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Hero of the Planet Combines Modern Science and Ancient Tribal Wisdom

Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin says a night class at Harvard University changed his life. His professor, Richard Schultes, had lived in the Amazon for many years and had written about the medicinal plants of the native peoples.

One evening during a lecture, the professor showed a slide depicting Indians in dark bark-cloth masks and grass skirts. "He said, 'Here you see three Indians of the Yakuna tribe doing the sacred Kai-ya-ree to keep away the forces of darkness. All of them are totally intoxicated on the hallucinogenic potion made from the yahay vine,'" Plotkin recalls. And when his professor told the class, "The one on the left has a Harvard degree," he was, he says, hooked. "Hooked on plants, hooked on Indians, hooked on the Amazon."

Plotkin started fieldwork in Suriname, South America, in 1977. His teachers, for the most part, have been shamans, or tribal healers. He says an early mentor named Jaguar Shaman revealed his ferocious, wild animal self to Plotkin in a very scary dream. "I woke up in a cold sweat," he says. "I looked around and there was nothing. It was a dirt floor. There were no footprints."

Jaguar Shaman had been on a hunting trip that night. The next morning Plotkin asked his translator to speak to Jaguar Shaman and communicate the dream. "And, he ran off, and he came back. And I said, 'Did you find him?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Did you give him the message?' He said, 'Yes.' And I said, 'What did he say?' He said that he broke into a big smile and said, 'That was me!'"

Plotkin listened and learned. He promised Jaguar Shaman to collect and document the hundreds of plants used by the medicine man. These ranged from painkillers found in the skin of rain forest frogs to anti-tumor agents based on snake venom. The detailed list of natural medicines is the only document in the village - other than the Bible - translated into Jaguar Shaman's native language.

Plotkin, who studied at Harvard, Yale and Tufts Universities, says his fieldwork in tropical America has taught him to open his mind to native ways not easily explained by western science or values. "I think in the world that we live in today (there is) that attitude that we have certain technologies, abilities, ideas that can really make the world a better place," he says. "But if we can couple that with some humility and some ability and willingness to learn from others, it is better for us and better for them. So-called indigenous people, so-called illiterate people, so-called non-scientific people, have been discovering things long before there was science, as we think of it. And, the idea that synthetic chemistry or western medicine or western technology has all the answers is equally absurd. I think the sweet spot (the truth) is somewhere in between."

Plotkin believes efforts should be made to pass on to future generations the shamans' unique knowledge of the rainforest - knowledge, which he says is often lost when a shaman dies. The Amazon Conservation Team, the non-profit group he directs, runs a Shamans Apprenticeship program that encourages young people to study with elder shamans and learn their ways.

"There are shamans' apprentice clinics set up where traditional healers are practicing traditional medicine," he says. "These are next to clinics set up by missionaries. They have the alternative, the choice, giving more reason to pass on the system of medicine, not just for their benefit, but ideally for the world at large."

The Amazon Conservation Team also supports work to map millions of hectares of ancestral rainforest. The collaboration makes use of NASA satellite photos, handheld Global Positioning System units and shamanic wisdom from those who know the land. Plotkin says, "For example they (the shamans) would say, 'That area is off limits because it is where the two-headed invisible black jaguar lives,'" Plotkin says. "I don't really personally believe in invisible black jaguars, but it doesn't matter because what they are saying is, it is a headwater area that is off limits to human use and visits and everything else." That makes sense, Plotkin says, because conservationists consider headwaters to be the equivalent of seed corn. "That is the part you have to protect first and foremost."

Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin has been recognized by the United Nations for his outstanding contributions to the environment. And, Time magazine named him an environmental hero of the planet. "Conservation," Plotkin says, "isn't just about protecting species, plants and animals. It is about protecting ourselves."