Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin (born 1955) has, since the 1980s, scoured the tropical rain forests of Central and South America in search of plants with the power to heal. In his quest Plotkin has enlisted the help of the powerful shamans, or witch doctors, of the Amazon region. For Plotkin, the search has been a race against time, as more and more of the rich resources of the tropical rain forest fall to the bull dozers and land-clearing crews feverishly making way for the inexorable march of civilization.
Throughout the world, during the 20th century man's destruction of the tropical rain forest advanced at a frightening pace. According to ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, 90 percent of the original forest cover was gone on the island of Madagascar by 2000. Matters were even worse in eastern Brazil where 98 percent of the tropical rain forest was destroyed. One area that has remained relatively untouched has been the northeastern corner of the Amazon region, in and around Surinam, and it is there that Plotkin has done much of his research. At the urging of his mentor, the late Richard Evan Schultes, a pioneer ethnobotanist and professor of botany at Harvard University, Plotkin first traveled to the northeastern Amazon in 1977. "I came down to Surinam actually as a gofer," he told an interviewer on the online Shaman's Apprentice, "just following around some other biologists, trying to get the lay of the land, and figuring out if this is really for me." To Plotkin, whose research has depended on close cooperation with the native peoples of the rain forest, one of the most alarming phenomena has been the disappearance of the rain forest cultures, which have dropped from sight even faster than the forests themselves.
Intrigued by Dinosaurs as a Boy
Plotkin was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 21, 1955. One of two sons of George (a shoe store owner) and teacher Helene (Tatar) Plotkin, he attended Newman High School, graduating in 1973. Fascinated by nature as a child, he spent most of his free time crawling through nearby swamps, collecting snakes and other wildlife. Like a lot of boys his age, Plotkin was also intrigued by dinosaurs, and credits the discovery that dinosaurs had become extinct with his decision to become an environmentalist.
After graduating from high school, Plotkin enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to study biology. Disappointed by the preoccupation with molecular and cellular biology at the school's science department, he dropped out but soon found himself in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working with the herpetology collection at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology. One of the perks of Plotkin's job at the museum was free tuition for night classes at Harvard. His decision to enroll in a class called "The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogenic Plants," taught by Schultes, quite simply changed his life. On the very first night of class, Schultes showed students some slides he had taken on one of his many trips to the Amazon. One slide in particular fascinated Plotkin. It showed three men wearing grass skirts and bark masks. Schultes described the photo's subjects as Yukuna Indians performing a sacred dance under the influence of a hallucinogenic potion, pointing out that the man on the left in the photo had a Harvard degree. "That one slide did it," Plotkin told an interviewer for Life. "First of all, the rain forest in the background looked just like the pictures in my old dinosaur books. Second, it was wonderful to think of this straightlaced professor down in the jungle, wildly hallucinating on an Indian psychedelic. Third, I wanted to save the world, and I realized that reptiles couldn't save the world, but plants could."
Determined to become an ethnobotanist, Plotkin threw himself into his studies at Harvard's extension school, earning his bachelor's degree in 1979. Two years later he received a master's degree from Yale University's School of Forestry, then got his Ph.D. from Tufts University in 1989. During his student years Plotkin traveled to the Amazon region and other tropical forests in the Americas whenever he could get away. On one such journey he met Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigal, whom he later married and with whom he has two daughters, Gabrielle and Ann Lauren. The topic of Plotkin's doctoral dissertation was the use of plant-based medicinals among the Tirio tribesmen of Surinam, and he found the rain forests of the country an ideal location for his research due to the presence of not only native tribes but also of "maroons" of African descent as well as several ethnic groups from tropical Asia.
Sought Plants with Medicinal Potential
Since plants had played a vital role in the development of about one-quarter of all existing prescription drugs, Plotkin hoped that with the help of the Amazonian shamans he might be able to uncover still more tropical plants with medicinal potential. He told Christopher Hallowell of Time about a 1987 trip to the Venezuelan rain forest to learn more about a hallucinogen he thought might have some medicinal benefits. Deep in the Venezuelan rain forest, an ancient shaman blew a bit of hallucinogenic powder into Plotkin's left nostril. The ethnobotanist reacted immediately, he told Hallowell, feeling as though he "had been hit with a war club." He saw tiny men dancing before his eyes. When he asked the shaman who they were, the old wise man replied, "They are the hekuri, the spirits of the forest." Subsequent research by French scientists has indicated that one of that powder's ingredients—sap from a nutmeg tree—has the potential to fight fungal infections.
On an earlier visit to Surinam in 1982, Plotkin found himself suffering from an annoying fungal infection on both of his elbows. He showed the rash to a Tirio shaman, his host at a tiny village deep in the Amazon rain forest. Without a word, the shaman walked over to a nearby tree and slashed it with a knife. Out oozed a brilliant orange sap, which the shaman smeared on Plotkin's elbows. Within two days the infection had disappeared. It was a pivotal moment for Plotkin. "I had always heard that there were things in the jungle that worked, but I had never experienced them," he told a People contributor. "I was stunned and excited." By the early 1990s Plotkin had catalogued more than 300 plants used by Amazonian shamans to treat viruses, skin disease, coughs, colds, and even diabetes. "Rain forests are immense libraries of future drugs and medicines," he explained, pointing out that only 94 plant species are currently being exploited for medicinal purposes. Among the better known plant-derived drugs are quinine, used to treat malaria; digitalis, taken by those with heart conditions; and vinblastine, which has proven useful in the treatment of Hodgkin's disease and Kaposi's sarcoma.
In the late 1980s Plotkin joined the World Wildlife Fund to become its director of plant conservation, a position he held for four years. In 1993 he became a research associate at Harvard's Botanical Museum and also joined Conservation International as vice president for plant conservation. In 1995 Plotkin, along with his wife and Canadian environmentalist Adrian Forsyth, co-founded the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), an organization dedicated to the preservation of the biological and cultural integrity of the Amazon rain forest. Plotkin serves ACT as its president and also serves as research associate for the Smithsonian Institution's Department of Botany.
Called Attention to Amazonia's Plight
To call the public's attention to the growing plight of Amazonia as well as to the region's treasures, Plotkin wrote several books, the first of which, Sustainable Harvest and Marketing of Rain Forest Products, published in 1991, received little notice outside scholarly circles. Two years later, he published the very popular Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest. This book, which went through numerous printings, was also published in Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese, and Spanish. Working with illustrator and co-author Lynne Cherry, author of The Great Kapok Tree, Plotkin in 1997 turned out a children's version of the best seller. The Shaman's Apprentice: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest was hailed by Smithsonian magazine as an outstanding environmental and natural history title. More recently, Plotkin coauthored The Killers Within with Vanity Fair staff writer Michael Shnayerson. This 2002 work calls attention to the threats posed by drug-resistant bacteria.
Interviewed by Eleanor Imster for Earth & Sky.com, Plotkin was asked to explain the controversy surrounding the search for medicinal plants in the tropical rain forests. "The whole issue of intellectual property rights has come to the fore, as well it should," he noted. "Ethnobotany, or really any type of research in the tropics, was really a 'rape and run' operation. They had information we wanted. They had plants we wanted … everything from pineapples to curare. We took advantage of the stuff, and the local people never really benefitted in a big way. So there's been a huge hue and cry about the need to make sure local peoples— and I'm talking about both the indigenous peoples and local governments—would benefit from this type of development of plant resources—as well it should."
Campaigned for Reciprocity
Plotkin remains outspoken in support of measures he believes will ensure that indigenous peoples are compensated for the ways their know-how and native plant species advance the cause of medicine and science. In an interview for AccessExcellence.org, he discussed some of the barriers he has experienced in seeking reciprocity for native peoples. "If I go to the pharmaceutical company that is making $100 million per year from rosy periwinkle alkaloids (used for cancer treatment) and say, 'that came from Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, how about giving 1 percent of the proceeds back to Madagascar?,' they will tell me to take a hike. However, if I go to the big pharmaceutical company and say, 'Hey, the market for antivirals is going through the roof, we are looking at hundreds of millions per year. If you will put up some money to help the natives of the Northeast Amazon, money to train local scientists, money for equipment to upgrade labs, and if you will promise a percentage of profits for a trust fund the local people, we can do some great research,' then the company will be more receptive." He pointed out that a number of large pharmaceutical companies have begun doing just that, based on the reciprocity model established by a small company called Shaman Pharmaceuticals.
In the third decade of his career, Plotkin's work goes on. He continues to travel to the rain forests frequently, combing the region's depths in search of plants that hold the promise of a cure. Asked by Earth&Sky.com about the importance of preserving our natural environment, Plotkin was passionate in his reply. "People need to learn that the environment is way too important to be left to environmentalists. We all need clear air. We all need clean water. We all need medicines when we get sick. It doesn't matter if you're a Republican or a Democrat or whatever. Everyone everywhere needs these things. Environmentalism is about life on Earth and making it better for everyone."
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