Distinguished Economic Botanists

The award of "Distinguished Economic Botanist (DEB)" is bestowed annually by the Society upon an individual on the basis of outstanding accomplishments pertinent to the goals of the Society. A nominee does not need to be a member of the Society. The Chairperson of the Nominations and Awards Committee shall be responsible for the citation which shall be published in Economic Botany. The only responsibility of the awardee shall be to present an address at the annual meeting the year of his/her selection. He/she shall become an honorary member of the Society for life.

Recipients of the Distinguished Economic Botanist award are:

2016 - Dr. Tony Cunningham

Over the past 35 years, Tony Cunningham has made major contributions to economic and ethnobotany and embodies the spirit of the Distinguished Economic Botanist.

He is outstanding in his dedication and passion to advancing scientific research; promoting sustainable and environmentally and socially just livelihoods; and mentoring students on people-plant relationships. He has been a pioneer in linking traditional knowledge, local resource use, and conservation, is a foremost leader in the field of Ethnoecology. He is also widely known for his developing a suite of rigorous research methods for studying the formal and informal market systems of non-timber forest products as a means to evaluate the in situ effects of harvest for plant and animal species with both local and global value as a way to inform conservation prioritization.

Tony’s PhD through the University of Cape Town (1980 - 1985) was a ground-breaking quantitative study of the values of plants to local people. In 1986, he started South Africa’s first ethnobotany programme (the Southern Life Ethnobotany Programme at the Institute of Natural Resources, University of KwaZulu/Natal) where in addition to mentoring students, he carried out the first detailed study of the traditional medicine trade in South Africa---not an easy task at a time of burning barricades and assassinations under apartheid. On the cusp of leaving South Africa in 1991 he wrote the framework for the national program that continues today as the Indigenous Plant Use Forum (IPUF). In 1992, together with Alan Hamilton and Gary Martin, he started the WWF/UNESCO/Kew “People and Plants Initiative,” coordinating its Africa program. This has enabled him to mentor many students in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania and support projects with colleagues in Zimbabwe and Cameroon. In the process, he also wrote the practical book, “Applied ethnobotany: people, wild plant use and conservation” which is very widely used for teaching purposes at universities across the world and inavailable in English (2001), Spanish (2002) and Chinese (2004). In 2004, Tony was GP Wilder Chair in the Department of Botany, University of Hawaiʻi, where he developed and taught an inter-disciplinary ethnoecology course that bridged marine and terrestrial environments, focusing on resource management linked to local livelihoods and species in trade. An expert on African basketry and the ethnobotany of Asian textiles, he spent 25 years working on an unfunded project culminating in the book “African basketry: grassroots art from southern Africa” (2006, with M E Terry) and most recently, for a major exhibition at the Fowler Museum, UCLA, “Plants as the pivot: the ethnobotany of Timorese textiles” (2014). Although he has been based in Australia for many years, he has continued to support and mentor researchers in many parts of Africa and Asia.

Tony has made enormous contributions to the fields of Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology, and through his teaching, research, articles, books, and videos, he has inspired students across the globe. He is driven by a true dedication to indigenous and local communities and to conservation. He is a role model because of his high standards in ethics, demonstrated by his research that truly engages, collaborates with, and shows respect for local stakeholders; ensures the protection of intellectual property rights; and recognizes local counterparts as co-authors and collaborators. He is most dedicated, passionate, enthusiastic and tireless in his work to advance the science and social justice centered on people and plants.


Dr. Daniel Moerman

Dr. Jan Salick





Dr. Will McClatchey


Dr. Djaja Djendoel Soejarto


Dr. Nancy Turner


Drs. Edelmira Linares and Robert Bye


Nina Etkin
2009 *




Michael Balick


Brent and
Elois Ann Berlin


W. Hardy Eshbaugh


Walter Lewis &
Memory Elvin-Lewis


Harold C. Conklin
[ Profile ]


Gordon Hillman


Daniel Zohary


Sir Ghillean Prance


Isabella Abbott
2001 *


James Duke




S. K. Jain


Hugh. H. Iltis


Carlos Ochoa
1997 *


Jack G. Hawkes
1996 *


Varro E. Tyler
1995 *


Walton C. Galinat
1994 *


Mildred Mathias
1993 *


Douglas Yen


N. W. Simmonds
1991 *


Herbert G. Baker
1990 *




Jack L. Beal
1989 *


Oswald Tippo
1988 *


Charles Rick
1987 *


E. Hernández X.
1986 *


Jack R. Harlan
1985 *


Charles B. Heiser
1984 *


N. R. Farnsworth
1983 *


William L. Brown
1982 *


William H. Tallent
1981 *


T. Whitaker
1980 *




R. E. Schultes
1979 *


Julia F. Morton
1978 *


* deceased