Mark Plotkin: What's Disappearing From the Amazon — Even Faster Than Wildlife? The isolated tribes of the Amazon are getting dispersed or dying out. Ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin describes what we'll lose if their culture and collective wisdom vanish with them.

What's Disappearing From the Amazon — Even Faster Than Wildlife?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So like a lot of people, back in the late '70s, Mark Plotkin had a really bad trip.

MARK PLOTKIN: The worst experience of my life was taking ayahuasca with a shaman from the Colombian Amazon, and in that, I witnessed my death.


RAZ: Mark Plotkin is an ethnobotanist, which means he studies plants, specifically plants that grow in the Amazon. And because he's interested in the medicinal power of those plants to heal, Mark will spend a lot of time communing with the native tribes who use those plants to brew things like a tea called ayahuasca.

PLOTKIN: Well, we would describe it as a hallucinogen, a term the Indians don't like. They call it remedio - a medicine. It's the original medicine, the most important medicine.

RAZ: A medicine used to welcome guests, a medicine only the rudest guest would refuse and a medicine that Mark was offered that day in the Colombian Amazon.

PLOTKIN: And I drank the first cup, and I felt pretty good. And then, a couple hours later, they will either say to you, you should drink another cup, or, do you want another cup, or, don't drink another cup. And I recalled he offered it to me or I asked for it, and I took it, and it just went downhill from there.

RAZ: Like, right away?

PLOTKIN: Yeah, right away.

RAZ: What do you remember?

PLOTKIN: Just crying and screaming and wishing I was dead.

RAZ: What did you feel like?

PLOTKIN: I was in my misery and I wanted to be put out of it. It was terrible.

RAZ: You were in pain - nausea? I mean...

PLOTKIN: All of that.

RAZ: So how did you experience death?

PLOTKIN: I saw myself die and dead, but painful and horrible and terrible. It wasn't like I just floated to the top of the room and there I was. It was awful. And then it got worse. I ended up vomiting purple, phosphorescent scorpions.

RAZ: Mark is not speaking literally.

PLOTKIN: And, you know, the shamans say, when you take ayahuasca, you get out of it what you need to. And so afterwards, I said to the shaman, why did you do that to me? And he said, the fate of my culture, the fate of my forest is joined with that of you and your organization. I wanted you to experience death so you would never fear it again.

And the point here is not that shamans have all the answers, ayahuasca has all the answers - they don't, and it doesn't. The fact is that some of these systems of healing, some of these magic plants can do things that we cannot.

RAZ: So you've probably heard this before, that the Amazon is the most biodiverse place on Earth, full of natural resources with potentially life-saving medical applications. But it's most valuable resource is, quite possibly, knowledge - the secrets that only native tribes know about. Knowledge that Mark Plotkin described from the TED stage.


PLOTKIN: Four years ago, I injured my foot in a climbing accident, and I went to the doctor. She gave me heat, cold, aspirin, narcotic painkillers, anti-inflammatories, cortisone shots. Didn't work. Several months later, I was in the northeast Amazon, walked into a village, and the shaman said, you're limping. And I'll never forget this as long as I live. He looked me in the face and he said, take off your shoe and give me your machete.


PLOTKIN: He walked over to a palm tree and carved off a fern, threw it in the fire, applied it to my foot, threw it in a pot of water and had me drink the tea. The pain disappeared for seven months. When it came back, I went to see the shaman again. He gave me the same treatment and I've been cured for three years now.

Who would you rather be treated by (laughter)?


PLOTKIN: Now, make no mistake. Western medicine is the most successful system of healing ever devised, but there's a saying in Suriname that I dearly love - the rain forests hold answers to questions we have yet to ask. But as you all know, it's rapidly disappearing here Brazil, in the Amazon, around the world.

RAZ: The world is full of finite resources. Some of them we don't tap into like we should, and some we use as if they'll never run out. Our show today, finite ideas about preserving the dwindling resources on the one planet we inhabit and how to make the most of what's left, from water...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We've underpriced water. We've overexploited it. We don't actually regulate it. We just use too much.

RAZ: ...To oil...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There are no non-radical solutions left. Such is the extent of the climate crisis that we really need to be doing a lot of really new thinking.

RAZ: ...To things you might not think about as valuable resources...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Just like with oil, it's getting more and more difficult to tap into pools of antibiotic effectiveness.

RAZ: ...And how to use just...

PLOTKIN: You know...

RAZ: ...What we need.

PLOTKIN: ...One of the things that I see in working with and studying indigenous cultures is the concept of the finite and the concept of gratitude. Indians spend a lot of time thanking the gods of the forest, thanking the animals of the forest, not taking more than they need.

RAZ: Mark Plotkin has been studying those indigenous cultures in the Amazon since 1977.

PLOTKIN: And I've been going many times a year ever since, often extended periods in the good old days when I was a graduate student.

RAZ: Mark follows tribesmen through the rainforest, asking about plants and herbs, how they use them, speaking their language.

PLOTKIN: The two tribal languages in which I deal are Surnamantomo (ph), which is the predominant trading language in the northeast Amazon, and Trio.

RAZ: That second language Mark speaks, Trio, is spoken by just 4,000 people, and most of them live in tribes along the border between Brazil and the country of Suriname. And those tribes generally don't keep records. They don't write down what they know about the local plants. So Mark learned Trio, in part, to help preserve that knowledge that might have otherwise been lost to history, knowledge that could contain secrets to new medicines.


PLOTKIN: My colleague, the late, great Loren McIntyre, discoverer of the source lake of the Amazon, Laguna McIntyre in the Peruvian Andes, was lost on the Peru-Brazil border about 30 years ago. He was rescued by a group of isolated Indians called the Matses. They beckoned for him to follow them into the forest, which he did. There, they took out palm leaf baskets. There, they took out these green monkey frogs, and they began licking them. It turns out they're highly hallucinogenic. McIntyre wrote about this, and it was read by the editor of High Times magazine. You see that ethnobotanists have friends in all sorts of strange cultures. This guy decided he would go down to the Amazon and give it a whirl - or give it a lick, and he did. And he wrote, my blood pressure went through the roof, I lost full control of my bodily functions, I passed out in a heap, I woke up in a hammock six hours, felt like God for two days.


PLOTKIN: An Italian chemist read this and said, I'm not really interested in the theological aspects of the green monkey frog. What's this about the change in blood pressure? Now, there's an Italian chemist who's working on a new treatment for high blood pressure based on peptides in the skin of the green monkey frog, and other scientists are looking at a cure for drug-resistant Staph aureus. How ironic if these isolated Indians and their magic frog proved to be one of the cures.

RAZ: So years ago, pharmaceutical companies would actively look for potential sources of medicine in places like the Amazon, and from that came...

PLOTKIN: ...Novocaine from the coca plant of South America. The first anesthesia was from curare arrow poison alkaloids from the Amazon. Pilocarpine is what they used to put in our eyes at the doctor's office to dilate our pupils.

RAZ: But today, because technology has made it so much easier to make drugs from synthetic materials, pharmaceutical companies aren't that interested in trudging through the rain forests to find new ones, which means there could be useful plant and animal species in the rain forest we don't even know about and aren't working to conserve.

PLOTKIN: Every species is a genius at something. That's why they survive. It wasn't me who said that, it was Leonardo da Vinci. So doesn't it make sense to save all these pieces? What I also want to add is it's not just about a utilitarian approach to conservation - let's save it because it's a cure for cancer, let's save it because it may help us with global warming - I want to save it because it's there.

RAZ: I mean, so if there is all this potential information that we don't know, I mean, could there be tribes out there with that knowledge that we don't even know exist?

PLOTKIN: I do believe there are isolated tribes that have had no contact with the outside world, assuming the outside world are guys like you or me, and not maybe the next tribe over that they may have traded with because I've never met a member of a lost tribe who lost. These guys know the forest far better than we do.


PLOTKIN: Uncontacted peoples hold a mystical and iconic role in our imagination. These are the people who truly live in total harmony with nature. Why are these people isolated? They know we exist. They know there's an outside world. This is a form of resistance. They have chosen to remain isolated, and I think it is their human right to remain so, but the world is changing. With the diminishment of the civil war in Columbia, the outside world is showing up. To the north, we have illegal gold mining, also from the east from Brazil. There's increased hunting and fishing for commercial purposes. We see illegal logging coming from the south. And in Peru, there's a very nasty business. It's called human safaris. They will take you in to isolated groups to take their picture. Of course, when you give them clothes, when you give them tools, you also give them diseases. We call these inhuman safaris. Now, remember, these are preliterate societies. The elders are the libraries. Every time a shaman dies, it's as if a library has burned down.

RAZ: And Mark says, to preserve that knowledge, information which could someday lead to new medicines, means we almost have to think about that knowledge like a valuable resource that's disappearing fast.

PLOTKIN: So better protection of national parks, better protection of indigenous lands, penalties - economic penalties for destroying forests in stupid ways. We know all the answers here, but the human animal, the capitalist system doesn't always do things the right way, the most efficient way, the quickest way. The Greeks and the Romans ran the world for many years, and their empires pooped out for many reasons, one of which is the Greek and the Roman armies ran on wood. Their catapults were made of wood. Their ships were made of wood. Their chariots were made of wood. Their weapons were made of wood. There's no forest left in Italy or Greece. So we consider ourselves, here in the West, as the heir to that great Greco-Roman tradition - logical man, philosophy, thinking, science. Well, they destroyed their environment, and they disappeared. I hope we're not making the same mistake.


PLOTKIN: So the question is, in conclusion, is what the future holds. Let's think differently. Let's make a better world. If the climate's going to change, let's have a climate that changes for the better, rather than for the worse. Let's live on a planet full of luxuriant vegetation, in which isolated peoples can remain in isolation, can maintain that mystery and that knowledge if they so choose. Let's live in a world where the shamans live in these forests and heal themselves and us with their mystical plants and their sacred frogs. Thanks again.


RAZ: Mark Plotkin is the founder of the Amazon Conservation Team. His talk is at More on finite resources and the ways to protect them in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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