Importance of Natural Resources

Mark Plotkin: Maps, Magic and Medicine in the Rainforest | Bioneers 2016


[♪♪♪] [bird tweeting] -Good morning, Bioneers. Morning. That’s a phrase
my wife likes to use when she’s here, and unfortunately
she’s not here today because she has a bad cold. So I am pinch-hitting, and I hope
you’ll give me some leeway for improvising a bit
as we go along. I am here to introduce
Dr. Mark Plotkin, who is a healer and a man
whose life journey, I’ll think you’ll find, that combines a great deal of what
we are all interested in. And also I want to say that Laurie and I have been coming
to the Bioneers conferences now for about 25 years, and… -[cheering and applause] -Thank you. And it just gets better
and bigger and more wonderful. So thank you Kenny and Nina
and everyone. Okay, so jumping right in. Two weeks ago, the world awoke
to the very disappointing news that voters in Colombia had rejected the peace treaty
with FARC, a guerrilla group which had been fighting
the people and the government for more than 50 years. During that time, tens of thousands of people
died. The one-time leftist rebels had made common cause
with the drug traffickers, and Colombia became
one of the most dangerous places in the world. Still, hammering out
the treaty years in the making has helped turned the tide
for Colombia. The mere prospect was rewarded
with such anticipation that
President Juan Manuel Santos was given the Nobel Peace Prize
two weeks ago. Yet
a slight majority of Colombians voted against it. Like the Brexit vote, the results
are a sobering lesson of just how wrong
pollsters can be, and voters too. Please, God, help us. -[murmurs and clapping
from audience] -[Benenson chuckles] -[applause rises] -What can I say? The good news, however, is the peace treaty
was the stepping stone for an incredibly
exciting foundation that is being laid
in Colombia. Less visual
but equally important are agreements being signed that will not only preserve
millions of acres in the Colombian Amazon Basin from environmental degradation but will help to protect
the cultural integrity of the uncontacted tribes
who live there. I have the pleasure this morning of introducing you to one of the pivotal figures
in that achievement, Mark Plotkin, who you will soon hear from. When Mark was a college dropout, he happened upon Professor
Richard Schultes’ night class in 1974, while working
at a Harvard museum. It was a turning point
in Mark’s life. He made his way
down to South America and became involved
with indigenous people there, which he will explain and I will not trouble you with. So I would like very much
to introduce you now to a man who, with his wife, has, for more than 40 years
worked in the Amazon, and his activities,
along with Liliana Madrigal, they created
the Amazon Conservation Team, which has worked tirelessly
in Colombia and elsewhere, and has taken the neglected
and often destroyed lands and the danger
of people being literally killed because of newcomers coming in, and they have been able
to preserve more areas than I know
virtually anyone else ever has. So please welcome a healer
and a fantastic uniter, Dr. Mark Plotkin. -[applause and cheering] -Thank you all. Thank you, Bill. Thank you, Kenny and Nina. Thanks
to many friends and supporters in the audience that make my work
possible. Thanks
to my indigenous teachers, who had the patience to keep instructing me
for over three decades, and I’m still learning. Now, I’m here this morning to tell you
why ethnobotanists like myself don’t read science fiction. This is not a picture
of a spider. This is a picture of a fungus. It’s my favorite fungus. It’s called cordyceps. Cordyceps lives quiescent
on the forest floor and waits
for insects and arachnids to go past. Once they do that, the fungus attaches itself
to the insect exoskeleton. Once it’s on that, the fungus burns a hole
in the insect exoskeleton. It then inserts itself
inside the insect exoskeleton. It then proceeds to devour virtually all of the insect’s
non-vital organs. Once it’s done that, the fungus invades
the insect brain, eating only a part
of the insect brain, causing the insect to climb to the top of the tallest tree
in the forest. Once it does that, the fungus eats
the rest of the insect brain, thereby causing
the insect exoskeleton to split open, thereby allowing the fungus
to release its spores 120 feet
above the forest floor. -[audience murmuring
and clapping] -This is why ethnobotanists
do not read science fiction. -[laughter] -This fungus is the source
of cyclosporine. This is an immunosuppressant that makes
organ transplant surgery possible. Nature is a deep treasure-chest
of mysteries, and most of them
still remain. As I said,
I’m an ethnobotanist. I’ve been at this a long time. I’ve had
the honour and privilege of working with Amazon peoples
for over three decades, and as I said,
I’m still learning. I’m here to tell you these people know these forests
and these healing substances far better than we do, and far better
than we ever will. And here’s a case in point. I was co-teaching a class
in conservation and healing with the great Trio shaman,
Amasina, a few years ago
in the Brazilian Amazon. I developed a terrible case
of conjunctivitis, pinkeye, and there was a physician
taking our course, and I asked her
if she had any meds, and she said, “Yeah, I’ve got some pills
and some salve. If you take this stuff,
you’ll be better in four days.” I turned to Amasina and said,
“What do you got?” He gave me this
cat-and-the-canary smile and said,
“Give me your machete.” He walked over to a palm tree
just a few metres away, scraped off the bark, peeled it,
squeezed out the sap, dripped it into my eyes, and three hours later,
my eyes had stopped itching, and the next morning
I woke up and my infection was gone. -[applauding and cheering] -Who would you rather
be treated by? -[laughter] -This is the magic frog used by Indians
on the Peru-Brazil border for healing and divination. I featured this in the TED talk I gave in Rio de Janeiro
a year-and-a-half ago, and when I finished my talk, I packed up my equipment
and headed to Kwamalasamutu, our headquarters
in the northeast Amazon. I took out my computer and gave my TED talk
in the local language to the shamans and apprentices
you see here. I got to the magic frog slide, and the fellow to my right,
Kamainja, a Waiwai shaman, said, “Wait a minute,
wait a minute. “We know that frog! “We have it here. We use it for healing
and divination.” And I said, “No, you don’t. “This frog only lives
in the Amazon 2,500 miles west of here.” He said, “Oh yeah,
it lives in the canopy. You’ve never seen it.” And I said, “I’ve been working here
for 33 years. Why did you never tell me?” He said, “You’ve been working
here for 33 years. Why did you never ask me?” -[laughter] -The point here being that, as an ethnobotanist, I was sent to the jungle
by Dr. Schultes to look for healing plants, but we’re still finding
new things– new to us, old to them. This is the great shaman
Nahtahla. I worked with him
for over a decade, and one day we took a break
from collecting plants, and he went over to an ant hill,
stirred it up, and applied the ants
to the inside of his elbows. They bit him,
and he knocked ’em off. And I said,
“What’s that for?” He said,
“For my arthritis.” And I said,
“But I asked you “if you used anything
besides plants for ailments.” And he said, “Look,” he said,
“You’re a plant guy, okay, “and I don’t mind teaching you
a bit more about plants. “You don’t know anything
about insects, “and I’m not going
to waste my time teaching you.” -[laughter] -Here’s a fungus collected
by my colleague Wade Davis, who I know has spoken
at Bioneers in the past, a fellow student
of Dr. Schultes. This is actually a lichen, okay. Lichens are the cross-dressers
of the biological world. They’re kind of fungi
and they’re kind of algae, and they form
this unique combination. When Wade went to work
with the Waorani in the Ecuadorean Oriente, where Lynne Twist’s organization
works, the Waorani told him that “we use this lichen
as a hallucinogen.” Now, there’s no hallucinogenic
lichens known, but Wade wrote it down and published it in the Harvard Botanical Museum
leaflets. Just a year ago, in Evolve and Ascend magazine, it gave the account of people who went back
to the forest, found this lichen, looked at it in the lab, and it’s full
of hallucinogenic compounds. Hallucinogens,
like these magic mushrooms, in the hands of shamans are vegetal scalpels that they use to understand,
diagnose, treat, and sometimes cure
the human mind. And that is why
they can sometimes do things that our own shamans cannot. However, they sometimes
have different uses in our own hands because beta blockers, a multi, multi,
multi-million dollar class of drugs came
out of these magic mushrooms first found and used
by the Mazatec Indians of southern Mexico. Unfortunately, none of the monies
ever flowed back to the Indians
or to Mexico. This is not an acceptable way
of doing business. -[applause] -Shamanic medicine
is based on two pillars, as is our own medicine. Our own medicine is based
on chemistry, what’s in the pills, and technologies–
MRI, CAT scans, bloodwork, X-rays. And shamanic medicine
is based on chemistry as well– what’s in the plants
and the lichens and the insects. It’s also based on magic– spirituality,
the placebo effect, the invisible world, whatever you want to call it. It can’t be explained through the prism
of Western science and language, but sometimes, sometimes,
sometimes it works when our own medicine
falls flat. -[applause] -This is my mentor,
Professor Schultes, on the scene
of his greatest discovery, ayahuasca. Ayahuasca was discovered– discovered,
as white men find things… -[laughter] -Like Columbus
discovered America, same principle– but Schultes
always paid his debt and gave thanks
to the people who taught him. What you see
to his right– or, left, is the first shaman,
Salvador Chindoy, who is the one
who taught Schultes about ayahuasca. Schultes raced back to Harvard, published this in the Harvard Botanical Museum
Leaflets where it was read
by about 12 people and nobody else
for about 40 years, and all of a sudden it’s being argued
in front of the Supreme Court, and you can buy it
on the Internet. This is revolutionizing
the way we treat many diseases around the world. This is an ayahuasca master, one of the seven
original ayahuasca tribes who taught Schultes
the use of the sacred vine. I brought this man
to meet a foundation official in Los Angeles to get some support to protect his rainforest
and protect his culture. And the foundation official,
who spoke pretty good Spanish, turned to the medicine man
and said, “You didn’t go
to medical school, did you?” -[laughter] -And the shaman said,
“No, I’m a medicine man.” And the guy looked at him
and said, “Well, then, what can you know
about healing?” -[audience murmuring] -I still don’t believe this. And the shaman looked at him
and he smiled, and he said, “You know what, “if you get an infection,
go to a doctor, “but many human afflictions “or diseases of the heart,
the mind, and the soul, “Western medicine
can’t touch that. I heal it.” -[cheering] -So the most pristine
rainforests of the world are in the Amazon basin, where I have the privilege
to work. And the rainforest
has not revealed all of her mysteries. Here is the greatest
archaeological discovery of the 21st century, the Lost City of the Monkey God, searched for
for 500 years, and found using LiDAR
by Bill Benenson, who introduced me. -[applause and cheering] -But the wonder drugs
of tomorrow are being turned
into a wasteland today with the felling of the forest, uncontrolled mining. The wonder drugs
are being turned into smoke and nothing more. This is the most important image
I’m going to show you. I took this
in a single-engine Cessna flying over the Xingu reserve
in southeastern Brazil in the state of Mato Grosso. At the top of the picture
is where the Indians live. That’s the reserve. The horizontal line
running through the picture is the border of the reserve. It doesn’t get any clearer
anywhere in the world in any image you have ever seen about why indigenous culture,
in many cases, has it right, and we need to learn
from them. -[applause and cheering] -At the top of the picture,
top of the picture, 14 tribes
in pristine rainforest. Bottom of the picture,
white guys. Top of the picture,
biodiversity. Bottom of the picture, just a couple
of skinny-ass cows. Top of the picture, carbon
sequestered in the rainforest where it belongs. Bottom, carbon released
in the atmosphere. In fact, we know that the #2 driver
of climate change is destruction
of the world’s forest. You want to fight climate
change? Protect the forest. -Yeah!
-Whoo! -Whoo! -So let me take you
to the northeast Amazon, where I’ve been working
for many decades, to the country of Suriname, formerly
known as Dutch Guiana, one of the most pristine
rainforest countries in the world, and to the village
of Kwamalasamutu, which is the indigenous capital
of the northeast Amazon. The Trio Indians
came to my organization, the Amazon Conservation Team, and said, “We want title
to our lands, “and we went
to the government “and they said,
‘Where’s your map?’ “And we didn’t know
what a map was. “So now we know, “and we want
the Amazon Conservation Team to help us.” And I said,
“We will help you.” And they said,
“So you’ll make a map for us?” I said, “No.” They said,
“But you said you’d help us.” I said, “We will.” They said,
“So you’ll make a map.” And I said,
“No, we won’t make a map. You’ll make the map.” We trained them
to map their own lands, and what you see here… is the perfect marriage
of ancient shamanic wisdom and 21st-century technology. -[applause] -When we started 15 years ago, this was the best aerial imagery
we could get. Each pixel is 30 metres across. Thanks to our partnership
with DigitalGlobe, these Indians have access to the best
aerial photography and imagery on the planet. A single pixel
used to be 30 metres across. Today it’s 30 centimetres. -Whoo! -We went
from a third of a football field to a banana leaf. This gives the Indians
the upper leg, the upper hand in dealing
with the outside world on their own terms. -[applause] -So the original maps, made by Westerners flying
over these rainforests, were blank,
a few rivers. These maps show that these are rainforests
full of wonder and meaning, and these people know them
far better than we do. A single map
can have a single icon on it, and when you click
on the icon, it opens up with a story,
a legend, or ecological information or medicinal history. Our organization, the Amazon Conservation Team
now, has now taken this methodology and partnered with 35 tribes to map, manage, and improve the protection
of 80 million acres of ancestral rainforest. -[applause and cheering] -And as Tiffany said
at the outset, we need to think
about education, starting with youth. We’ve taken these maps
and turned them into textbooks. Schools and remote villages are usually built
by missionaries, so the kids are learning
all about cows, pigs, and Jesus. -[laughter] -With these maps, they’re learning
about shamans and matriarchs and healing magic
and legends and handicrafts. -[cheering] -But we work from the inside out
and the bottom up. We start
with the indigenous cultures. We then move
to the neighbouring cultures. This is a Maroon
from Suriname. They live north of these Indians
in the northeast Amazon. These are descendants
of escaped slaves who got off the slave ships and said,
“Equatorial rainforest? See you white boys later.” And they ran off
in the interior where these warriors
maintain independent lifestyles to the current day. And we’ve sent in
our indigenous cartographers to teach the Maroons how to preserve
their oral history, their culture, and their rainforest
as well. And we’ve done this now
throughout South America so that the Indians are working with the Maroons,
the other Afro-Americans, the Campesinos,
the peasants, the caboclos, the Brazilian peasants, and the governments
as well. Good conservation is about building alliances
and bridges and bringing people together to make a better
common tomorrow. I want to take you to the most important
protected area in northwestern South America, land of the Kogis, the so-called Dalai Lamas
of South America, the most traditional peoples who live at the top of the Sierra Nevada
de Santa Marta. These
are the most traditional people I have ever met. These are the people who came down
from their mountain fastness. This is a Kogi village. If you went there
5,000 years ago, it would look
exactly the same. 25 years ago, they came down
from their glaciers and said, “Hey, “what are you little brothers
doing down there? Our glaciers are melting.” And everybody said,
“Ha, ha, ha, look at those funny little
white hats.” Well, we didn’t listen. We ignored the canaries
in the coal mine talking about climate change. And using these types
of Google flyovers, we can put
the power of technology in their hands. This mountain is the ultimate
rain and water source in northwestern South America. All of the major rivers
come out of there, and the Kogis
protect these forests, protect these glaciers, and go down to the ocean, the source of all life
in their cosmology, to protect
their sacred sites, the spots you see here, and do it, now,
in partnership with our work. This is Liliana Madrigal,
our co-founder, sitting with a political leader
of the Kogi, Santos Sauna, to plot the future together. And they are always
making pilgrimage from the sea
to the mountain top to provide offerings
to the gods, to make it down to the sea
to collect sea shells to crush to chew with their coca, which is their sacred plant, which releases the alkaloids. And they’re now doing it
with tablets, with mapping apps… -[audience murmuring, chuckling] -And with smart phones, the perfect marriage
of ancient shamanic wisdom and 21st-century technology. Kenny talked
about how it’s all connected. Here it’s mapped. They’re mapping spiritual connections
that we can’t see because we’re not Kogis, and they’re using technology
to do it. So I want to finish by going
to Chiribiquete National Park in the Colombian Amazon, which is the most important
protected area in South America. Chiribiquete was first explored
by my mentor, Schultes, in 1943. He found a wonderland
of biodiversity and sacred sites. So just like with the Kogis, we need to protect
these sacred sites and the biodiversity and the artwork. Schultes found
the richest repository of pre-Columbian art
ever discovered. There’s 200,000 paintings. There may be as many as 900,000. And something else– isolated and uncontacted tribes. Isolated and uncontacted
tribes hold a mystical role
in our imagination. These are the people
who know nature best, these people who truly
are part of the ecosystem. These are the people that embody
the secrets of the rainforest and know it far better
than any one of us ever will. Unfortunately,
these people are under threat. This
is the most threatened species in the Amazon rainforest, isolated, uncontacted people surrounded on all sides by loggers and miners
and narcotraffickers. These are Mashcos, who stumbled out of the jungle
seeking help because they were being shot at and their malocas were being burned. Chiribiquete, fortunately, is now twice the size
of what it was, thanks to our work, and with Colombian colleagues to protect the isolated
and uncontacted peoples, who, thanks to President Santos’
bold leadership, now have protection
they never enjoyed before. -[applause and cheering] -There are at least three
isolated tribes living in the boundary
of this protected area, and we suspect there may be
as many as 14. Now, if this picture,
in conclusion, looks a little out of focus, it’s because it was obviously
taken in a hurry. -[laughter] -Why don’t you fly low and slow
over isolated Indian villages? -[applause and laughter] -But this looks
like it was taken in a hangar in the Brazilian Amazon. This is an art exhibit
in Havana, Cuba, their perception of why you don’t fly
low and slow over isolated Indian villages. So let me conclude
on a note of hope. We’re building guard posts to keep the outside world
at bay– no miners, no loggers,
no missionaries. -[applause and cheering] -We’re manning that post with the Colombian
national park service and local indigenous peoples. Here, the Witoto tribe
to the south of Chiribiquete are mapping their lands using our methodology
to keep the outsiders out and protect their isolated,
uncontacted brothers and sisters safe. And we’ve created
an indigenous park guard force to protect these rainforests,
these plants, these animals, these lichens, these healing,
magical mysteries. So, in conclusion, the question is what’s the fate
of these people? Shamans
say it’s all interconnected. I believe– and I know
I’m not the only one here who believes this– that it’s all interconnected. Their fate is our fate. We’re Bioneers. That’s better than pioneers, because we don’t leave
environmental destruction and cultural genocide in our wake. So, as Bioneers, let’s blaze a trail to a world in which indigenous peoples map,
manage, and protect their lands. Let’s blaze a trail to a world in which climate change
is for the better, not the worse. And let’s blaze a trail to a world where these shamans
live in luxuriant forests and cure themselves and us with their magical plants, their hallucinogenic lichens, and their sacred frogs. Thank you very much. -[cheering]


Reader Comments

  1. This is so inspirational, as a shaman initiating in the western contemporary world this gives me strength, thank you so much xxx

  2. This is a mission worth sacrificing your life for. I will now contact this man and see how I can be a part of his project. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. The Next Step:

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  4. If you really want to endanger these people, go ahead and keep up the derogatory comments about "white guys" and "white boys". You'll provoke a backlash like you wouldn't believe.

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