BLOG | Investigating the political lives of plants

Inspired by recent fieldwork in Mexico and the United States, Jared Margulies investigates the political lives of plants & considers why 'plant blindness' still prevails in illegal wildlife trade research.

BIOSEC post-doctoral researcher Jared Margulies is examining the illicit global trade in plants. He has recently returned from a period of fieldwork in Mexico and the United States.

‘Plant blindness’, according to environmental psychologist Kathryn Williams, “represents a general tendency for many people to be less interested in plants than animals.” There are political and economic consequences as a result of human indifference to plant life, including a strong bias in wildlife conservation to focus research and funding efforts towards animals rather than plants. This bias extends into the policy and regulatory realms of wildlife trafficking enforcement as well. In what follows I explain a few reasons why this matters in the context of wildlife trafficking, and why I am turning to post-humanist political philosophy in my research on the global illicit trade in plants in order to make sense of this comparatively under-reported trade.

Although 57 percent of all species listed on the US federal endangered species list are plants, in 2011 they received less than 4 percent of federal endangered species expenditures. Similarly, CITES– the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—recognizes nearly 30,000 plants on CITES Appendices I or II (requiring a certificate for international trade or their wholesale ban on trade) compared to some 5,600 animals. And yet, international policy discussions on illegal wildlife trafficking overwhelmingly focus on charismatic endangered species such as rhinos, elephants, and big cats.

Image: 2-3 year old cultivated cacti of a variety of endangered species endemic to Mexico for sale at a botanical garden in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. 

Put another way, while scientists have effectively lobbied for the inclusion of plants onto registered lists recognizing their endangerment and unsustainable exploitation through international trade, policymakers, conservation organizations, and media outlets remain focused on the illicit trafficking of animals compared to plants. A January 2018 joint statement by IUCN-SSC Plant Specialist Groups on addressing ‘plant blindness’ in addressing illegal wildlife trade clarifies these biases:

“Wildlife trade is often associated with fauna, particularly charismatic mammals. However, wild plants are also commercially traded—legally and illegally—for a range of medicinal, ornamental, cosmetic and edible products, as well as timber. Wild plants are often important to the livelihoods of harvesters and traders, and provide a range of essential products—including many that are sold in the UK. The average UK’s wildlife consumer footprint is, arguably, greatest for plants.”

There are similar biases favouring animals over plants as subjects in social research. This past week I participated in the Annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers (the AAGs) in New Orleans, USA, where I attended several panels and sessions related to ‘more-than-human’ geography and multispecies research methodologies. A scholarly intervention now two decades in the making, ‘more-than-human’ geography is an important intervention into how non-human kinds of life co-produce social worlds. More-than-human geography asks geography to take non-humans seriously as subjects with the capacity to act, to be political. And yet, throughout these panels at the AAGs the ‘more-than-human’ moniker might have easily been replaced with ‘animal’, for there was hardly any mention of plants (or fungi, for that matter) in these sessions.

As a playful experiment to enliven a panel on multispecies research methodologies, Clemens Driessen (University of Wageningen) asked participants of the AAGs to send him photographs of wildlife within the conference halls and hotel rooms of the conference. Aside from the spotting of a lonely fly, a mouse, and a pesky mosquito, he was disappointed to report that wildlife appeared to evade conference attendees’ notice, or perhaps were simply absent from the very human spaces of the conference (though I suspect it was more the former than the latter). I thought it noteworthy that nobody took photographs of the many plants, including CITES listed cycads, scattered throughout the hotel lobbies, hallways, and meeting spaces.

Image: Wild (left) and cultivated (right) individuals of Echinocereus rigidissimus, or Arizona rainbow cactus. The cactus on the left was spotted in rangeland near the Chihuahuan desert of southern Arizona in spring 2018. The cactus on the right lives on a windowsill in Sheffield, UK. 

Plants were present as research subjects at the AAGs, but they were relegated to their own set of sessions. I served as discussant during the first of two sessions on ‘vegetal political ecologies’ organized by Jake Fleming (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Megan Betz (Indiana University). Fleming has previously argued “political ecologists still treat plants primarily as aspects of the landscape against which other human and nonhuman actors move.” I agree with Fleming that the turns towards ‘post-humanist’ and ‘more-than-human’ thinking in geography and political ecology remains an exceedingly faunal (and especially mammalian) one, taking inadequate stock of plants as lively political actors. To this end I was encouraged at the AAGs by the set of excellent papers in Fleming and Betz’ sessions on the positions of plants in political ecology. At the same time, I hope that plant life will increasingly come more explicitly into the fold of more-than-human geographies and related political ecology scholarship writ large.

The hybrid politics of plants

But what exactly does it mean to treat plants as political subjects? BIOSEC Fellow Brock Bersaglio and I recently published a critical review in Geoforum (2018) about the ways in which post-humanist thought can help inform political ecology scholarship more open to the diversity of life that are mobilized in reproducing various kinds of social and economic inequalities. But even in our discussion of post-humanist political ecology the world of plants is largely absent. While the emergence of what we might call plant politics (or vegetal politics, following Head et al. 2014) signals a growing awareness across geography, politics, and political ecology for the need to take stock of how plants might be better theorized as lively political subjects, how to do so both methodologically and theoretically remains murky. Plants prove more difficult to conceive as political subjects in part, I argue, because Western scientific approaches to knowing them as species can limit our creative capacity for understanding them relationally.

Unlike most animals, the kinds of hybridity that exist within the plant kingdom are extraordinary. For example, some plants understood as species can sexually reproduce with other similar species, producing all kinds of trouble for botanists and taxonomists trying to understand the evolutionary relations and distinctions between them. This produces what is known as the ‘lumpers’ or ‘splitters’ problem, in which some taxonomists prefer to group closely related plants together as one species or set of sub-species, while others prefer to separate them out as distinct but closely related species. Whether a taxonomist tends towards lumping or splitting in part depends on how they employ morphology data (what a plant physically looks like) and genetic information. Some taxonomists I interviewed during my recent preliminary fieldwork in Mexico and the United States even suggested that perhaps in time the species concept might fall out of favour altogether for at least some families of plants, as terms like ‘species complex’ and ‘species group’ become increasingly mobilized in order to grapple with the messy kinship of plants.

Image: An example of an agave species herbarium specimen at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). 

These aren’t only interesting scientific quandaries—embedded in these scientific questions are political effects. Hybridity and plant relationality produce important implications for species conservation and the regulation of illicit wildlife trade. For a species to be regulated under most wildlife law it must be first identifiable through an internationally agreed-upon taxonomy (Mammiliaria bertholdii, as an example from the world of illicitly traded cacti). Laws regulating and managing biodiversity are predicated on our capacity for knowing—which in Western science has been canonized in the form of this genus-species Latin binomial. With the advent of modern genetics, major revisions in plant taxonomy and phylogenetics (the study of evolutionary history and relation of species to one another) continue to reshuffle plants into new relations of kinship (oftentimes very surprising ones!). Many plants that were once thought to be unique species based on morphological traits alone have since been lumped together as iterations of the same species. This can make trade enforcement and investigation into illicit trafficking more difficult, as traders may continue to use out-dated scientific names in advertising species for sale, or employ common names that might refer to one of many different unique species with different geographies of origin.

The above example is just one instance of how human attempts at ‘knowing’ plants can produce surprising implications for the regulation of illicit plant trafficking. Over the course of the next year, I will also be looking for ways I might consider how plants, through their evasion of human systems of static categorization, enact their own kinds of political trouble. In doing so, I will be investigating what closer attention to the political life of plants can offer to advancing both a post-humanist politics of human-plants relations but also in methodologically and theoretically advancing a more-than-human political geography of illicit wildlife trafficking.