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The Ethnobotanist and the Shaman
Conscious Choice, May 2002 - by Ana Arias Terry

An ethnobotanist by profession and idealist by avocation, Dr. Mark Plotkin has enough credentials and media appearances to boost anybody's ego. Plotkin is president of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), Research Associate for the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History, and is Harvard, Yale, and Tufts educated. He has been named Hero for the Planet by Time magazine, been featured in the IMAX film "Amazon," and been the winner of the Gold Medal for Conservation by the San Diego Zoological Society. He remains real and unflappable despite his well-earned international reputation as a passionate conservationist who has developed unique bonds with shamans throughout tropical America.

Plotkin has learned from shamanic teachings, has participated in indigenous ceremonies complete with their hallucinogenic brews, and has been a tireless master of diplomacy. Since the late seventies, he has been conducting basic scientific research and a taxonomy of plants, learning how indigenous people use these plants for medicines, and paying close attention to their cultures.

When reached for this article Plotkin had just returned from another conservation mission to the Amazon. Asked to share an insight that has particularly inspired him in his interactions with so many shamans over the years, he replied, "These people are working in many more dimensions than we do in the Western world. We tend to work in a society where the chemicals from our medicines work sometimes, and where the focus is on the body. But the indigenous shamans work with healing that includes a mental and spiritual component, a connection that goes beyond working with just the body. They're masters at this."

It's nearly impossible not to get infected by his excitement. He exudes unabated optimism, and his exhilaration is genuine when he speaks of the conservation successes of ACT. But Plotkin is just as candid about the challenges that exist. Among these is the challenge of working in a milieu that's dominated by "environmental giants." Although he says this makes it tough for the little guys, it does cause the little guys to stay nimble. "I like to compare us to a micro-brewery," says Plotkin. "We not only have to produce a good beer. We have to produce a better one" than the proverbial Goliaths.

Amazon Conservation Team

Plotkin's ability to forge fruitful, congenial relationships among indigenous leaders, their governments, and local environmental and social organizations is especially apparent through the accomplishments of ACT, the conservation organization that he established with his wife Liliana Madrigal.

What began in 1995 as the Ethnobiology and Conservation Team was renamed the Amazon Conservation Team a few years later for the sake of simplicity. It seems many folks had trouble remembering the ethnobiology part of the name. "As a grassroots organization, ACT is all about partnering with indigenous groups," says Plotkin.

Plotkin and Madrigal saw the need for conservation that would encompass not only the rainforests with their many medicinal plants but also the culture of its shamans who possess that very medicinal knowledge with a depth achievable only through centuries of work. ACT believes that by helping indigenous people manage and protect their culture, they can help these individuals protect the ecosystems on which they depend.

The overriding conservation strategy used by ACT is to blend the knowledge of indigenous communities with Western science in order to "understand, document, and preserve." The organization is implementing several programs, in Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Suriname. Each program is tailored to help preserve various aspects of culture, biodiversity, and health. In general, however, ACT's projects are designed to address five primary problems: "The loss of indigenous medicinal and botanical wisdom, the lack of healthcare, the lack of economic opportunity, the lack of territorial rights that would protect the rainforest from exploitation, and the lack of legal representation."

Today ACT has a small but mighty headquarters staff of five and an international field staff of ten. They also have an impressive and eclectic constituency on their Board of Directors, founders committee, scientific committee, and within their network of partners. The disciplines represented by staff members and volunteers cover a wide gamut, including natural resource management, biological and social sciences, Western and traditional medicines, shamanism, and economics and business. The enthusiasm that oozes out of Plotkin seems to be a systemic condition equally distributed among other ACT representatives.

Madrigal, who's the Chief Operating Officer, is equally passionate about conservation. She has a long history of conservation work in her native Costa Rica, and she has been particularly involved in ACT's collaborative efforts in Colombia. She also has first-hand knowledge of women's roles within the context of these communities. Madrigal has personally met very powerful tribeswomen whose opinions carry much weight in the limelight as well as behind-the-scenes. It's good to hear that it's not only indigenous men who play a part in important decisions.

"It's a lot of fun," Madrigal said when asked what it was like being married to Mark. "The work we do is incredibly challenging, but we feel very strongly about what we do. Mark and I share similar views and passions." You could say that conservation is a family affair at the Plotkin/Madrigal residence. Their two daughters have grown up in a home where shamans have been frequent guests.

Commenting on Plotkin's perseverance over the years, Madrigal adds more context to the picture. "There were high risks and skepticism to confront along the way," she explains. "Mark is a visionary. It's rewarding to see that his quest to further public education about the wisdom and strength of the role of the shaman is making a difference."

Shamans and Apprentices

The Shamans and Apprentice Program is core to ACT. The mission is to help reverse an unfortunate trend of what ACT calls "cultural degradation" in which young members of indigenous tribes believe that Western culture offers all the answers. In believing so, they fail to appreciate and become educated in tribal wisdom.

Working closely with tribal colleagues, ACT facilitates the process by which shamans, usually elders within their communities, teach the new generations their wisdom through legends, music, crafts, and, of course, traditional healing.

In his book Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, Plotkin provides insights on the problems that eventually led to the establishment of this program. "The tribal healers hold the key to unlocking one of the great mysteries of our day and age -- how to demonstrate the value of the rainforest in concrete economic terms and, in doing so, provide the rationale for protecting Mother Nature's ultimate creation. For through ignorance, greed, and religious zeal, we have set off a chain reaction of events that is destroying both the ecosystem and the only cultures that know how to preserve it."

He adds that the survival of rainforests depends on the cooperation of companies seeking the plants and the countries whose forests contain the sought-after vegetation. Plotkin is adamant that this process must not happen without the consent of the tropical countries for the sustainable harvesting of the plants. Nor, he writes, should it happen without the companies offering a percentage of product sales back to the tropical country.

Realizing that he wouldn't be able to record more than a tiny fraction of the knowledge held by the shamans in the Amazon, Plotkin became even more aware of the importance of ensuring that this "ethnobotanical wisdom" was handed down throughout the tribes.

"To accomplish this, the Indians and I developed a methodology we call the Shaman's Apprentice Program, a process by which my notes -- the invaluable information supplied by the tribes -- are translated back into the local language and studied by a young tribe member who is designated a shaman's apprentice," writes Plotkin. "That individual then teaches the accumulated wisdom to other young members of the tribe, acting in essence as a bridge between the preliterate tradition and a literate future for the tribe. In this way, the indigenous people can control their own destiny, choosing to hold on to a part of their culture that would otherwise slip away."

Results Oriented

The Shaman's Apprentice Program is, and must be, process-oriented, but concrete results are also a part of their philosophical fiber. The list of their accomplishments is long and remarkable. One of the most impressive developments in which ACT was instrumental took place in February.

In partnership with the Colombian government and local indigenous groups, ACT was intimately involved in a process that resulted in the creation of a new national park. The Parque Natural Nacional Alto Fragua-Indiwasi consists of nearly 168,000 acres on the Colombian Amazon. Not only will the park protect a region known for being one of the most biodiverse worldwide, with highly endangered forests, but it also recognizes the ancestral significance of the region to the Ingano Indians. Endemic animal species will be protected, as will sites considered sacred by the Ingano.

The creation of the Indiwasi ("House of the Sun" in Ingano) National Park marks an historic event for the indigenous communities of Colombia, says Madrigal. While the park will be co-designed and co-managed by the Colombian government and the Ingano, "It represents a totally innovative process where the Ingano will have the primary say on how they want their sacred territories managed," Madrigal explains. "This will enable the indigenous community to safeguard the overall sacredness of their animal and plant spirits."

Colombian President Andres Pastrana decreed the agreement that was also signed by the Colombian Ministry of the Environment, the Associacion de Cabildos Indigenas Tandachiridu Inganokuna, and ACT. According to Madrigal, Pastrana was said to have said, "This is our gift to the world."

Core Wisdom

Through the eyes of Mark Plotkin and the successes of ACT, we have an opportunity to experience a world much different than the one we typically see or think about. It gives hope that the lessons imparted by the efforts of this grassroots organization, which is led and managed by forward thinkers, will not be learned exclusively by the shaman's apprentices. Those of us residing on this side of the tropical pond can delight our minds and spirits in the knowledge that such wisdom, culture, and biodiversity still exist today.

While few of us will ever have the opportunity to attend a sacred ritual or study an Amazonian plant, all of us, indigenous or not, are connected through the web of life. We share the same world. We breathe the same air. We gaze at the same sun and moon. The indigenous peoples touched by Plotkin and ACT are already helping the conservation efforts through apprentices programs, medicinal gardens, and a deep understanding of the connectedness of body, mind, and spirit. We can reciprocate by becoming better educated ourselves, volunteering our talents, or sending financial donations to ACT.

For More Information:
Amazon Conservation Team
4211 N. Fairfax Dr.
Arlington, VA 22203
Phone: 703-522-4884

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