A little known fact is one of the greatest breakthroughs in 20th century medical science came from a preparation used to shoot monkeys down from the tops of trees. Naked “primitives” running around the jungle with blowguns turned out to be master chemists whose curare, a paralyzing muscle relaxant, revolutionized the practice of anaesthesiology, making possible the open heart, organ transplant and hundreds of other surgeries now performed daily in hospitals around the world.
Many experts claim the teeming life of the rainforests continues to promise cures — to AIDS, cancer, diabetes, auto-immune disorders. Yet where are these miracle drugs? Have we exhausted Nature’s cornucopia? Or are we wearing blinders that prevent us from seeing them?
We decided to pose this question to Dr. Mark Plotkin. One of the generation of swashbuckling ethnobotanists trained by the legendary Amazonian explorer Richard Evans Schultes at Harvard, Plotkin is as intimate with the shamans of the jungle and their healing practices as any Westerner now alive — and he claims the cures are there. He’s seen them.
As a young man, Plotkin heeded his mentor’s call to go forth and apprentice himself to the Indians. Living for many years with different Amazonian tribes, Plotkin eventually authored several books, including Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice and Medicine Quest. He also co-founded the Amazon Conservation Team with prominent Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigal.
ACT is one of the few non-profit organizations determined to put itself out of a job by handing all its powers over to those it is trying to save. And “save” it literally is: hundreds of tribes and their ancient systems of knowledge have gone extinct in the years since European contact, and just as the survival of the Amazon rainforest is now at stake, the ancient cultures of the forest could vanish as well within a generation. That is, unless astute visionaries like Mark Plotkin and his tribal colleagues have their way.
The fifty-two year old ethnobotanist appeared for our interview nearby the UC Berkeley campus accompanied by a shaman from the Ingano tribe, a soft-spoken middle-aged man, Don Fernando, wearing a baseball cap, whom Plotkin had brought to the United States as part of a campaign to protect his people from the violent incursions of timber and oil companies. Before arriving, Plotkin had emphasized, “You can photograph me, but no photos of the shaman. If his image got back to Colombia, it could be very dangerous.” Both of them wore jeans and native jewelry and spoke with an easy familiarity that indicated mutual respect.