Katie McNamara, dispatch from the field

Katie McNamara, a Ph.D. student in One Health at the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professionsdepartment of environmental and global health, describes her research abroad:

Katie McNamara in Ecuador
Katie McNamara in Ecuador

I received a Fulbright Hayes Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad, or DDRA, to conduct one year of field research in Loja, Ecuador. My work focuses on how people adapted their use of Cinchona officinalis, an endangered medicinal tree, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Cinchona species can be found throughout the Andes, I was fascinated by the deep connections between people and the plant in Loja. It is a symbol of regional identity, culture, and deeply entwined in local history (kind of like the bald eagle in the United States). Cinchona bark is a crucial element of traditional medicine in Loja and is often used complementarily with western medicine and other plant medicines. The challenge that Loja faces is figuring out how to balance conservation of the plant alongside local health practices. This is especially important as disease crises like the COVID-19 pandemic can spike demand for Cinchona bark and lead people to engage in unsustainable harvesting practices.

Katie McNamara
McNamara’s work examined how Ecuadorians have adapted their use of Cinchona officinalis, an endangered medicinal tree.

During my time abroad, I collaborated with incredible teams of local academics, community members, government officials, and conservation organizations. Much of my time in the field was spent learning how people in Loja are developing new and creative ways of preserving the species while honoring local traditions of consuming the plant as medicine. For example, Darwin Pucha from the the Universidad Nacional de Loja, or UNL, was my primary collaborator. He and his family developed a start-up called Cascarilla Ecuador to propagate Cinchona in greenhouses. The goal of the project is that, one day, Lojanos will harvest Cinchona bark at their own homes, alleviating pressure on wild populations. 

The best part of my work was interacting with inspiring people like Darwin and his family, scientists from UTPL and the other local university, la Universidad Nacional de Loja (UNL) where similar projects are underway. In addition to engaging with scientists, my work involved hours of speaking with local people who harvest, consume, and sell cascarilla in forests, private homes, and local markets. I loved listening to their stories about how Loja has changed over the years and how the tree changed with it. These are the kinds of insights into local knowledge that is at the center of my work.