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Amazon Scientist Discusses Work With Indigenous Tribes, Saving Rainforest

Amazon Scientist Discusses Work With Indigenous Tribes, Saving Rainforest
What are the latest threats to the ecosystem of the Amazon Rainforest? We speak to Dr. Mark Plotkin about his efforts to protect the world's largest rainforest, and how the Amazon Conservation Team he co-founded is working to help the tribes who live there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A few years ago, the cry to save the rainforests seemed to come primarily from European rock stars and American environmentalists. But here in the 21st century, efforts to save the rainforests have come from interesting new directions. Native people who live in the Amazon rainforest are now actively engaged in mapping and protecting the region. The change has come about through the efforts of an enlightened tribal leader, and scientists working with Google Earth and the Amazon Conservation Team. It's a fascinating story, and here to tell us about it is my guest, Dr. Mark Plotkin. Dr. Plotkin is an ethnobotanist and co-founder of the Amazon Conservation Team. He’s featured in the IMAX film “Amazon,” which is currently playing at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. Dr. Plotkin, welcome to These Days.

Amazon IMAX

DR. MARK PLOTKIN (Ethnobotanist): Maureen, it’s good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: First of all, just so all of us know, tell us what an ethnobotanist is.


DR. PLOTKIN: An ethnobotanist is very simply a scientist who studies people and their use of plants. And most of us work in the Amazon and most of us work with Indians and most of us study their use of medicinal plants.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay, so you go there and you – when you go to the Amazon region, you’re primarily looking for plants and how the native peoples use them.

DR. PLOTKIN: Exactly, Maureen, and the IMAX film we’re showing Friday night focuses on my 30-year search for the plants that heal.

CAVANAUGH: So for people who’ve never been to the Amazon, and I would imagine that’s most of the people listening, can you describe what it’s like in the world’s largest rainforest?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, biologists call it the greatest expression of life on earth. Right – life reaches its greatest diversity in terms of plants, in terms of bizarre and beautiful animals, and this is really vividly depicted in the film.


CAVANAUGH: And what makes the place unique?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, it’s the epicenter of diversity. There’s more plants there than anywhere else. There’s more butterflies there than anywhere else. There’s more birds there than anywhere else. And because of this richness of diversity and because each species produces its own chemicals, we think that that is nature’s greatest treasure chest in terms of curing things or potentially curing things like AIDS or cancer or diabetes or depression or acid reflux or all these other things that Western medicine doesn’t seem to be able to get a handle on.

CAVANAUGH: And are we still finding cures for diseases from the rainforest?

DR. PLOTKIN: You know, my last book, Maureen, is about the rise of deadly drug-resistant bacteria and I made the point that 300,000 people a year are dying of drug-resistant bacterial infections. They’re in every hospital in the country. And so, you know, the search goes on. It goes on in the desert, it goes on in the ocean, but particularly in the rainforest.

CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, when you are in the Amazon rainforest and you’re looking for different sorts of plants and – I wonder, being in the rainforest and just listening, is it ever quiet? Or is it a place that just teems with life to such an extent that there’s always that hum of native species?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, I can tell you work in radio because you think auditory, and the answer is – I’ve never been asked that before but it’s a great question. The answer is, it’s a completely different and ever-changing soundscape. And one of the important things in IMAX films is to capture that sound because every half hour, every fifteen minutes, every hour, the sounds change from cooing doves to croaking frogs to howler monkeys going to sleep. It’s always something different to listen and learn and hear.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’m speaking with Dr. Mark Plotkin. He is featured in the IMAX film “Amazon” that’s at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center. He’s also going to be there with Chief Almir of the Amazon Surui tribe, and that’s going to happen on Friday. And we’re talking to him because of the IMAX film but also to find out a little bit more about what the Amazon can show us and why it’s so desperately important that it needs to be preserved. I just want to say in passing that I heard that you are the person that the Sean Connery character was based on in the movie “Medicine Man.” Is that correct?

DR. PLOTKIN: Absolutely true. It’s based on a documentary that was done on my work a couple of years earlier called “20th Century Medicine Man.”

CAVANAUGH: And were you happy about his portrayal?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, there are not many urban Jewish white kids who get portrayed by Sean Connery so in that sense I was very happy. On the other hand, if they’d have cut me a piece of the pie as a consultant I’d have been even happier.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, I can imagine that. Now, as I mentioned, you’re co-founder of the Amazon Conservation Team. I wonder if you could tell us what that is and what the goals are of the organization?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, I hope people will check us out on the web at We are a group of gunslingers and buccaneers who work with Indians to reinvent rainforest conservation. We have mapped, managed and protected over 40 million acres of rainforest in true partnership with 30 Amazonian tribes, one of which is the Surui, which will be featured Friday night at the Fleet Center with the great gift of having Chief Almir in person. He’s a true environmental hero. He has $100,000 price on his head because the loggers know he’s who’s keeping the forest in place and they want him dead.

CAVANAUGH: Well, in the promotional material that was sent to us, we learned that Chief Almir actually went to the Google Reach – the Google Earth outreach scientists and said, you know…

DR. PLOTKIN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …we, the people of the Amazon rainforest who live here, want to be part of efforts to map and protect this region of the Earth. Tell us a little bit about this man and why he was inspired to do this.

DR. PLOTKIN: Chief Almir is a great thinker and a great leader and a true visionary and he realizes the Indians are the best people for saving the forest but they can’t do it by themselves. So it’s not a question of, you know, Indians being Indians, not having access to the outside world like polio vaccine and things like that, that you can be an Indian, you can protect the forest and use technology to do it better. So when you see our work with naked or nearly naked people walking through the jungle with GPSes, it’s a perfect wisdom, perfect marriage of wisdom, of ancient shamanic knowledge and 21st century technology. How cool is that?

CAVANAUGH: That is very cool. What about Google Earth? Why did they get involved?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, I first approached them to work with us and they invited me to give a lecture because I’ve written several books on the Amazon, the first of which, “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice” is the basis for much of the IMAX film. And in the lecture series, I pointed out that we had this fellow we were working with who had a huge price on his head and he was using Google Earth at our suggestion and he wanted to come and address them himself. And it was a perfect – a marriage made in heaven or made in green heaven, I should say.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And just to be clear, Chief Almir is an educated man and…


CAVANAUGH: …he – you know, it’s not as if he doesn’t have any idea of what computers are or what modern technology can do. And he’s using that now, as you say, this incredible combination of people who are living on the land but are still using this remarkably advanced, high-tech technology.

DR. PLOTKIN: You know, Maureen, I think we have a problem in our society in terms of who our heroes are. People worship sports figures or Madonna or Lady Gaga but this is a guy who’s putting his life on the line to make the world a better place and I hope your listeners who are really interested in this will look up “Rainforest Rebel” on the web. You can go to Google, in fact, “Rainforest Rebel,” it tells the story of Chief Almir, a big story in Smithsonian magazine.

CAVANAUGH: How often do you go down to the Amazon rainforest?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, I kind of commute. I go back and forth. I’ve been doing it for 30 years. I’ve got one house in Virginia and two in the northeast Amazon.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, we’re going to have to take a short break and when we return, we will continue talking with Dr. Mark Plotkin about the IMAX film “Amazon” that’s currently playing at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park and about efforts to save the Amazon rainforest. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS. We’re talking about efforts underway to try to help save the Amazon rainforest. My guest is Dr. Mark Plotkin. He’s an ethnobotanist, co-founder of the Amazon Conservation Team. He will be in town this Friday to talk, to take a question and answer session, at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center after the IMAX film “Amazon.” And, Dr. Mark Plotkin, you told us about Google Earth’s efforts to help Chief Almir and the Surui Tribe map their 600,000 acre reserve. And you’d also said that the chief has a $100,000 – he’s wanted. He has a price on his head. Why does he have a price on his head and what does that area need to be protected from?

DR. PLOTKIN: Because the white men have cut down virtually all the rainforest all around his reserve. You can see it on Google Earth. And he wants to protect what’s left, which is his reserve. Why should people be able to cut down his trees for nothing or for two dollars a pop. If people want to cut down the trees, it should be the people the trees belong to, which should be the people that have lived there forever and that’s the Surui Tribe.

CAVANAUGH: And so the loggers have put a price on his head?

DR. PLOTKIN: Yep, they want him dead because he protects the forest.

CAVANAUGH: Now why are they cutting down the trees?

DR. PLOTKIN: Because they’ve set up industries which are dependent on cutting down the trees. Look, I’m an environmentalist. I have no problem with cutting down trees. I have a degree in forestry.


DR. PLOTKIN: It’s the idea that environmentalists are against development or against capitalism is nonsense. But what kind of development is it going to be? The right development’s to have the Indians cut down the trees if they want to. To have the Indians making $10,000 a tree, which is what they’re worth, and not just cutting them down because they built too many damn sawmills and people will be out of work if they don’t cut down trees. Whose fault is that? Whose problem is that?

CAVANAUGH: And as you were saying when we were talking before, the treasures that may be in that forest that could help all of humankind in medical research. In your work as an ethnobotanist to find cures for things, that’s lost when those trees are gone, isn’t it?

DR. PLOTKIN: These wonder cures of tomorrow are literally going up in smoke. And when I say smoke, I point out that the airport is closed and the capital city near Chief Almir’s reserve periodically because of smoke from the burning forest. The kids are in the hospital with asthma induced by too much smoke. The rivers have dried up because the land is dried out because they’ve cut down the forest, and there’s too much smoke. So there’s a whole host of bad things that have already happened because they’ve cut down too much forest.

CAVANAUGH: Now saving the Amazon rainforest, I used to – it used to be a rather trendy idea. Do you think that that has become overshadowed by the emphasis on climate change and global warming and other environmental concerns? I don’t hear…

DR. PLOTKIN: You know…

CAVANAUGH: I don’t seem to hear as much about it.

DR. PLOTKIN: You know, Maureen, I wish I’d have planted that question with you.


DR. PLOTKIN: And here’s why. Because the major cause of global warming is cutting down the forest. Cutting down the rainforest contributes more carbon to the atmosphere than all the cars in the world combined.

CAVANAUGH: Because that’s what they call the Earth’s lungs, right?

DR. PLOTKIN: Because that’s where the carbon comes from and that’s where it goes to and if everybody stopped driving, which they’re not going to do tomorrow, you’d still have mass amounts of carbon going in the atmosphere because the destruction of the rainforest primarily in Brazil and Indonesia.


DR. PLOTKIN: And one of the things you find out in working with shamans is depicted in the film, it’s the interconnectedness of all things and you can’t not just worry about the rainforest and worry about global warming because they’re interconnected.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s talk about the film because this – I believe the film “Amazon” is the first IMAX film to get an Academy Award nomination, is that right?

DR. PLOTKIN: There’s many IMAX films out there but very, very few have gotten Academy Award nominations. I think two or three. “Amazon” got one and “Alaska” got one, a very excellent film. There’s maybe one other but I can’t remember it. But this is one of the very few.

CAVANAUGH: And what do we see in this film about the Amazon? I only saw a brief clip of it on the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center’s website.

DR. PLOTKIN: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: It looks like a gorgeously filmed movie, as most IMAX films are. But what is it that we get to see. You’ve talked on a number of occasions about a shaman’s journey.

DR. PLOTKIN: Umm-hmm. What you’re doing in the film is you’re following two people, one is a shaman, one is a scientist, that’s me, in search of plants that heal. And you see animals that have never been filmed in IMAX, six stories high. You see Indians that have never been filmed in IMAX, six stories high. And there’s no nature faked. It’s all filmed on site. It took us five months in the jungle and it was really based on my 30 years of experience. Loren McIntyre, the late Loren McIntyre, the photographer who’d spent 60 years exploring the Amazon, so we were able to get these people and these cameras into places who had never seen them before and very likely will never see them again.

CAVANAUGH: How has the Amazon changed in the 30 years that you’ve been going down there?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, there’s much more intrusion of the outside world. The Indians are wearing Western dress, the climate’s changed in some places where there has been lots of deforestation, particularly in the southeast. But it’s still a great, green world. It’s still bigger than the United States. Just to give you an idea of the scope of this forest, the Colombian Amazon, which most people have never heard of, which is a part of the Amazon in Colombia, is twice the size of New England. That’s how big a forest we’re talking about.

CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing. So I imagine the help that the Surui Tribe is playing in mapping out the rainforest is really – has really come in handy.

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, what we’re doing with the Surui and with Google Earth is creating a template that can be used by all of the tribes, not only through the Amazon but tribal peoples everywhere, in the deserts of the southwest and the Boreal forest of the north, the pygmies in Africa, and that’s one of the reasons this is so exciting. And people can hear it firsthand from Chief Almir himself.

CAVANAUGH: And where can people go online to see these maps?

DR. PLOTKIN: I would check out the Amazon Conservation Team website, Some of the stuff is up at Google. You can do a YouTube search for “Bows and Arrows to Laptops.” That’s called “Bows and Arrows to Laptops,” that’s a film made by Google. It’s a 7 minute film about the mapping of the rainforest and it features Chief Almir in the film.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I would imagine that some people who go to your lecture tomorrow night and meet you and Chief Almir might actually want to go to the Amazon and lend a hand and help out and see the place. How difficult a journey is that?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, it’s easier and easier all the time because there’s so many tourism companies going to South America, particularly Peru and Brazil. We don’t do ecotourism ourself (sic) because we’re an environmental organization.


DR. PLOTKIN: But many more opportunities (sic) to be able to visit the forest and see these things firsthand.

CAVANAUGH: You would imagine that you – do you have to get a lot of shots? I mean, where do you stay? Are there actually places that do do ecotourism for the Amazon rainforest?

DR. PLOTKIN: Yes, there’s very good eco-lodges in Manaus, Brazil and outside of Iquitos, Peru. So that’s very easy to find online. In fact, I think even the San Diego Zoo, my friends at the San Diego Zoo run eco-tours and trips to the Amazon every couple of years.

CAVANAUGH: And do you encourage that? Do you think that’s a good thing?

DR. PLOTKIN: I think ecotourism done the right way that puts money in the hands of the Indians and the peasants of the local governments, gives them an economic incentive to protect the rainforest so there’s a right way to do this.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Dr. Plotkin, you are spending so much of your time as part of the Amazon Conservation Team in trying to map and plot out the rainforest in efforts, public relations efforts, to try to get people involved in saving the rainforest. Do you actually get any time to do any research anymore?

DR. PLOTKIN: Yeah. I’m about to come out with a book on the woody vines of Suriname and my mother said she’d buy a copy and, Maureen, if you buy a copy, that’ll be two copies sold.


DR. PLOTKIN: I don’t think it’s going to compete with my earlier popular books.

CAVANAUGH: Well, what is it about though?

DR. PLOTKIN: The woody vines of the forest. That’s what Tarzan swings on. We call them lianas.


DR. PLOTKIN: And that’s where most of the medicines are. But they’re very hard to work with because they’re 90 feet up but they produce flowers and fruits, and botanists have to see flowers and fruits to diagnose what species they are. It’s like, you know, you’re looking at their reproductive parts to figure out what makes them unique. So most botanists tend to ignore them but as ethnobotanists, we know this is what the Indians use as medicines and the book is going to figure this stuff out.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I wonder, with all your expertise about this region, what would you like to see to tell you that we’re on the right path in order to save this precious region of the Earth? What are the signs that you look for that things are turning around and not going the other way?

DR. PLOTKIN: Well, the fact that we’re having this conversation, the fact there’s an IMAX movie made about this shows that people are paying attention. They’re developing greater interest. I’d like to see virgin forest, primary forest everywhere and not just in the Amazon but in California and in Canada and Europe protected. I’d like to see all headwater forests protected. I’d like to see all headwaters protected. I’d like to see indigenous peoples in charge of their lands. And I would like to see an attitude by people understanding that Mother Nature’s the ultimate treasure house of healing magic and we need to protect her for that and many other reasons.

CAVANAUGH: I think you’ve put a very good end to all of this. Thank you so much, Dr. Plotkin, for speaking with us today.

DR. PLOTKIN: Thank you much and hope to see you Friday night.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Mark Plotkin and Chief Almir will be participating in a special lecture and question and answer session this Friday following the 6:00 p.m. IMAX showing of “Amazon” at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park. Stay with us. These Days will continue in just a few minutes here on KPBS.