Thursday, September 15, 2011

One of the Guys Who Brought Google Earth to the Amazon Is Coming to Salisbury

Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Source: Litchfield County Times

SALISBURY—Dr. Mark Plotkin, an ethnobotanist, author and president of the Amazon Conservation Team, delivers his message about rainforest conservation with a take-no-prisoners directness.

“Thirty years ago, I was asked, ‘Who gives a sh-- about the rainforests,’” he said. “Thirty years later, we are facing climate change and beset by diseases for which there are no cures—new diseases like the bird flu and drug-resistant bacteria—and people are saying, ‘What can we do? What can we do?’ One of my great frustrations is that I know one of the answers—and no one will listen.

“If a boat is leaking,” he continued, “it is stupid to bail it out without plugging the leak—and that is what we are doing with climate change if we don’t protect the rainforests.”

Dr. Plotkin will deliver his message in the first of the Salisbury Forum’s 2011 series, speaking on “Rainforest Conservation and the Search for New Jungle Medicines.” He will make his presentation Friday, Sept. 16, at 7:30 p.m. at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville.

Despite his years of proselytizing, devastation of the rainforests continues unabated through illegal mining and logging. Rainforests once covered 14 percent of the earth’s land surface; now they cover only 6 percent, and experts estimate that the remaining rainforests could be consumed in fewer than 40 years. Nearly half of the world’s species of plants, animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next quarter century due to rainforest deforestation.

As the rainforest species disappear, so do many possible cures for life-threatening diseases. Currently, 121 prescription drugs sold worldwide come from plant-derived sources, with 25 percent of Western pharmaceuticals derived from rainforest ingredients. Still less that 1 percent of these tropical trees and plants have been tested by scientists.

Perhaps more importantly in a world beginning to gag on its own emissions, the Amazon rainforest has been described as the “lungs of the planet” because it continuously recycles carbon dioxide into oxygen. More than 20 percent of the world oxygen is produced in the Amazon rainforest.

Clearly, rainforests are a key to global environmental health, but one that is being largely ignored. “Wow, who knew? Keep doing what is causing climate change and we’re surprised when it gets worse!” Dr. Plotkin exclaimed.

Dr. Plotkin believes that rainforest’s ecosystem provides us with the answers for many of our physical and psychic woes. “It provides the two pillars,” he said. “The first is chemical, what is in the plants, and the other is spiritual. I have spent 30 years watching shamans treating white people and the diagnosis is always the same—stress. Shamans can cure it. I’m often told this is nonsense, but I have been experiencing it for 30 years and my question is, ‘What is western medicine doing that is so incredibly effective?’”

No one understands the medicinal secrets of Amazonian plants better than the indigenous shamans. Beyond the curative qualities the plants might contain, Dr. Plotkin says, “There is something going on [in shamanistic medicine] that we can’t understand through the prism of western science.”

But like the forests themselves, the ancient knowledge of these shamans is fast-disappearing. Most medicine men and shamans remaining are 70 years old or more and when a medicine man dies without passing his arts on to the next generation, the tribe and the world loses irreplaceable knowledge about medicinal plants.

Trained as an academic, Dr. Plotkin has nevertheless been willing to embrace this shamanic wisdom and has concluded that conservation and the well-being of indigenous people are intrinsically linked. He has worked to empower the indigenous peoples of the Amazon to help them to protect the rainforest.

In 1995, he and Costa Rican conservationist Liliana Madrigal formed the Amazon Conservation Team to protect the Amazonian rainforest in partnership with local indigenous peoples. ACT has now worked with 32 tribes throughout Amazonia.

“One signature effort has been to train the Indians to map their land to protect their ownership rights,” he said. “We’re the guys that brought Google Earth to the Amazon—it provides the perfect combination of Shamanic wisdom and 21st century know-how. It’s not a matter of the Great White American that has all the answers.”

The project began in 2007 when a young man named Almir, the first of the Surui tribe to graduate from college, traveled to the United States to meet with officials at Google Earth. He asked the company to train his people so they could tell their story to the world and fight the loss of the forests.

The following year, a small group of scientists from Google Earth Outreach traveled to Brazil to conduct a crash course for the Surui people on how to surf the Web and use map data, YouTube and blogs. The Amazon Conservation Team provided the tribe with laptop computers with an Internet connection, video cameras, GPS devices, satellite maps and other high-tech gadgets. With these tools, the Surui are telling the global community about their world.

Despite the often gloomy forecasts about global environmental health and the continued devastation of the rainforests, Dr. Plotkin insists “there is plenty of good news out there.”

“The battle has been joined,” he said. “What is being done is revolutionary. Big conservation groups are focusing on [rainforest conservation], but indigenous people will defend the rainforests with their lives. We have empowered them. There is plenty of hope, but it requires diligence, tenacity, forming the right alliances and not jumping into bed with any corporation that waves money in your face.”

Dr. Plotkin is author of the book, “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice” and “Medicine Quest, The Killers Within—The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria” (with Michael Shnayerson), and “The Shaman’s Apprentice,” a children’s book with Lynne Cherry. He completed his bachelor’s degree at the Harvard University, his master’s degree in forestry at Yale University and his Ph.D. at Tufts University. In May 2010, he received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore.

All Salisbury Forums are free to the public. A question and answer period follows. To find out more about forum subjects the Scoville Memorial Library will provide information and the Salisbury Forum has a Web site, www.salisburyforum.org, with information and links to issue sites.
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