ECO-SEA: The Ethnobotanical Conservation Organization for South East Asia
Cultural Ecology

The intersection of cultural systems and ecological systems, or cultural ecology, is the focus of ECO-SEA's collaborative research and conservation programs. This page describes a number of our ongoing projects in biocultural diversity conservation, gender and ethnobiology, historical ecology,taxonomy, and traditional uses of native plants such as edible fruits and natural illuminants. Detailed descriptions of our flagship projects in Eastern Indonesia are available by clicking the links below.

Field Research
Tado Cultural Ecology Conservation Program
Tado Community-Based Ecotourism

Biocultural Diversity Conservation

Through our focus on conserving both native taxa (plants, animals, insects, etc.) and native traditions (foods, handicrafts, stories, rituals, sayings, etc.), ECO-SEA helps revive, restore and maintain biocultural diversity. We believe the key to biocultural diversity conservation lies in the continued empowerment of local communities to research, document, prioritize and strategize how to best conserve their traditional heritage. We support international conventions regarding biocultural diversity conservation such as the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity(UNEP-CBD) and the 1995 Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous Peoples (UN-WGIP).

Gender and Ethnobiology

Researching and conserving ethnobiological knowledge and practice requires the active involvement of entire communities, in order to honor the diversity of experience and expertise possessed by local residents. ECO-SEA's field research emphasizes the equal inclusion of women and men, and our gender-balanced work demonstrates the unique perspectives of different genders. Women and men differ significantly in their sacred and secular knowledge and practice and their experise in fishing, hunting, gathering, cultivation and processing techniques associated with plants and animals, and many times this gender-specific knowledge is not transmitted or understood to others. To learn more about issues relating to gender and ethnobiology, visit the 2004 International Society of Ethnobiology Conference Symposium on Gender and Ethnobiology.

Historical Ecology

Crucial to documenting past traditions and ecological conditions is the incorporation of the historical ecology of places and peoples in our work. ECO-SEA works with local communities to research historical migration, trade and settlement patterns, as well as our ongoing effort to honor and document the irreplaceable knowledge of elders and senior experts. A recently initiated project, Cultures of Grass: The Historical Ecology and Biocultural Diversity of Traditional Cultivars and Their Cultivators Across the Pacific Rim aims to demonstrate the critical role played by native peoples in developing and maintaining the genetic diversity of edible grass plants including upland rice and other traditionally important species within the botanical family Poaceae (Graminae).


The Ethnobotany and Conservation Status of Indonesia's Native Fruits and Traditions (ECSINF & T) is a new, three-year collaborative study organized by ECO-SEA. The first phase involved researchers from the Bali Botanic Gardens, University of California at Davis and the Strybing Arboretum of San Francisco working in association with the Kempo Manggarai ethnic group of Western Flores. Researchers from Universitas Nusa Cendana (Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara), Bogor Agricultural University and the Ministry of Forestry and Plantations are expected to join us in the field next year.

Taxonomic Research

The ECSINF&T project aims to research, database and document native Indonesian fruit taxa via archival and field studies. Our initial list includes 150 taxa from 31 plant families divided into "major" (e.g., durian, mango), "minor" (e.g. figs, rose apple) and "uncommon" (e.g. rambai, santol) species. Our resource library includes over 200 references on Malesian/Southeast Asian fruit, many of the texts now out of print. One of our most challenging tasks involves sorting out the scientific, common and local names and synonyms for each species and confirming its genetic origin

Traditional Plant Uses

Our fieldwork involves investigating the use of fruit taxa in social and ceremonial interactions, daily household use, market goods, traditional medicine and cultural narrative. Survey results are teaching us to think of fruits not simply as appetizers or desserts, but as tools, containers, livestock feed, first-aid kits and sources of oils, vegetables, starches and fermented beverages. A copy of our first report to the Indonesian Institute of Sciences can be obtained by request

Participatory Research

ECO-SEA's research methodology and professional conduct demonstrate our commitment to participatory, respectful, mutually beneficial research. Our project team includes field associates from local communities, original data is stored onsite in a newly constructed Community Research Center and our results are presented to the communities involved in the form of trilingual interpretive pamphlets. Due to the continued controversy surrounding ethnopharmaceutical research, new data on medicinal plant use will remain with the local communities, and in our publications we will only confirm medicinal plant uses already noted in the literature.

Significant Ethnobotanical Species

Certain taxa play a prominent role in the lives of ethnic groups in Eastern Indonesia, with palms ranking at the top of the list. Borassus flabelifer (lontar), Arenga pinnata (sugar palm), Corypha utan (giant palm) and Cocos nucifera (coconut) all produce thatch and/or fiber, wood, sugar and an intoxicating beverage known as tuak or palm wine. A key ingredient in any ceremonial activity amongst the Kempo Manggarai, tuak is best served fresh and frequently stored in gourds. Palm and pandan (Family: Pandanaceae) fronds are incorporated into several hundred types of handicrafts: ECO-SEA will be collecting and displaying ethnobotanical artifacts in institutions on Flores, Timor, Bali, Java and within the United States.

Natural Illuminants

Seed oil from a number of native fruit taxa is used as a natural illuminant. Pounded nuts of Aleuritis moluccana (candlenut), Sterculia foetida (Javan olive, pictured here) and Schleichera oleosa (Ceylon oak), when mixed with kapok fibers and wrapped around a palm frond midrib, make instant lamps. Ethnobotanical traditions such as using handmade lamps are dying out in traditional communities: in our research site, only person 40 years and older demonstrated familiarity with using natural illuminants. ECO-SEA will be sponsoring demonstrations of traditional practices by village elders in local communities in order to promote the conservation of indigenous knowledge.