Dr. Mark Plotkin: The Healing Forest on Fire: Plant Medicine, Isolated Tribes [..] | Talks at Google
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Dr. Mark Plotkin: The Healing Forest on Fire: Plant Medicine, Isolated Tribes [..] | Talks at Google

October 8, 2019

you a brief overview of what’s happening in the Amazon,
what we’re doing to address these problems, and
how ultimately I think we could be victorious. But at the outset,
I want to state that I am an ethnobotanist. An ethnobotanist
is a scientist who studies how indigenous
peoples interact with plant environments,
very often in the Amazon with medicinal plants. So one of the obsessions of
ethnobotanists is curare– arrow poison. This is something used
as a deadly poison by indigenous peoples, which
becomes a lifesaving medication in Western medicines. Well, a few years ago, I
come back from the Amazon with the holy grail, which were
arrows with a new kind of arrow poison. And I was mounting them
on the wall of my office. And this friend of mine
wandered in and said, are those poison-tipped arrows? And I said, yes, very proudly. And he says, well, don’t
you think that’s, like, kind of dangerous? And I said, why? And he said, well, don’t
you worry about the fact that people could stick
their fingers on it wondering if it’s still toxic? And I said, well, yeah. I mean, I’ll come
in every morning, and there’ll be a pile
of dead stupid people. It’s like natural
selection by ethnobotany. So it didn’t worry me too much. Now, what I want
to do is take you into the rain
forest of the Amazon and show you what’s
going on on the ground. We all know about
these terrible fires. And looking at this
very complex graphic– and I’ll leave some of these
graphics behind so you can look at it at your leisure– the most important
thing to notice is that 74,000 fires have
been recorded in the Amazon in the last year. This is a terrible situation,
and it’s getting worse. What’s important to note about
this incredibly indecipherable graphic is that
most of the fires are happening in
the south, and then not only in the rain
forests of the Amazon, but southwest into some of
the drier rain forest regions like the Chaco in
Paraguay and Bolivia and some of these countries that
are on the border with Brazil. So terrible scenes
like these are becoming increasingly common. And left behind is a wasteland
with nothing remaining. Now, to some of the
cattle ranchers, this is what they’re looking
for because the nutrients have been released into the soil and
you can start producing cattle. But to those of us who
love and cherish nature and the indigenous peoples
that are allied to her, this is quite the catastrophe. And one of the undertold stories
of this terrible situation is the impact on
indigenous peoples. This is actually an indigenous
roundhouse, a maloka, on the lower-right-hand
corner, which is burning. And so these indigenous peoples
who are paying the price are actually left with nothing. And one of our priorities at
the Amazon Conservation Team, and Brian is really the
point person for that, is that of protecting isolated
so-called uncontacted peoples and their rain forests. In the course of our
work, we’ve identified what we think is about 70 tribes
of isolated or uncontacted peoples in the
Amazon, most of which are clumped in the
northwest Amazon where Peru, Colombia,
and Brazil come together. So if you’re interested
in more information on this particular
topic, I encourage you to look at my
TED Talk on how to protect the uncontacted
tribes of the Amazon. The untold story, again,
about these isolated peoples and these fires is as many
as 33 of these 70 groups may be menaced by
fires encroaching on their lands, most of
which are in reserves at this point in time. But I want to talk about
the medicinal plants and the shamans. The shamans are, of course, the
medicine men and medicine women who know these plants the best. There has been the
argument, well, why do we need
indigenous peoples? Because we have
high-throughput screening, we just go in the rain
forest and test everything. But frankly, the shaman is the
medicine women and medicine men are the index of the
book, the table of contents of the book, the card catalog
of the library because they’re the ones who know how
to use these plants. And increasingly,
we find out how to use these animals,
particularly insects– not only which ones have
bioactive principles, but the exact dose and
how best to prepare them. In the course of curare, for
example, almost all curares are made from at
least two plants. In the case of ayahuasca
that I’ll be talking about– I see some heads
going like this– in the case of ayahuasca
that I’ll be talking about, it’s almost always
made from two plants. And what we find are
these catalytic reactions. And if you’re in a rain forest
of 80,000 species of plants, how do you figure out
which two ones to combine to get the maximum reaction? But time and time again,
these indigenous peoples have done that. But just to take a
step back, what’s the most important medicinal
plant in the world? Anybody? The most valuable medicinal
plant in the world is the wine grape. $400 billion a year. One species of plant. And here’s an interesting
aside if you’re interested in
biological diversity. There are 1,368
varieties of wine known made from this
one species of grape, but today, 80% of our wine
comes from 20 varieties. So if you think of 2,000
varieties of wine coming from one species,
imagine the possibilities in terms of agricultural
products, spices, renewable energy
sources, medicines coming from rain forest
plants, where as I said, we’re looking at between
40,000 and 80,000 species of flowering plants
in the Amazon alone. But here’s why we consider wine
to be the ultimate medicine– because in addition to it
tasting wonderful and making it more fun and enjoyable
to eat a great meal, wine has been used
and is still used as a calmative, a
soporific, an anesthetic, and an antimicrobial. Now, if you’re
interested in plants, as all ethnobotanists
are, you’re also interested in
the relationship between the human
species and plants. And the best
documented relationship is not in the Amazon,
which is still full of preliterate
cultures, but in wine. And when I mentioned this
to Jane Goodall, who’s on the Amazon Conservation
Team board of advisors, she said, well,
you know, wine use did not begin with
the human species. Wine use began
with other animals. And she said, my chimps use
plants for medicinal purposes and they love to get snockered. In West Africa, there’s
excellent documentation of animals waiting
for the marula fruit to ripen, and in fact,
overripen and produce alcohol. And here is some of the proof. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] Clearly, the relationship
between animals and plants did not begin in the
Amazon and did not begin with the human species. But it’s the Amazon which is the
greatest terrestrial expression of life on Earth. And there are many,
many reasons why conservation is important, but
none more so than the Amazon itself. As I said, it’s the greatest
expression of life on Earth. It’s the greatest collection
of terrestrial plants. It’s the greatest
source of promise of new medicines from nature. But in the age of
climate change, here’s the line I want you
to remember from this talk– the battle against climate
change cannot be won in the Amazon, but it most
certainly can be lost. And let me show you how little
we know about the Amazon rain forest. Just three years ago, we found
a coral reef in the Amazon. It’s at the mouth of the Amazon. Two years ago, we found
a cobalt blue tarantula in the northern Amazon. Cobalt blue tarantulas
are hard to miss. These are big honking spiders
colored electric blue. Imagine what is still out there. The electric eel from the Amazon
has been studied since 1766 when Linnaeus described it. That’s 253 years ago. The electric eel is
the first encounter with the human species
with electricity. If you look at the
historical record, it’s about torpedo rays in the
Nile and in the Mediterranean, the ancient Greeks, the Romans,
the Egyptians discovered electricity. But the Amazon has been
inhabited 11,000 years, so certainly our
species was coming across electricity in the
Amazon over 10,000 years ago. We tend to think that
electricity was discovered by Benjamin Franklin
with his kite experiment, but it’s these electric
creatures that introduced our species to electricity. So here’s the news. Last week, we found two
new species of electric eel in the Amazon. Now, if you look at
the historical record, batteries were designed
by Volta in part based on his work
with the electric eel. OK, this new species– one of these new species
has 20% greater charge than the
previously-known species. So imagine this– you have an
eight-foot torpedo-shaped tube of meat that’s shooting
out bolts of electricity and it was just
discovered last week. We’re now hoping to
design hydrogel batteries for medical implants based
on the way this eel works. This is the kapok tree,
previously considered the tallest tree in the Amazon. Last week, we found
a new species– not a new species, but
a well-known species that was 100 meters higher
than the tallest known tree. Last week, we found the
biggest and most powerful species of electric eel. Last week, we found the
tallest tree in the Amazon. Imagine what’s still out there. But the best way to find
new, and interesting, and useful species, the
best way to figure out how to protect these forests,
the best people to protect these forests are
people like these– the indigenous
peoples living there, particularly the shamans,
the medicine men. As I said at the outset, as
Brian said in the introduction, I’m an ethnobotanist. And I’ve been doing
this a long time. I’ve been working with
the indigenous people since the early ’80s. This is my friend Kamanya, 1982. And here we are still working
together over 30 years later. I showed this to
a friend of mine. And she said, well, I noticed
the notebook got bigger in the course of 30 years. And I said, yeah, well, as
the size of the brain shrinks, the size of the notebook
has to get bigger. But ask any ethnobotanist and
they’ll tell you that shamans can sometimes,
sometimes, sometimes, cure things that Western
physicians cannot. This was of a foot ailment
that I had for years. And I walked into the village
and the shaman saw me limping. And he said, what’s the matter? I said, ah, I got this
problem with my foot. The doctor can’t fix it. And I’ll never forget, he
looked me in the face and said, take off your shoe and
give me your machete. And I did as I was told. And he went over to a palm
tree, scraped off a fern, applied it to my foot, and eight
years later, I’m still fine. Who would you rather
be treated by? And it ain’t just plants. This is the great
shaman Natala, who I was out collecting with once. And we stopped to take a break. And he took my machete,
chopped a piece of dead wood, and all these ants poured out. And he applied it to
the inside of his elbow. And they were biting him. And I said, what are you doing? He says, well, it’s
for my arthritis. And I said, arthritis? I said, you use insects
for medicinal purposes? He said, yeah, sure. I said, but I asked
you when I came here if you used anything
besides plants. And he said, you’re a plant guy. I don’t mind teaching
you a few things. You don’t know
anything about insects. I’m not going to waste my time
trying to teach you about that. Here’s another
example of how they use compounds other than
plants for medicinal purposes. This is the magic frog. When my late colleague
Loren McIntyre was lost on the
Brazil-Peru border in 1969, he was rescued by a group
of Indians who had never had contact with whites before. They beckoned for him
to follow them deeper in the rain forest,
which he did. They took out these
palm leaf baskets, took out these palm frogs–
these giant green monkey frogs– from the palm baskets,
made cuts in their arm, applied the frog to the cuts. And it turned out to be
highly hallucinogenic. Now, you need to know that
hallucinogens, entheogens, mind-altering substances
are revolutionizing Western medicine. Just last week, Johns Hopkins
established a new center with the support
of my colleague Tim Ferriss to look at treating
incurable diseases, like PTSD, and depression,
and schizophrenia, using mind-altering substances
from the rain forest. Now, as an aside, we told the
story of the great Harvard ethnobotanist botanist Richard
Schultes in this storybook map. This is put together by Brian. I certainly hope you’re going
to invite him back to go further into this incredible retelling
of this man’s great adventures in the northwest Amazon. He was a mentor not only to
me, but to Melissa’s dad, Jock, here as well. And this is a way of
using new technologies to tell ancient stories. It’s an interactive map
which I encourage all of you to check out to see how we
recounted his adventures. This is the man who
discovered magic mushrooms. This is the man who
discovered ayahuasca. But of course, as Schultes
was always quick to point out, ethnobotanists don’t
really discover anything. They just document what the
indigenous peoples tell them. Schultes always
emphasized the importance of not just
biological diversity, but biocultural diversity. When you walked in his
office, over one shoulder was a picture of
these Yukuna Indians doing snuff, and
over the other, was this picture of
Chiribiquete, which I’ll talk about in a minute. So it’s protecting the
biological and the cultural at the same time. This is Schultes in a picture
from our storybook map– working in the Sibundoy Valley– which Brian has mapped– with the tribe that
taught him the use of ayahuasca, which
as I said is now causing a renaissance
in the treatment of certain mental and
emotional diseases. Schultes is widely regarded
as the founding father of ethnobotany for his
collection and writing up the first scientific
description of ayahuasca, also known as yagé. Now, I took one of
the great ayahuasca shamans of the northwest
Amazon, where it’s native, up to Los Angeles to
meet a foundation hoping to get some funding to
protect the ayahuasca culture, protect the ayahuasca
rain forest. And the program officer–
who was kind of a jerk– turned to the shaman and said,
I have a question for you. Did you go to medical school? And the shaman said,
no, I’m a medicine man. I didn’t go to medical school. And the guy said, well, what
could you know about healing? The shaman smiled, looked
at him, and he said, you know, if you have
a cut, go to a doctor. But many human afflictions
are diseases of the heart, the mind, and the soul. Western medicine
can’t touch those. With ayahuasca, I cure it. Who would you rather
be treated by? So ayahuasca has
become such a part of the public consciousness
and the public culture that it’s received the ultimate
accolade of public culture in “The Onion.” “Ayahuasca Shaman Dreading yet
Another Week of Guiding Tech CEOs to Spiritual Oneness.” So let’s talk about how we at
The Amazon Conservation Team are using all this
information to try and partner with
indigenous peoples to protect both the biological
and the cultural diversity. And this is the most
important picture I’m going to show
you this morning. In the top, you see
the Xingu rain forest. It’s an indigenous reserve
in southeastern Brazil. And at the bottom, you see the
area outside the Xingu reserve. So at the top, you have 14
tribes of indigenous peoples, at the bottom, you
have white guys. At the top, you have pristine
rain forests, at the bottom, you have a bunch of
skinny-ass cows– not a single tree. And in a similar view,
indigenous peoples and rain forest, top left, white
guys and soy plantation on the bottom right. And I don’t know about you,
but I’m not really ready to sacrifice turning the
world into a warmer place and seeing potential
cures for cancer and other so-called incurable
diseases go up in smoke so we can produce more tofu
like you see at the bottom. This is a quick
summation of what we’ve been able to achieve
in 25 years at The Amazon Conservation Team. Because when we started
up, the big organizations you all know, like World
Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy were focused on
protecting biological diversity in rain forest. But I saw that
nobody was working with the indigenous peoples
to protect their culture or their rain forest. And the idea wasn’t
to do it for them, the idea was to
partner with them. And to date, we’ve partnered
with over 100 tribes. We’ve mapped and improved
management and protection of over 80 million acres
of ancestral rain forest. And this shows
the scope of work. The most important
thing is that we focus on the northern
Amazon, particularly the northwest,
headquartered in Columbia, and the northeast,
headquartered in Suriname. And that has been the
focus of our operations and where many of our
successes have taken place. This sums up our
approach, which is not just about people and not
just about plants and animals, but it’s land, forest,
human rights, water quality, women’s empowerment,
sustainable livelihoods. This is just the tip of the
iceberg of the approach we’ve had to take. In terms of
strategic directions, you’re looking at land,
livelihoods, and governance– a very unsexy way to put
the focus of our work. We’ve mapped all
over the Amazon. We started in the northeast
Amazon with the Trios, that Brian mentioned
in the introduction. We focused very heavily in
northwestern South America– not just in the Amazon, but
some of the Kogui peoples that I’ll talk
about in a minute. Interestingly enough, we started
partnering with Google Earth with Rebecca Moore in
the southwest Amazon about 15 years ago. And we focused mapping efforts
in the southeast in the Xingu where I showed you where
just outside of the Amazon, there’s nothing
left but soy fields. This has become one of
our signature efforts, and when the indigenous
peoples asked us to help them, we said yes. And when they asked us to
map their lands, we said no. And the chief of the
Trios said, well, how are you going to help us if
you’re not going to make a map? I said, we’re going to do
something more important. We’re just going to teach
you to make your own map. So this is the perfect marriage
of ancient shamanic wisdom and 21st century Western
know-how, some of which has been pioneered right
here by you folks at Google. This is my friend
[? Buthe ?] that I’ve been working with since 1982. [? Buthe ?] made the
first indigenous map of the northeast Amazon with
a piece of butcher paper and a Marks-A-Lot. We trained him how
to do the mapping. And this you see
here is our first map in the northeast Amazon made
by the indigenous peoples themselves– in partnership
with the government, which, again, has created an
important alliance that didn’t exist before. And here you see Rebecca
Moore of Google Earth partnering with
one of the Sahrawi peoples in our initial effort
in partnership with you guys in the southwest Amazon. Of course, the question is, if
you can do this successfully with indigenous peoples– which we knew we could– can
you move it to other tribes in the Amazon– which we did successfully–
could you move it to tribes outside the Amazon? And this is coastal Colombia–
the famous Kogui peoples who have been called the
Dalai Lamas of South America. They’re the most
traditional peoples in the Western hemisphere
with the exception of the uncontacted peoples. They still dress traditionally,
they still live traditionally. And Brian has spearheaded much
of this work in partnership with the Koguis, who live
from the Caribbean beach all the way to the snow-capped
mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta– primarily
between 500 and 200 meters when they move up and down, which
makes them experts in dealing with climate change
because they understand how to utilize the
altitudinal gradients to adapt to a change in climate. If you look carefully, I call
this our ACT “Where’s Waldo?” photo. Actually, Brian is there in
the midst of his Kogui mapping team. So one of the interesting
we’ve been able to do is map sacred sites. Because these people
climb to the sacred lakes high in the Sierra
Nevada and then bring offerings down
to the seashore. And so it’s not just a question
of making a bow-and-arrow map where you put the
name of the river and the name of the
village, but mapping their shamanic
landscapes, which were invisible to our Western eyes. And they decide what
goes on the map, they decide what
doesn’t go on the map. For example, I was out hunting
with one of my Wiwa colleagues. And I looked down and the
creek sparkled with gold. And I said, is that
what I think it is? He said, yep. I said, we’re not putting
that on the map, are we? He said, nope. Ultimately, the
decision is theirs. And as I said,
much of our work is about building
unlikely alliances. How many people
know what Maroons are in the northeast Amazon? Maroons are the descendents
of escaped slaves. These are people
who were brought to the Amazon 300 years ago. They got off the
slave ships and said, hey, equatorial rain forest–
see you white boys later. And they ran off in the
interior where they maintain West African tribal lifestyles. Well, on the left, you see my
buddy Ken of the Wiwa tribe teaching the Trios how to do
this ethnographic mapping. And on the right, you see Ken
with a Matawai Maroon woman teaching her to make her own
map of her own tribal lands. And I dearly love this
picture, because this is our northeast Amazon director
Minu teaching the Matawai women how to map. So here’s Minu, the descendant
of Hindustani refugees brought to the northeast
Amazon, teaching descendants of escaped slaves from Africa
in the middle of the South American rain forest. And one of the things
we found is that women map a different landscape. Because in tribal
cultures, women tend to focus on the
agricultural plots, whereas the men tend to
focus on the hunting. So by working with
men and women, we’re mapping
different landscapes and putting them
together in the map. And this is Rudo Kemper, another
one of our cartographers, working with the elder
of the Matawai tribe to document their
knowledge of the landscape. And we were actually able
to find the first campsite established by the first Maroon
when he escaped from slavery. And we’re incorporating
this under the rubric of Terrastories. Terrastories is a
storytelling app. It’s built to enable these
tribal communities to locate and map their own
storytelling traditions about places of meaning
or value to them. So sometimes it’s an
agricultural plot. Sometimes it’s a place
of mythological origin or a sacred site. The interface consists of an
interactive map and a sidebar– as you see on the left here– with media content. So users can explore the map
and click on activated points on the map to see the
stories or the video, the interviews, associated
with these points. The maps are already being
used in village schools to teach history, ecology, and
build pride in their culture. So in other words, not all
the stuff they’re looking at has to do with car races
or stuff blowing up– they can see their own culture,
which provides added value. And this is an
open-source software that’s being developed by a
group of volunteer coders. And we are looking for help to
continue developing the app. So if you guys want
to get involved, let us know when I
finish this presentation. And finally, I want to focus
on isolated and uncontacted tribes. Uncontacted tribes hold a
mystical and iconic role in our imagination. These are the people
that know nature best. These are the people that
ultimately live off the grid as much as is possible. And these are the people
that live in total harmony with nature. We estimate there are about 70
isolated tribes, most of which, as I said, are in
the northwest Amazon. Now, why are they isolated? They know the
outside world exists. I’ve interviewed some of
the people who came out of isolation and they said,
as soon as planes came over in the ’40s and ’50s, we knew
that the outside world exists. But with the advent
of Western diseases in 1492 and with the
advent of the rubber trade in the northwest Amazon– the infamous Casa
Arana headed up by one of the most evil
people in Western history– Julio Arana on the left– where Indians were enslaved,
tortured, mutilated, massacred in search of white
rubber, in search of money. They fled into the rain forest
and they remain there still. So it’s a form of
resistance that they have stayed in the rain
forest and shunned contact with the outside world. And it used to be
that you didn’t mess with isolated people. They wanted to be left alone. And here’s why. This looks like it was taken
in a Brazilian airplane hangar in the western Amazon. But actually and
ironically, this is an art exhibit
in Havana, Cuba. This is an artist’s
perception of why you don’t mess with isolated peoples. But it’s no laughing matter
because the outside world is pressing in from all sides
on these isolated tribes. Now, we were able to
use this remote mapping to find these people
and to leave them alone, but to find them and
enact protection. So through this
detailed aerial mapping with the help of Google, with
the help of DigitalGlobe, we’re able to map this
in detail over time. We can look at their
zones of use over time to know how much land
they need and to see what incursions might be
happening or threatening to happen. And then that allows us
to better protect them. But this is like that Flannery
O’Connor story about the Church of Jesus without Jesus. How do you protect
uncontacted peoples when you don’t want
to contact them? So we’ve gone about
this in several ways. One of these is historical
records going all the way back to the conquest. We know who most of these people
are, we know what language or what language
family they speak. The secret sauce is, we work
with the contacted tribes because there’s tribes
around them that know about these people,
that know who they are, why they want to be
isolated, and figure out how best to protect them
and enlist their aid in protecting their indigenous
brothers and sisters. We have successfully helped
build guard posts at point of entry– like the
mouth of rivers– to keep the outside
world at bay. We have created
indigenous park rangers– Amazon conservation rangers. And I have a problem with people
that fly into these areas, hand the chief a
drone, take a picture, and put it on their website. This has been running
for more than a decade. This is proof of concept. Because of our
monitoring, we know about gold-mining
barges that have encroached into these areas. And we’ve worked successfully–
in the case of the Colombian military– to chase them out. In some cases, they had to blow
them up after a warning, just to get them away from
these indigenous peoples. So I want to finish this morning
with the tales of my mentor Richard Schultes, that
I mentioned earlier. This is Schultes in Chiribiquete
National Park, which wasn’t a national
park when he first came in there in the ’40s. This is Schultes seated near
the Cerro de Campana– the bell mountain. Now, look at the crack
over his right shoulder. And this is a picture
of the same area I took on a small single-engine
plane a few years ago. You can see the same crack
in the big bell mountain there to the left. And Schultes worked for 40 years
with his Colombian colleagues to have this established
as a national park. It finally happened in the ’80s. And it’s the most spectacular
landscape in the Amazon, filled with these
lost world mountains. It’s also home to three
tribes of isolated peoples. It’s also a treasure trove
of biological diversity. It’s also home to the
biggest collection of pre-Columbian paintings
ever documented– thousands, and thousands, and thousands
of pre-Columbian paintings. And let me show you
what we’ve been doing to help protect this area. So as I said, Schultes, with
his Colombian colleagues, set it up as a national park– that’s the green core area– in the mid ’80s. And we have been working with
our Colombian colleagues– not just the government, but
the local indigenous tribes, the contacted tribes– to expand this. So here you see the expansion
done to the southeast, which is actually indigenous
area, to provide a buffer so bad guys can’t get in there
and make a mess of things with gold mining
or deforestation. And here you see even
more recent expansion to protect the people,
the forest, the plants, the animals, the paintings,
the uncontacted tribes. And this is a
ceremony in Bogota. That’s the Colombian
president, President Santos, very proudly holding up the
proclamation he just signed. That’s Minister Murillo, the
African-American minister of the environment. On the other side
is Carolina Gil, our director of the
northwest Amazon program. And then next to the
president is Liliana Madrigal, who is our vice president
and co-founder– to enact this decree. So what does it
have to do with us? Where is this? Anybody recognize this photo? Napa. You’re worried about
fires in the Amazon? You should. You should also be worrying
about fires in the Arctic. You should also be worrying
about fires in Napa. It’s all the same thing. The wine industry is $40
billion a year in the US. And it’s threatened
by climate change. And what you need to know and
remember about climate change is that the number
two cause of carbon being released
into the atmosphere is forest destruction. And most of that is taking
place in the tropics. So we need to worry
about the fate of these indigenous peoples. We need to worry about the fate
of these uncontacted peoples in these forests. First and foremost, we need
to worry about it because it’s the right thing to do. Conservation,
first and foremost, is an ethical exercise,
in my opinion. It’s not about new
treatments for cancer. It’s not about new
treatments for depression. It’s not about new
biodegradable pesticides. It’s the right thing to do. The second reason we need
to worry about conservation abroad and at home– it’s in our own
interest to do so. We all need new
medicines, we all need new agricultural
products, we all need new biodegradable products. We all need clean
air and clean water. I firmly believe that
the fate of these people and their forests
is our fate as well. Thank you again. [APPLAUSE] Again, I want to thank
everybody for inviting us here, especially Melissa for
midwifing this visit. We have had a partnership
with Google for many years. It’s been very valuable
to us on many fronts. And I’m here to say we want
to continue that partnership, that we know that we
can’t do it ourselves. We know the indigenous
peoples can’t do it ourselves. And by building these
types of unusual alliances, it makes all of
us more powerful. We took one of the paramount
shamans of the Koguis to Google HQ in California
and said, you speak. We want them to hear from you. And when he gave this
beautiful speech– which I think is on YouTube– at the end, I said, now, you
can ask him anything you want. And I’ll never forget
the first question. Somebody raised
their hand and said, what do you think of Google? And he looked at them and said,
everything here is very square. Because the Koguis
build round houses. So I don’t think that was the
answer they were expecting. But it’s quite unforgettable
in its own right. Now, I’m going to ask Brian
and Isidoro to join me because we’re here as a team. And we invite any
questions you might have. And sometimes a question
occurs to you later. But I want to encourage this
free flow of information. We have a very bright
bunch of people here. I know, by virtue of the
fact based on where we are, that you may have ideas or
approaches that we don’t have. And I said, we are looking for
help with some of this coding, some of this program. When you’re in the
not-for-profit world, it’s the opposite of
the for-profit world. The for-profit
world– you’re trying to build a better mousetrap
and put it in a black box. That’s your
competitive advantage. But for us, it’s
just the opposite. We want to build these tools
and have them used far and wide. Because the whole
point of this is to protect this
biocultural diversity. Does anybody have any questions? AUDIENCE: You’re doing a
lot for the Amazon, which is tremendous. And more people should
join the initiative. I was wondering
what you’re doing for other untouched
masses of land– like for instance, Myanmar or
some of the areas in Africa. Are we going there and
trying to save them before governments
and people start to butcher that land as well? Or is it just the Amazon? MARK PLOTKIN: Why don’t
you speak to that first? Brian? BRIAN HETTLER: Sure. So you’re absolutely right
that the protection of some of these other intact ecosystems
in other part of the world is vital. Our focus as an organization–
it started in the Amazon– we’ve since expanded to other
areas, mostly in Colombia. We’re currently working in
Antioquia and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in
the Caribbean coast, which are our two major work
areas outside of the Amazon. So for us, we’re
focused on South America and always partnering with
indigenous communities. I guess the number
one criteria are in the invitation of
the local partners to come in and collaborate
on conservation projects with them. MARK PLOTKIN: We all know
the term “mission creep.” And we set up these
organizations to avoid that. Because there’s a lot of demand
for our approach, which we’re happy to teach people to use. But I don’t want
to start working in the Sahara, or the
Sahel, or with the Pygmies, because we have a mission
that we’re trying to focus on. So we kind of fudge a little bit
by working with other tribes– as Brian said, some of
the work with the Koguis. But all primary
forests everywhere need to be treated
as our seed capital. If you guys haven’t been
to northern New York state and seen those forests
protecting those reservoirs, you should. And it’s obviously in
everybody’s interest to protect them. BRIAN HETTLER: One
thing to mention is that we are designing
the Terrastories application to be
usable by communities throughout the world. So it’s being designed to
be adaptable to any kind of languages or
things like that. So we do see that
platform as having potential uses with other
tribal peoples across the world to help protect some of
their traditional knowledge. So I think that’s one way where
some of the same methodology can be carried over to
other parts of the world. AUDIENCE: So you talk a lot
about your collaboration with the Colombian
government, which is amazing. I wanted to know
what, if anything, you’ve been doing with the
Brazilian government as well. MARK PLOTKIN: I’m going to
turn the Colombian question over Isidoro, who is Colombian. But we always try to build
alliances and work with people where possible. Now, there’s no
hard-and-fast rule. For example, we’re partnering
with the church in Suriname to fight the jaguar trade. And we’re fighting with
a church in Colombia over some treatment of
some indigenous peoples. So we look for
alliances where we can. But you have to be
nimble and flexible. And before I turn it
over to him on Colombia– AUDIENCE: My
question was specific about Brazilian government. MARK PLOTKIN: Yes, I’m meeting
with the Brazilian minister of the environment next week. This is not a
natural ally, but I’m open to a free and
fair exchange of views. So it remains to be seen
what is possible in Brazil. I’m not overly optimistic,
but I’m hopeful. Let me put it that way. But why don’t you
talk about Colombia. ISIDORO HAZBUN: Well, also
with regards to Brazil, I think the issue that
is key is allying oneself with subnational governments
and technical agencies. So for example, with regards
to mapping or land rights, we’ve expanded a
lot of our capacity. And we’ve become
leaders in the region, and therefore for example, FUNAI
and INPE in Brazil as well. So we’re building a network
there with technical agencies and supporting them. At a political side with
some national governments– so for example, the state
of [INAUDIBLE] as well. So I think there’s
a key opening there with subnational
governments, rather than the national entity as a whole. And that’s what ACT
is doing as well– furthering that strategy there. And last but not least, civil
servants and bureaucrats– the political leadership
moves back and forth. But bureaucrats and
civil servants stay there and they build know-how. So that’s further
an additional focus we’re taking on in
Brazil as well– supporting local bureaucrats
and civil servants, which are also very
much threatened by the violence
against defenders and with what’s happening
against environmental defenders in South America
and Central America. MARK PLOTKIN: Colombia? ISIDORO HAZBUN: So in Colombia,
the same strategy there. And we’ve advanced a lot. With about half of the land
rights of the lands titled to indigenous groups in
Colombia in the last 10 years were thanks to the
Amazon Conservation Team. AUDIENCE: Thank you
guys for coming. I really appreciate it. I have two questions. First is, for
everyone in the room that came to see you guys
speak, what’s the biggest thing that we could do to
support what’s happening in the Amazon
today, specifically, and then also the great work
you guys are doing generally? Second question a
little more fun– what is the most interesting
plant medicine research happening today? And feel free to be
liberal with that. MARK PLOTKIN: The
first thing that needs to be done to protect the
type of things I was showing you today is not that different
from the first thing that needs to be done right here at home. That is, to know and to care
and express your opinion. Conservation never
was a political issue. Conservation was started in
this country by a Republican– Teddy Roosevelt. The second
most important conservation president we ever had
was also a Republican. Who was that? Richard Nixon. Endangered Species,
Marine Mammal Act. So it was only with the
advent of Ronald Reagan that this became
politicized and was seen as a Democratic issue– a left-wing issue. I mean, really? Do people not care about
clean air and clean water? So voting for people who talk
and care about the environment and voting against people
who don’t is very important. They always say work at home,
but support stuff overseas. So you can support our efforts. It’s easy to do. Our website is Amazonteam.org. Like I said, I think we’ve got a
longer-term working partnership with Google than any other
rain forest organization. In terms of the most
interesting plant medicine– I mean, how long have you got? That’s a much longer lecture. I would have to start
out with ayahuasca, which is the ultimate plant medicine. Or it’s not called ayahuasca
in many of the areas working in Colombia. It’s called el remedio–
“the medicine.” And it’s tremendously exciting
to see academia seizing on this and creating this new
center based on this. And we were really set
back for decades, because of the over-sensationalized
approach to this that came out of the ’60s. But like any medicine, it
doesn’t have all the answers. But like any good medicine,
it’s got some of the answers. And I think it’s got some
very powerful answers. But mind-altering
substances– entheogens– that release the god within
are not limited to plants– like I gave the
example of the frog– are not limited to amphibians–
like I gave the example of the fungi– the magic mushrooms. And I believe that
we will be finding more as time goes along. But that’s based
on two practices. One is protecting
that biodiversity. And two is honoring,
protecting, and listening to the indigenous peoples
who know these things best. AUDIENCE: Hi. This is actually a good
segue to the question that I had about sustainability. So as we discover
these amazing medicines and as they become more
well-known and popular, the demand is going to increase. So do you have
recommendations that you make for creating a sustainable
practice around those? ISIDORO HAZBUN:
Well, first of all, I think it’s fundamental to
be responsible in consumption and responsible in travel. As you might have
heard recently, there is a flight shame– issues related to traveling
as much and tourism. So I think it’s
fundamental that when you are looking at these plants
and looking at these medicines, as well, and trying to
go to the root place where they’re produced,
be really responsible and know where you’re
consuming them as well. There’s issues related to
erosion of cultural traditions due to this increasing demand
for such types of products. So one of the things is– same as Mark said– is learn and become
aware and know where you’re going and
trying these products. MARK PLOTKIN: You know,
ironically, ayahuasca is something of a weed. It’s quite easy to grow. I’ve seen it growing
wild in Hawaii. That being said, there
are some of the shamans that we work with at ACT that
complain of seeing planeloads of the stuff being shipped out. So don’t think
just because you’re using something natural– A, it’s good for you and
can’t be harmful, or B, it’s sustainable
because it grows. So as Isidoro said,
the idea of being sustainable consumers– and that
means everything from Amazonian hallucinogens to
medicinal plants at home. So there’s a great
learning curve that we all need to be on
in terms of making sure that our footprint– carbon
and otherwise– on the planet is as small as necessary. AUDIENCE: My question
is, how much more land do you think we need to set aside? How many more millions
of acres until we have a buffer barrier around
the most sensitive areas? And one of the things that
always fascinated me were, within these parks
are these regions where species generate at a
much faster rate than anywhere in the world. It does not surprise me. When we first went to
Suriname, [? Bosco’s ?] father, the primatologist, had
discovered three new primates– little pygmy monkeys, were they? MARK PLOTKIN: Yeah. AUDIENCE: So there’s
so much more out there. And I just wondered, how
much more acreage would you like to see? Would you like to see
all the parks connected? MARK PLOTKIN: Well,
EO Wilson at Harvard, who is really the preeminent
biologist for our time is calling for 50% of the
planet to be left alone– left in protected areas. Protected areas can
be private wood lots. Protected areas can
be national parks. Protected areas can be
indigenous reserves. So we have a good
working figure. And one of the things
I enjoy about New York is to see, in a sense, how
many people can live well and comfortably
together, which takes the pressure off a
lot of ecosystems as long as it’s managed well. It doesn’t mean that
everybody crammed into an urban environment
lives healthy and well. I’m sure most of you have
been to Mexico City or Rio and see the slums that
are more characteristic of the third world than are here. So it’s not that
simplistic like, just let’s get everybody out
of the forest and put them in an urban environment. That has to be
managed well, as well. But there’s enough
degraded land, there’s enough deforested
land, to produce all the food we need. We should be embarking on
a tremendous and aggressive tree-planting program
around the world. The Ethiopians, I think,
have the best record in launching a
million-tree planting in a short period of time. And so, protecting a
certain amount of areas is very important. But it has to be managed,
it has to be protected. And we have to worry about
what’s going on outside. Tom Lovejoy, famous
biologist who’s on the board of the
Amazon Conservation Team said all wildlife
management is essentially really just people management. BRIAN HETTLER: So in terms
of number of hectares, I think it’s difficult
to quantify just due to the scale of the Amazon. Now, this is a rain forest the
size of the continental United States. Some of these national
parks that exist are the size of states
in the United States. These are huge territories. I think something you
mentioned with connectivity is one of the most
crucial issues. And we need to be not only
creating these protected areas, but also connecting them
with protected areas and with indigenous reserves. So this initiative that we’ve
really been focusing on– establishing corridors
of conservation in the Andean Amazon area
and also extending that down into lowland Amazonia. So we need to start establishing
these large-scale ecological connections so that as
climate change starts impacting the ecosystem,
that species are going to be able to move around
and adapt to the conditions. But this idea of
connectivity– it can’t be done just by
drawing it on the map, circling protected areas. But it needs to be done at a
grassroots level of working with communities– working
with them to help them manage their own lands,
plan their lands, so that they’re able
to connect the forest patches on their
lands and create these large-scale linkages. But building it from
the ground level and rolling it up–
not the other way of top-down corridors. That’s kind of how
we see it as creating some pristine protected
areas, but then empowering all the communities
around the outside so that these areas can
be better protected. MARK PLOTKIN: So thank
you all once again. Thanks to Melissa. We look forward to continuing
our collaboration with Google. Thanks again. [APPLAUSE]

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  1. 40:23 : true, but it's not as if the environment was part of Nixon's agenda, is it ? He was pressured both by a growing number of environmental activists and by the Democratic majority in Congress (House + Senate). Furthermore, he vetoed the Clean Water Act in 1972.

    More broadly, when I think of Google, I think of servers, computers, cell phones, so-called 'smart cities', etc. … all of which require huge amounts of copper, tin and lithium, only to be found through mining (mainly in Africa, for now, which makes the first question all the more pertinent). And, while I think the collaboration with Google laid out in this video is interesting, I also think tech companies should focus on ways to drastically reduce waste and planned hardware obsolescence… if they actually want to meaningfully contribute to the preservation of pristine environmental resources and indigenous tribes, that is.

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