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.