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Foodways in transition: food plants, diet and local perceptions of change in a Costa Rican Ngäbe community

D'Ambrosio, Ugo, Puri, Rajindra K. (2016) Foodways in transition: food plants, diet and local perceptions of change in a Costa Rican Ngäbe community. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 12 (3). pp. 1-32. ISSN 1746-4269. E-ISSN 1746-4269. (doi:10.1186/s13002-015-0071-x) (KAR id:54666)



Indigenous populations are undergoing rapid ethnobiological, nutritional and socioeconomic transitions while being increasingly integrated into modernizing societies. To better understand the dynamics of these transitions, this article aims to characterize the cultural domain of food plants and analyze its relation with current day diets, and the local perceptions of changes given amongst the Ngäbe people of Southern Conte-Burica, Costa Rica, as production of food plants by its residents is hypothesized to be drastically in recession with an decreased local production in the area and new conservation and development paradigms being implemented.


Extensive freelisting, interviews and workshops were used to collect the data from 72 participants on their knowledge of food plants, their current dietary practices and their perceptions of change in local foodways, while cultural domain analysis, descriptive statistical analyses and development of fundamental explanatory themes were employed to analyze the data.


Results show a food plants domain composed of 140 species, of which 85 % grow in the area, with a medium level of cultural consensus, and some age-based variation. Although many plants still grow in the area, in many key species a decrease on local production–even abandonment–was found, with much reduced cultivation areas. Yet, the domain appears to be largely theoretical, with little evidence of use; and the diet today is predominantly dependent on foods bought from the store (more than 50 % of basic ingredients), many of which were not salient or not even recognized as ‘food plants’ in freelists exercises. While changes in the importance of food plants were largely deemed a result of changes in cultural preferences for store bought processed food stuffs and changing values associated with farming and being food self-sufficient, Ngäbe were also aware of how changing household livelihood activities, and the subsequent loss of knowledge and use of food plants, were in fact being driven by changes in social and political policies, despite increases in forest cover and biodiversity.


Ngäbe foodways are changing in different and somewhat disconnected ways: knowledge of food plants is varied, reflecting most relevant changes in dietary practices such as lower cultivation areas and greater dependence on food from stores by all families. We attribute dietary shifts to socioeconomic and political changes in recent decades, in particular to a reduction of local production of food, new economic structures and agents related to the State and globalization.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1186/s13002-015-0071-x
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GF Human ecology. Anthropogeography
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Q Science > QK Botany
S Agriculture > S Agriculture (General)
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation
Depositing User: Rajindra Puri
Date Deposited: 29 Mar 2016 10:20 UTC
Last Modified: 16 Feb 2021 13:34 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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