Gabriel Lefèvre (University of Oxford) – Two ethnobotanical case studies of southern Madagascar: two different approaches

    The aim of the poster is to illustrate two different approaches to the understanding of local plant knowledge. The first case begins from an ecological observation: the arrival of an incoming plant in the environment, Calotropis procera, sometimes described as a vegetal pest. The study leads to the identification of a process of naming and of assignment of uses to a plant. The second approach could be described as ethnographical history: the case begins with the study of the history of a group of people from southern Madagascar. It leads to the identification of a new, incoming use and name given to a plant, Corchorus olitorius, which at the time is already present in the environment.

    In the first case, I had first observed the plant as being new in the environment, and confirmed this through discussions with local people. After several periods of fieldwork in the same area from 2001, I had shown that this plant had gradually found names and medicinal uses. In this case, herbarium vouchers were central to the approach, as details from vouchers could be compared with local testimonials.

    In the second case, the approach began from the work of a colleague working on the history of the descendants of African immigrants to Madagascar, in which plant uses could be identified. People had come from West Africa with knowledge about plants found in the Malagasy environment. Half a century later, the son and grand-son of the immigrants could still find these plants in the environment. Nonetheless, an adaptation to the Malagasy vernacular classification could be identified.

    For these two cases, names and uses of the plants are inextricably connected, and have been central in the research.


    Gabriel Lefèvre is an ethnobotanist specialist of Madagascar. As a Marie Curie post-doctoral Researcher, he recently undertook a project at the University of Oxford on “Plant-words and the transformation of personhood in Masikoro healing practices in Madagascar” (2010-2013). His research focussed on processes of healing and their transformation in south-western Madagascar.

    His PhD thesis, “Hybridized Medicine in the South and South-West of Madagascar, The Plant-Words in Toliara” (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures, and National Museum of Natural History, Paris, 2007) was a study of local healing practices in the town of Toliara, south-western Madagascar. The thesis investigated the general principles governing healing practices. It relied both on an ethnobotanical approach and on a diachronic study of accounts of contacts between the Malagasy society and foreigners from the 17th century. It introduced the notion of Plant-words to reflect the ambiguity at the heart of the healing practices, in which the anthropologist does not really know whether the healing agent is the plant itself or the name it bears or a combination of both in the name the plant has received. The concept of Hybridization was also introduced to highlight a range of factors at work in the transformation of these healing practices