(Mark Plotkin, an ethnobotanist takes up the cause of rain forest conservation)

In Search Of The Shamans' Vanishing Wisdom

The study of plants used by indigenous peoples is called ethnobotany, and Mark Plotkin, an ethnobotanist, had been steeped in the subject ever since his university years at Harvard. He had taken a course taught by Richard Evans Schultes, a pioneer ethnobotanist who had spent years in the Amazon rain forest.

  • After graduating in 1979, he headed for the Amazon and began visiting shamans, some of whom let him stay for a while as a student medicine man.
  • He slept in thatched huts, ate delicacies like boiled rat, suffered vampire-bat bites and was nearly electrocuted by a giant eel.
  • He also collected, as fast as he could, hundreds of plants that supplied ingredients for the shamans' medical arsenal.
  • He was racing against time, as Western influences seeped into native villages.
  • Thatch roofs were giving way to tin, while shorts and T shirts were replacing breechcloths and feathers.
  • The shamanistic tradition was fading because missionaries brought in modern medicine's pills—many developed from rain-forest plants in the first place.
  • Most ominously, the Amazon rain forest was dying around the edges, torched and slashed by farmers and loggers.
  • Somewhere in the jungle might be a cure for AIDS or cancer that would be lost forever before it could even be discovered.
  • The key was to help persuade indigenous peoples and their governments that they stood to gain more in the long run if they preserved their trees and cultures than if they let timber companies strip the land.
  • The knowledge of the shamans; and the secrets that new generations of shamans might uncover, could be worth a fortune; especially since herbal medicine is booming in developed countries.
  • Indians are potentially the best conservationists out there, but only if they understand the value of the forest around them.
  • Today (2005), Plotkin says, "indigenous wisdom is appreciated in ways it wasn't before. There's an interest in other religions, in spirituality, organic gardening, crop diversity, rain forest conservation, human rights. It's all intermingled."
  • From his very first visits to indigenouis villages, Plotkin understood that shamans—tribal elders who use plants for healing—were actually the rain forest's most endangered species.
  • Not only were tropical forests and their medicinal plants falling to the rancher's torch, miner's pick, or farmer's plow; but shamanic wisdom it self was disappearing as younger tribal members, seduced by Western culture, lost interest in their own traditions.

Convinced that rain forest conservation wasn't going to succeed without the full participation of indigenouis people, in 1995, Plotkin and his wife, Liliana Madrigal, founded the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) to create such partnerships. "Our apporach is bottom up," he says. "Tribes come to us. They want to protect their forest, culture, system of healing. They want clean water, job opportunities, ethno-education."

For more information about Mark Plotkin's efforts to help preserve biodiversity in the Amazon, visit his site at Amazon Conservation Team (ACT).

—Compiled from contents located in
"In Search of the Shamans's vanishing Wisdom"
by Christopher Hallowell;
Time, December 14, 1998.
"Mark Plotkin,
An ethnobotanist takes up the cause of rain forest conservation"
by Elizabeth Royte; Smithsonian, November, 2005.

Pointing to a page about ethnobotanic words The unit or lists of ethno- words and definitions are located here.