March 18, 2010
Mark Plotkin, president of the Amazon Conservation Team, has spent much of his adult life working with South American Indian shamans, or healers, to identify plants that make people well, and then find the compounds in the plants that can be turned into new medicines.
But in doing so, he's also worked to assure that the Indian tribes remain in control of the economic value of their indigenous knowledge, brokering deals between drug companies and the Indians that preserve their rights to the patents for the medicines, and helping them map their tribal homelands to assure they remain owners of the rain forests in which they live.
It's been an exciting career for a New Orleans native who graduated in 1973 from Isidore Newman School and attended Tulane University and the University of New Orleans before garnering degrees from Harvard, Yale and Tufts.
He's the author of several adult and children's books documenting his adventures, including "Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice," and "Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature's Healing Secrets."
Now, he's working on two new projects: a children's book with renowned British anthropologist Jane Goodall that will explain how chimpanzees and other animals also use plants for healing, and a new IMAX motion picture describing his efforts to help South American Indians map their tribal lands to protect them from logging and other development pressures.
He'll talk about his new projects at 11 a.m. Sunday at Temple Sinai, 5227 St. Charles Ave., in a fundraising event on behalf of Jewish Children's Regional Services. His lecture is free and open to the public.
"People ask me, 'Why would you work in the rain forest? It's hot, mosquito-ridden and full of corruption,' " Plotkin said during a telephone interview Thursday. "I say I grew up in New Orleans."
Plotkin is an ethnobotanist, a scientific term for a researcher who studies the relationship between humans and plants.
His late father, George, the owner of a New Orleans shoe store, grew up at Newman School when it was a Jewish orphanage.
"My father died when I was in college and JCRS rescued me by funding me through college," Plotkin said. "All things are connected, a spiritual boomerang effect. They called me up and asked how much it would cost for me to speak for them, and I said you can't afford me, so I guess I'm going to do it for free."
Plotkin sees his work as tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase meaning repairing the world.
His non-profit group has put together a partnership between Google Earth and 32 tribes in Central and South America to map 75 million acres of tropical rainforest in an effort to save their trees from loggers.
One of the tribal leaders he's working with, Chief Almir of the Surui Tribe in western Brazil, has successfully fended off loggers in his area, which Plotkin said has resulted in them placing a $100,000 bounty on his head. But the mapping effort will insure the land stays in tribal hands, Plotkin said.
"We're pairing ancient shamanic wisdom and 21st Century Silicon Valley know-how," Plotkin said of the training of Indians to use satellite global positioning system technology to identify their lands. His group also helps the tribes transfer their new maps to the governments and military agencies of their countries, to assure their land rights are protected.
"You've got grandpa sitting in the corner forgotten, and then you find he's the real database of the forest," Plotkin said. "The knowledge of plants, of creation legends, mythological legends, all play a part in creating reasons why they don't want to cut down the forests along the headwaters of rivers.
"And at the same time, it reconnects a young generation more interested in gym shorts and Ipods with the old ways, teaching them that modern and ancient, both are necessary," he said.
Plotkin's Amazon Conservation Team has its headquarters in Fairfax, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. But most of its work is handled through offices in Columbia, Brazil and Suriname.