Mushrooms are no longer just a burger topping; they are providing innovative solutions to the escalating problems affecting both human and ecological health. Two-thirds of pharmaceuticals derive from compounds found in nature, and many species of mushrooms possess significant pharmacological benefits such as antibiotic, antitumor, and immunoenhancing properties. In addition, mycorrhizal mushrooms, which establish symbiosis with tree roots, play a crucial role in forestry and remediation efforts to mitigate ecological degradation. Despite these possibilities, mycologists have identified only seven percent of the world’s estimated 1.5 million fungal species. Certainly, an initial step toward building a global inventory of mushroom knowledge is identifying information which already exists.
Traditional mycological knowledge (TMK) is often passed down orally through generations, based on empirical observations, and can provide local, baseline ecological data while contributing to the understanding and use of the planet’s fungal genetic resources. Furthermore, documentation of traditional knowledge should carefully ensure that the act of preservation does not inadvertently facilitate the misappropriation or illegitimate use of the knowledge. This can be accomplished by empowering traditional knowledge holders to assess their interests, identify appropriate forms of intellectual property protections, choose their own directions for the use of their knowledge, and develop the capacity to accomplish their protection strategies.
In the Cuchumatánes Mountains of western Guatemala, the Q’anjob’al Maya are in danger of losing their knowledge and traditions of utilizing wild fungi. During the nation’s prolonged internal conflict, the Q’anjob’al people were one of the four largest groups targeted by military acts of genocide which, in addition to migration and the encroachment of modern lifestyles, disrupted their traditional use of wild fungi. The civil war and resulting instability also prevented, until recently, mycological exploration of the nation’s biologically rich, rural regions. According to preliminary research from one of my two affiliates, Dr. Andrea Rinaldi et. al (2012), Guatemala’s mushroom diversity may equal, if not surpass, the well studied hotspots, Mexico and Costa Rica. However, information is scant. Therefore, I propose to research Q’anjob’al TMK in the department of Huehuetenango, Guatemala.
The two objectives of my project are: (1) to document how rural Q’anjob’al people understand and use wild fungi through community-based, participatory research, and (2) to assist knowledge holders in determining whether intellectual property options are relevant and/or suitable for their TMK through a series of collaborative community meetings. This research project will not only augment current mycological understanding of the country, but will also give power to the Q’anjob’al Maya to protect their traditional knowledge associated with the use of fungi, and thus help safeguard Guatemala’s cultural and ecological resources.