted in range to the Ambai homeland. These discoveries just the beginning.
The science/indigenous knowledge marriage led, for many Ambais, to a deeper knowledge and appreciation for their environment...
“Tuti manini mani, wonong fidoni?” And this one, what’s its name?
I was sitting squatting on the back step of my little wooden shack, at the edge of an isolated village on the edge of the jungle, in what was then known as Irian Jaya. And I was working my way through a pile of freshly caught reef fish—fish that would be more familiar to most of us in an expensive aquarium. “Right, but why is this one different from that one?” They were, according to my New Guinea Fishes book, the same species.
“Ah, this one is young, later it turns into that one.” Okay, that works for me. ...