A life’s journey comes full circle for this woman in science

Ethnobotanist Narel Paniagua-Zambrana of Bolivia turned her dream into a life’s work; then something happened to cast her into the limelight

Narel in Chacobo main
Dr. Narel Paniagua-Zambrana interviews a young Chácobo in the Bolivian Amazon as part of her PhD research on palm use (Photo by Rainer Bussmann)

Dr. Narel Paniagua-Zambrana got a glimpse of the course her life would take when she was a child growing up in mining camps in the mountains outside La Paz, Bolivia. Her father, a geologist, worked as an engineering supervisor in a variety of tin mines. One day, an equipment failure caused a tunnel to collapse, trapping her father and about 20 other workers inside the mountain. Fortunately, they were all rescued after two days – but not everybody she knew was so lucky.

“In the mines, the life is hard,” Narel recalled. “You never knew if your father would come out again. I had many friends who lost their fathers in these kinds of accidents.

“Always I was dreaming to do something to change these kinds of things.”

Life in the mines gave her a close relationship with nature and people – and a keen sense of what was required to help them:

I learned that education was the best tool to change the lives of people. Many of the workers in the mines worked there because they did not have the chance to complete their school education and thus had no other options than to engage in risky work.

Since then, she has transformed the dream of improving people’s lives to reality, navigating a path from agronomy to biology to botany and finally to ethnobotany, a branch of botany that studies a people’s traditional knowledge of plant use.

Narel shared her story with her colleagues at the annual AAAS meeting in Washington, DC, where she was one of five scientists to win the 2019 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women Scientists in the Developing World. They took turns telling their stories around the table while preparing for their presetations and the award ceremony.

Narel spoke with passion about her journey. Little did she know that in the weeks ahead, her story would take her places she never imagined.

Dr. Narel Paniagua Zambrana (far left) poses with the other winners of the 2019 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Women in Science in the Developing World at the Annual AAAS Meeting in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alison Bert)

Narel Paniagua Zambrana, PhD, accepts the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award at the 2019 AAAS Meeting in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alison Bert)An ethnobotanist, Narel was honored for her work documenting and protecting traditional knowledge of plant use by indigenous populations and local communities, especially in Bolivia – one of the most culturally diverse countries in Latin America. As an Associated Reseacher at the Herbario Nacional de Bolivia, part of the Instituto de Ecología at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, she works with people who use use plants for all aspects of their lives, from food and medicine to construction, clothing, household supplies and religious ceremonies. Her work gives people the tools and motivation to conserve their knowledge and natural resources.

It was her father who introduced her to science and gave her a love for the outdoors.

“He would always teach me about rocks and which kinds of different rocks you can find,” she said. “Every weekend our family would go on a picnic. My brother and I would always play with plants, with rocks, and sometimes we would go to the small rivers. In very high places, the weather was cold, but we would always enjoy our picnic outside. And my father would always try to teach me.”

As a biology major at Universidad Mayor de San Andres in La Paz, Narel took a course that opened a new world for her. In 1995, Conservation International held fieldwork training at her university, and she signed up for the only available space in the course – botany. It was taught by world-renowned botanist Dr. Robin Foster, Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago.

“I learned from the most important botanist in the tropical rain forest,” Narel said. “He taught me a love for plants. How he identified the plants and how he showed the plants was amazing.”

After that, Dr. Foster invited Narel to join him on his expeditions whenever he came to Bolivia. In 1997, she came to the Field Museum to work with him for three months, sealing her plan to become an ethnobotanist.

Along the way, Narel met her husband, ethnobotanist Dr. Rainer Bussmann, when they were both teaching at a Bolivian congress. At the time, he was Director of the William L. Brown Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden. They wrote to each other for a year. With no internet access in the field, Narel penned a letter to him every day, mailing them to him whenever she went into the city.

That was 10 years ago; they’ve been working together ever since.

Her early experiences working in rural communities further strengthened her resolve to improve people’s lives. She saw school children in small, dark rooms sitting on trunks or on the floor. And she learned that many families don’t have doctors, relying on plants for their medicine.

Meanwhile, she said, governmental policy seemed detached from the needs of these people.

Dr. Narel Paniagua-Zambrana with her husband, Dr. Rainer Bussmann, after the award ceremony at AAAS. (Photo by Alison Bert)“The government – they just tried to apply the laws and the politics thinking that everybody in the country is exactly the same … whether they’re poor or rich or live in the mountains or lowlands,” she said. “They didn’t take the time to learn why the people live in this place, why the people eat this kind of food and why they don’t like to eat that kind of food.”

Understanding how and why people live the way they do is crucial “for politics and to preserve our resources,” she said. Her dream came into sharper focus.

“My dream was … to build an institute that had the money to study every different place where people live, and (give them) all this information, and they would use it to preserve and conserve their different ecosystems,” she said. “This is my dream.”

Slowly, she’s been making that dream a reality.

Dr. Narel Paniagua-Zambrana in the Lamas community in Northern Peru, giving out books documenting the knowledge of the Chankas, an indigenous group she worked with to document their use of palms and return the knowledge to the community (Photo by Rainer Bussmann).

While her work requires a deep knowledge of botany, it’s ultimately about much more than plant life.

"Once you leave for the field, your relationship with the people starts,” she said. “They not only teach you how to walk in the forest or to cross a river, they teach you how they relate to the environment, and that knowledge is what we need to learn. This relationship is what we need to use as the main tool to conserve resources and associated traditional knowledge.”

Dr. Narel Paniagua-Zambrana doing fieldwork with indigenous communities in Northern Bolivia (Photo by Rainer Bussmann)

On one trip with Dr. Foster to the Madidi National Park, an indigenous couple from the Tacana tribe taught them about how they use their plants in the Bolivian Amazon.

“We were planning to work with this couple for just a few hours to get an idea about how they used plants, but we spent the whole day,” Narel said. “They had so much to teach and show, and we were really impressed.”

A member of the Mestizo community "El Chino" at Tahuayo River (a tributary of the Amazon in Northern Peru) weaves irapay leaves to thatch his house. (Photo by Narel Paniagua-Zambrana)

Four years later, she ended up living in this community for a year, developing a project studying how they used plants for food, medicine to construction and cultural ceremonies. She put that knowledge into her first book, returning it to the community. Without budget for an actual book, she made black-and-white photocopies, binding the manuscripts into spiral notebooks and giving one to each of the 80 families.

Dr. Narel Paniagua-Zambrana interviews an elder of the Ese-Eja community "Palma Real" on the shores of the Madre de Dios river in the Northern Peruvian Amazon. (Photo by Rainer Bussmann)

Now, the books she produces are used in schools to teach children how to use their local plants. It’s one way of ensuring that this knowledge – which is typically passed down orally – will be available to future generations.

In school, they may start with something as simple as a straw basket – like the woven baskets made from dried palm leaves. They’re in every house, the same style throughout the Amazon, Narel said, and people put all kinds of things in them: fruits, rice, seeds. But it’s becoming a lost art.

Bae Chavez of the Chácobo community "Alto Ivon" is one of the few Chácobo women still practicing basket weaving using plant fibers and conserving this knowledge. (Photo by Narel Paniagua-Zambrana).

Bae Chavez of the Chácobo community "Alto Ivon" weaves baskets using palm leaves. (Photo by Narel Paniagua-Zambrana)“We go to places and ask, ‘Do you know how to make the baskets?’ And they say, ‘No, my grandmother knows how to do that.’ We think that maybe we need to teach younger people how to do these things.

“You (assume) this is very sure knowledge, but now you can buy the baskets in the market – Chinese baskets.”

Of course, it’s easier than going to the forest, harvesting the leaves and drying the leaves to make the baskets. But with the convenience of buying baskets, something else is being lost.

“If people (know) the forest provides this important resource, they will preserve the forest,” Narel said. “And if they have the knowledge, they can use the forest very well.”

An interesting example is the açai berry. “It’s very in fashion now, and they say it’s very healthy,” Narel said. “But if you ask the people in the forest, they never drink the açai juice.”

With good reason. Research has shown that açai infrutescences often harbor large quantities of triatomine bugs, which transmit Chagas disease. These insects defecate in the infrutescences, leaving Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite causing Chagas. These are killed by pasteurization by the companies marketing the juice, but without this process, the juice could be deadly.

It’s a lesson she conveys to her colleagues in this fields: first seek to understand.

“Don’t push the people to do the things they never do,” she said. “Study their culture and knowledge, try to understand why they use (certain resources) and why they don’t use others, and after that, make a decision to develop projects.

“Start by understanding instead of just pushing your ideas on them.”

Her work in these communities has had a far-reaching impact on the field of research as well as the people she works with. In addition, her many scientific publications, the information she has documented has been incorporated into educational materials and programs to protect the environment and related knowledge of natural resources. In recent years, she has also developing research projects that local people actively participate in; she trains them to assist with research while observing the Nagoya Protocol, which requires scientific projects to be co-developed with the local communities that would be affected.

The interest she shows in these communities in itself sends an important message:

If they see that somebody from the outside … comes to study their knowledge, they start to think that this knowledge must be something important. And once children listen to the elders or their parents being interviewed, they understand this importance of this traditional knowledge. The development of books in which the participants then see their names among the authors helps to empower them to safeguard and value their knowledge.

Also, working together with her husband, as a family, helps them gain more confidence in the communities, she said, and pointed out still another advantage of their partnership:

It enables us to show that both men and women can do the same work with mutual respect. This can help to give value to the position of women in environments where gender differences still create conflict.

News spreads fast

In the days Narel was preparing for the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award ceremony, she received a welcome surprise: an article about her award in a Bolivian newspaper.

This was followed by dozens of articles, with media coverage in Bolivia and beyond. Even the president of Bolivia congratulated her on Twitter.

Still, she was surprised at what happened when she returned to her country.

“I had no idea what was waiting for me,” she wrote in an email to her fellow awardees and colleagues at OWSD and Elsevier. “The news the prize has created in my country has been really impressive.”

The day she arrived, she noticed that an interview she did in Washington was featured in a local newspaper. “The headline was very special to me,” she said, translating it to: "A scientist is formed as a girl educated without prejudice." It would be followed by three television interviews.

Then she received a phone call she will never forget: an invitation to meet the President of Bolivia: Evo Morales Ayma. The call came from Diego Pary, the Bolivian Chancellor/Minister of the Exterior.

The next day, Chancellor Pary welcomed Narel and her husband to La Paz, where he spent an hour pouring over their books and learning about their work. “He asked us about our research, our concerns and even our desires and ideas for future work,” Narel said. “It was really very valuable to also listen to what he also shared about his experience working with issues related to indigenous peoples and their knowledge.”

Then it was time to meet with the President. The Chancellor took them to the new presidential palace, La Gran Casa del Pueblo (“The Great House of the People”), where they were escorted into the entrance normally reserved for state visits.

We were received by the President and the Minister of the Presidency, to whom we were able to show our publications and who patiently and with great interest listened another hour to our explanations. We talked about plants, stories, indigenous friends in common with the President and our star theme: science and women.

I was so impressed by the way the President received all the information we wanted to convey to him and by his predisposition, which I did not have enough words to thank him for. He indicated his willingness to collaborate more in science in Bolivia, in our institutions, even improving the facilities.

Finally, Narel got up the nerve to ask him about something that was very important to her personally:

I asked him if he could consider declaring a special day to celebrate the Bolivian women in science. As soon as I finished mentioning it, he simply said yes, this was very important because it would be a very special motivation for women who do science in Bolivia.

Afterwards, the President tweeted about their meeting:

And here is a sample of the television coverage.

Later that week, she met with representatives of the UN World Food Programme in Bolivia. “They proposed to use my image as a large wall-size graffiti to celebrate International Women's Day with the message that ‘Every Girl can be a Scientist if she wants,’” she wrote in her email. “I think this is absolutely fabulous.”

The mural was unveiled soon after:

This is the tweet of the mission chief of affairs of the World Food Programme in Bolivia, with whom Narel also met to present her research.

They also talked to her about developing joint collaborative research with the aim of using traditional knowledge as a tool for food security. “This, I think, will open a new door to our investigations,” she wrote in her email.

Her homecoming was topped off by a special ceremony for International Womens Day, organized by the Faculty of Pure and Natural Sciences at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in recognition of her lifetime scientific achievements.

That day,she would also discover her Wikipedia profile, created by a Bolivian student living in France as part of UNESCO’s Wiki4Women initiative.

In her email to colleagues, she concluded by expressing her appreciation: “Again, thank you very much for this wonderful gift that has been the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award!!”

A science celebrity on a mission

Despite new-found celebrity, Narel has the same mission, and she plans to use the visibility to make it happen. “This award will stimulate the advancement of ethobiological research in Bolivia and the region,” she wrote:

It makes it possible to highlight the value of conserving the traditional knowledge held by the indigenous populations – especially because local scientific work is not an easy task in developing countries. …

Without doubt, this prize will help me to expand my collaboration with other colleagues in my country, the region and hopefully the world, as well as with local and indigenous communities to continue developing more participatory research. I also hope to collaborate more with students interested in ethnobiology, because I believe that this is the best way of teaching.

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Written by

Alison Bert, DMA

Written by

Alison Bert, DMA

As Executive Editor of Strategic Communications at Elsevier, Dr. Alison Bert works with contributors around the world to publish daily stories for the global science and health communities. Previously, she was Editor-in-Chief of Elsevier Connect, which won the 2016 North American Excellence Award for Science & Education.

Alison joined Elsevier in 2007 from the world of journalism, where she was a business reporter and blogger for The Journal News, a Gannett daily newspaper in New York. In the previous century, she was a classical guitarist on the music faculty of Syracuse University. She received a doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, was Fulbright scholar in Spain, and studied in a master class with Andrés Segovia.

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