Amazonian Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin Explains Why We Need Plants

by Jessa Fisher

The Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (AERA) is a non-profit 501 (c)(3) organization established in 1983 in order to promote environmental education and ethnobotanical awareness in the Southwest.  The AERA was co-founded by Phyllis Hogan, in response to requests by Indigenous healers to assist them in preserving plants, their habitats, and their uses.  For over 25 years, Phyllis has worked with tribes in this region on a multitude of projects. I have been working with the AERA for the past three years, mostly focusing my attention on our herbarium collection of over 2,300 useful, regional plants.   

Last August, between harvesting St. Johns wort flowers and leading a plant walk in the White Mountains, we had a surprise visit from ethnobotanist Dr. Mark Plotkin, who was acting as chauffer for his daughter on her college research project.  Phyllis invited the two of them over for dinner, to discuss our like-minded organizations.  Dr. Plotkin, along with his wife, Liliana Madrigal, founded the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT).  On their website, http://www.amazonteam.org, ACT displays an impressive list of their core values.  Core value number five reads: 5. ACT respects the role of traditional healer within Amazonian indigenous communities as paramount, and deeply esteems the knowledge systems that have been handed down to successive generations of healers over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.  

Phyllis, Mark, and I instantly recognized the similarities between our two organizations.  As tribes all over the world face the same issues - habitat loss, modernization, governmental interference, false political boundaries, and corporate exploitation (to name a few); ethnobotanists have also been engaged in similar struggles to help Indigenous people keep their inherent wisdom intact for the next generations. Dr. Plotkin’s work with ACT in the Amazon is in perfect spiritual and practical alignment to the work we do here with the AERA.  In an effort to show how global events can affect us locally, we invited him return to Flagstaff to share ACT’s values and experiences with a broader audience.          

I was lucky enough to be given the task of interviewing Mark for his upcoming visit to Flagstaff.  To prepare myself, I listened to an interview he did with Marla Maples back in the summer of 2008 (who knew the hottie ex-wife of Donald Trump had a spiritual side and a deep appreciation of nature?).  I also read several relevant articles to provide additional background. All of this has given me a better understanding of our ethnobotanical colleague.  

 Dr. Plotkin grew up loving and exploring the swamps of southern Louisiana.  A college dropout, he was working at the Harvard Museum when he took a night school class from the great Amazonian explorer and ethnobotanist Dr. Richard Evans Schultes.  Often hailed as the “Father of Ethnobotany,” Schultes was widely known and appreciated for sending his students to the Amazon “before it was too late.” He encouraged his students to take the time then (in the 1970’s) to explore the plants and the people of the rainforest, and his students included such notables as author Dan Goleman, physician Andrew Weil, and ethnobotanist Wade Davis. Plotkin also took Schultes up on this proposition, and has never looked back.  His well-known book, Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, detailing his 15 years of ethnobotanical work among the Indians of the northeast Amazon, is an elegant and engaging classic.  

 During this time in the forest, Plotkin and his Indigenous colleagues devised the Shaman’s Apprentice Program, which transmits ethnobotanical information to younger generations within the tribe. They have also established Shaman’s Apprentice Clinics to transmit knowledge and improve local healthcare.  

 ACT has also been working with 30 tribes from all over the Amazon to map, manage, and protect their lands. This project encourages tribes to map their own land using their traditional language place names. They work with local Indigenous partners and government officials, and by mapping have improved the management and protection of over 40 million acres of ancestral rainforests. For this huge endeavor, ACT has teamed up with Google Earth, and it is this project that Mark will focus on for his upcoming Nov 7th talk. The Hualapai Tribe, who live in northern Arizona on the rim of the Grand Canyon, are also working on a similar GIS mapping project. We have invited them to share their progress at this event as well, to compare experiences between mapping in the rainforest and the high desert.    

 Over the course of his career, Mark has received many honors. Time magazine called him an “Environmental Hero for the Planet” (2001) and Smithsonian magazine hailed him as one of “35 Who Made a Difference (2005).  In 2008, the Skoll Foundation hailed him as “Social Entrepreneur of the Year.” He was the keynote speaker in 1996 for the Flagstaff Festival of Science.  Here is an excerpt from my phone interview with Mark, which should whet your appetite to hear and see more at his presentation in Flagstaff on November 7th.   

Jessa:  You were very inspired and motivated by your mentor, Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, who implied your generation might be the last to work with Amazonian tribes in a “pristine” state.  Do you think a college student today could do the same study you did then?  What would be the same and what would be different?  

Mark:  When you look at Amazonian Indians today, they look very different than they did in Schultes’ day [the 1940’s].  Most wear western clothes and hunt with shotguns. The bottom line, however, is that the guys with whom I have the honor to work are STILL forest Indians, at least most of them.  They can sknock a bird out of the canopy at 90 feet up.  They can pull hundreds of medicines out of the rainforest. They make canoes, houses, paddles, twine, hammocks, musical instruments, and other things from forest plants.  They did this 5,000 years ago, they did it 50 years ago, and still do it today.  

The idea that all ethnobotany that needs to be done has been done is ludicrous.  The flip side of that is that it is much more difficult to do ethnobotany today because of all the concerns, some of which are legitimate, about intellectual property rights. Every ethnobotanist I know wants to make life better for Indigenous people, wants to help them, honor their systems, honor their knowledge, celebrate their wisdom, and help them better face the challenges of the modern world. The Amazon Conservation Team is mindful of its ethical commitment and therefore does not engage in bioprospecting, and we honor and value the cultures of the communities that we are privileged to call our partners.   

Nonetheless, all cultures change over time: it is just part of the human experience.  These Amazonian cultures however are fragile because the western world has arrived on their doorstep very recently, often bearing very seductive gifts. There is the Ipod, computer, internet, emails, GPS…so our job as ethnobotanists or concerned people who want to see the world full of rich and diverse cultures is not to tell Indians “oh no you shouldn’t use an Ipod, or put on pants, or use polio vaccine”, it is to point out that our culture has some really spectacular things, but it also has some real drawbacks, like poverty, AIDS, inequality, racism, pollution, etc.  

Jessa: What is the role of the shamans at the Shamans Apprentice Clinics?  

Mark: The situation in Suriname where the clinics are located represents the best of both worlds in terms of health care, at least in my opinion. UNESCO did an evaluation and found these to be one of the most effective integrations of traditional and western healthcare they’d ever seen. At the Shaman’s Clinics, traditional healers are practicing traditional medicine.  They don’t use antibiotics or thermometers; those modern items are used by the missionaries, in their clinic next door.  The people have a free choice of where to go if they get sick.  We find that some illnesses are better treated by the shaman, and some illnesses are better treated by the doctor.    

Here in the western world, some people think that doctors have all the answers and some think shamans have all the answers, but neither is the case.  It depends on what the problem is.  Shamanic medicine, in my experience, is that you don’t get a prayer or ceremonial session with a hallucinogenic plant for just a cut on the arm; you get a plant rubbed on the cut.  However if you go in with a chronic illness which is not responding to other treatment, or a problem whose roots are between your ears, that is when the shamans call on stronger measures.  The two pillars of western medicine are chemistry, (what’s in the pills) and technology (from stethoscopes to CAT scans).  The two pillars of shamanic medicine are chemistry (what’s in the plants) and spirituality, including the use of hallucinogenic plants. It is all on a continuum in the shamanic world.    

Jessa:  Where do you see this fitting in to the future of the health care system here in America?  

Mark: A lot of what shamans do doesn’t have to do with “what plant cures what ailment.”  With our healthcare system, the debate shouldn’t be about public option, the question should be- where is the debate about preventative care? Traditional care?  Exercising and improving our diet by not eating garbage would save us all a lot of money and a lot of heartbreak.  We shouldn’t just be looking for the magic bullet when we need to change our lifestyle.  I discuss this more in depth on the ACT blog (http://amazonconservationteam.blogspot.com/).  

Jessa: What about the ACT mapping projects?  

Mark: There is a two-fold thrust with the ACT Google Earth mapping projects.  Number one, it is not just mapping, but cultural transmission.  You can’t just make a map while all the shamans die out, and their wisdom with them.  Number two, it is ethnographic mapping.  This is taking place all over the world, but our project is on the cutting edge.  Google Earth teaches the Indians to map the rainforest from the air, and the Indians are teaching Google Earth to read the forest from under the canopy, where they live.  The Indians themselves make the maps- we just teach them to make the maps, and then they teach other tribes, building self-reliance and community interaction.  

Jessa: The topics you address are very multidisciplinary: anthropology, language, ethnobotany, pharmacology, biology, geography.  What is it about plants that brings all these subjects together?  

Mark: Plants have been here a lot longer than we have and they are endlessly fascinating. It is like the analogy I give about shamans.  Plants (and shamans) are like a Chinese box game- you open a box and there is a smaller box, and then a smaller box… and the more we find out about plants the more interesting they are. It seems to me that plants have a vital role to play. Either we cut them all down in which case global warming gets much worse, or we protect the ones we have and we plant more in which case it gets a lot better. Like Dr. Seuss said- “Who speaks for the truffula trees?” As an ethnobotanist I look at the world through the prism of plants and unfortunately most of the world doesn't look at the world this way and it’s their loss.  

Dr. Mark Plotkin’s talk, Amazonian Shamans, Healthcare, and Google Earth: Saving the Rainforest in Six Dimensions, will be held at the Flagstaff NAU Cline Library Assembly Hall on Saturday, Nov 7th.  Doors open at 5:00.  An $8 donation ($5 for students) goes to benefit the AERA.  Please see www.azethnobotany.org for more information or email azethnobotany@hotmail.com