Sarah LairdSarah Laird

Research Associate

Research Gate

A forester and ethnobiologist by training, my interests cover a range of inter-related issues, including forest-based traditional knowledge, livelihoods, conservation and governance, as well as the commercial use of biodiversity. My work has a local dimension focused on the conservation of bio-cultural diversity and knowledge exchange, and thus necessarily small-scale and long-term, and an international dimension focused on issues of governance and larger-scale impact.

Much of my work has revolved around Mt Cameroon, one of the most biologically-diverse places on earth, and home to numerous indigenous groups as well as migrants. Since the mid-1990s, I have collaborated with local communities, NGOs, the Limbe Botanic Garden, and other institutions on ethnobiological research and knowledge exchange programs. Currently, my efforts are largely directed at conserving the threatened cultural forests of the region through research, outreach and education. As part of the Mt Cameroon Cultural Forests Project, for example, our team is producing manuals, school programs, radio, workshops, and celebrations of traditional knowledge associated with wild foods, medicinal plants, games, dance, musical instrument-making, and other areas.

My work on forest products extends to both the local and international level. On the one hand, I am very interested in the critical yet undervalued role of these resources in local well-being (subsistence, nutritional diversity, food security) and trade, aspects which are sometimes overshadowed by the greater attention paid to internationally-traded species. I also work on issues relating to the international trade of non-timber forest products (NTFPs), including governance, markets, and sustainability. I have collaborated with the Rainforest Alliance on the potential for cocoa certification in the Central/West African region, and for NTFP certification globally. As part of a multi-year project with WWF-Cameroon I conducted research on species exported from Cameroon and neighboring countries for use in international botanical, food, and cosmetic markets, evaluating the impact of policies on sustainability and trade.

A third line of work relates to the commercial use of biodiversity, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and the impact of emerging biotechnologies. At the international level, I have undertaken biodiversity policy research and developed policy recommendations for the CBD Secretariat, the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, the Australian Government, GIZ, and the European Commission. I have also provided access and benefit-sharing policy advice to governments, research institutions, NGOs, and others at the national level, including in Cameroon, Madagascar, Malaysia, Nigeria, and South Africa. My work in this area today focuses on addressing two pressing policy challenges: the disconnect between transformative scientific and technological advances on the one hand, and conservation policy on the other; and the way conservation and sustainable development policy crafted with the best intentions can produce unintended negative consequences for indigenous people and rural communities.

I have served on the boards and as an advisor to small non-profits, professional societies, and companies, including the boards of the International Society of Ethnobiology (where I also co-founded the Darrel Posey Fellowship for Ethno-ecology and Traditional Resource Rights) and Music for the Earth; advising M&M Mars on their sustainability program, and Tom’s of Maine on new sustainable and ethical natural product ingredients; and serving as a nominator for the Goldman Environmental Prize, and as a member of the IUCN/Species Survival Commission Medicinal Plants Specialist Group. I am currently Co-director of People and Plants International, a network-based organisation dedicated to conserving bio-cultural diversity.