- Even the study of plants has roots in colonialism and appropriation. We must face its troubled history and make sure we do something about it, writes Alexandre Antonelli (‘Head of Science’ at Kew Gardens, London)
- At Kew, we aim to tackle structural racism in plant and fungal science. We will strive, for example, to increase the ethnic representation of our staff and students.
I’ve often struggled to answer the simple question, “Where are you from?” As I was born and raised in Brazil, my origin is mixed – comprising indigenous, African and Mediterranean ancestors – and I dislike pre-defined labels.
Having lived outside my birth country most of my life, I have experienced discrimination on multiple occasions. I have learned the history of imperialism from the perspective of a former colony.
At school, I was taught that Brazil was “discovered” in 1500 by the Portuguese. The fact that several million people lived there before that was barely mentioned in our books. We were told of a long history of brutal exploitation of our natural resources, including vast amounts of gold, rubber and timber. All this was achieved through the exploitation of our native people and African slaves – including my own ancestors.
For hundreds of years, rich countries in the north have exploited natural resources and human knowledge in the south. Colonial botanists would embark on dangerous expeditions in the name of science but were ultimately tasked with finding economically profitable plants. Much of Kew’s work in the 19th century focused on the movement of such plants around the British Empire, which means we too have a legacy that is deeply rooted in colonialism.
In my own field of research, you can see an imperialist view prevail. Scientists continue to report how new species are “discovered” every year, species that are often already known and used by people in the region – and have been for thousands of years.
Scientists have appropriated indigenous knowledge and downplayed its depth and complexity. The first inhabitants of Brazil and the first users of plants in Australia often remained unnamed, unrecognised, and uncompensated. They are quite literally invisible in history. This needs to change.
Plants and fungi can be part of the solution.