16:36
TEDGlobal 2014

Mark Plotkin: What the people of the Amazon know that you don’t

Filmed:

"The greatest and most endangered species in the Amazon rainforest is not the jaguar or the harpy eagle," says Mark Plotkin, "It's the isolated and uncontacted tribes." In an energetic and sobering talk, the ethnobotanist brings us into the world of the forest's indigenous tribes and the incredible medicinal plants that their shamans use to heal. He outlines the challenges and perils that are endangering them — and their wisdom — and urges us to protect this irreplaceable repository of knowledge.

- Amazonian ethnobotanist
As fast as the rainforest is disappearing -- the people of the rainforest are disappearing even faster. Mark Plotkin works to preserve generations of knowledge. Full bio

Now, I'm an ethnobotanist.
00:12
That's a scientist who
works in the rainforest
00:13
to document how people use local plants.
00:16
I've been doing this for a long time,
00:19
and I want to tell you,
00:22
these people know these forests
and these medicinal treasures
00:24
better than we do and
better than we ever will.
00:27
But also, these cultures,
00:30
these indigenous cultures,
00:32
are disappearing much faster
than the forests themselves.
00:34
And the greatest and
most endangered species
00:39
in the Amazon Rainforest
00:41
is not the jaguar,
00:43
it's not the harpy eagle,
00:45
it's the isolated and uncontacted tribes.
00:47
Now four years ago, I injured my
foot in a climbing accident
00:51
and I went to the doctor.
00:54
She gave me heat,
00:56
she gave me cold, aspirin,
00:57
narcotic painkillers, anti-inflammatories,
01:00
cortisone shots.
01:03
It didn't work.
01:05
Several months later,
01:07
I was in the northeast Amazon,
01:09
walked into a village,
01:11
and the shaman said, "You're limping."
01:13
And I'll never forget
this as long as I live.
01:16
He looked me in the face and he said,
01:18
"Take off your shoe and give
me your machete."
01:20
(Laughter)
01:24
He walked over to a palm tree
01:26
and carved off a fern,
01:28
threw it in the fire,
01:30
applied it to my foot,
01:31
threw it in a pot of water,
01:33
and had me drink the tea.
01:34
The pain disappeared for seven months.
01:37
When it came back, I went
to see the shaman again.
01:40
He gave me the same treatment,
01:42
and I've been cured for three years now.
01:44
Who would you rather be treated by?
01:47
(Applause)
01:50
Now, make no mistake — Western medicine
01:53
is the most successful system
of healing ever devised,
01:55
but there's plenty of holes in it.
01:58
Where's the cure for breast cancer?
02:01
Where's the cure for schizophrenia?
02:03
Where's the cure for acid reflux?
02:05
Where's the cure for insomnia?
02:07
The fact is that these people
02:09
can sometimes, sometimes, sometimes
02:11
cure things we cannot.
02:13
Here you see a medicine man
in the northeast Amazon
02:15
treating leishmaniasis,
02:17
a really nasty protozoal disease
02:19
that afflicts 12 million
people around the world.
02:21
Western treatment are
injections of antimony.
02:24
They're painful, they're expensive,
02:27
and they're probably
not good for your heart;
02:30
it's a heavy metal.
02:32
This man cures it with three plants
from the Amazon Rainforest.
02:33
This is the magic frog.
02:37
My colleague, the late
great Loren McIntyre,
02:39
discoverer of the source
lake of the Amazon,
02:42
Laguna McIntyre in the Peruvian Andes,
02:44
was lost on the Peru-Brazil
border about 30 years ago.
02:47
He was rescued by a group of
isolated Indians called the Matsés.
02:50
They beckoned for him to follow
them into the forest, which he did.
02:54
There, they took out palm leaf baskets.
02:58
There, they took out these
green monkey frogs —
03:00
these are big suckers,
they're like this —
03:03
and they began licking them.
03:05
It turns out, they're
highly hallucinogenic.
03:07
McIntyre wrote about this and it was read
by the editor of High Times magazine.
03:10
You see that ethnobotanists have
friends in all sorts of strange cultures.
03:15
This guy decided he would go down
to the Amazon and give it a whirl,
03:20
or give it a lick, and
he did, and he wrote,
03:23
"My blood pressure went through the roof,
03:27
I lost full control of
my bodily functions,
03:29
I passed out in a heap,
03:32
I woke up in a hammock six hours later,
03:33
felt like God for two days."
03:36
(Laughter)
03:38
An Italian chemist read this and said,
03:39
"I'm not really interested in the theological
aspects of the green monkey frog.
03:41
What's this about the
change in blood pressure?"
03:45
Now, this is an Italian chemist
03:48
who's working on a new treatment
for high blood pressure
03:50
based on peptides in the skin
of the green monkey frog,
03:53
and other scientists are looking
03:56
at a cure for drug-resistant Staph aureus.
03:58
How ironic if these isolated
Indians and their magic frog
04:02
prove to be one of the cures.
04:05
Here's an ayahuasca shaman
04:07
in the northwest Amazon, in
the middle of a yage ceremony.
04:10
I took him to Los Angeles to
meet a foundation officer
04:12
looking for support for monies
to protect their culture.
04:15
This fellow looked at the
medicine man, and he said,
04:19
"You didn't go to
medical school, did you?"
04:22
The shaman said, "No, I did not."
04:25
He said, "Well, then what can
you know about healing?"
04:27
The shaman looked at him and he said,
04:29
"You know what? If you have
an infection, go to a doctor.
04:31
But many human afflictions are diseases
of the heart, the mind and the spirit.
04:35
Western medicine can't
touch those. I cure them."
04:41
(Applause)
04:46
But all is not rosy in learning from
nature about new medicines.
04:50
This is a viper from Brazil,
04:54
the venom of which was studied at
the Universidade de São Paulo here.
04:56
It was later developed
into ACE inhibitors.
04:59
This is a frontline treatment
for hypertension.
05:03
Hypertension causes over 10 percent
05:05
of all deaths on the planet every day.
05:08
This is a $4 billion industry
05:10
based on venom from a Brazilian snake,
05:12
and the Brazilians did not get a nickel.
05:14
This is not an acceptable
way of doing business.
05:18
The rainforest has been called the
greatest expression of life on Earth.
05:23
There's a saying in Suriname
that I dearly love:
05:26
"The rainforests hold answers
to questions we have yet to ask."
05:29
But as you all know,
it's rapidly disappearing.
05:34
Here in Brazil, in the Amazon,
05:37
around the world.
05:39
I took this picture from a small plane
05:41
flying over the eastern border
of the Xingu indigenous reserve
05:43
in the state of Mato Grosso
to the northwest of here.
05:46
The top half of the picture,
05:49
you see where the Indians live.
05:51
The line through the middle
05:52
is the eastern border of the reserve.
05:54
Top half Indians, bottom half white guys.
05:56
Top half wonder drugs,
06:00
bottom half just a bunch
of skinny-ass cows.
06:02
Top half carbon sequestered
in the forest where it belongs,
06:05
bottom half carbon in the atmosphere
06:09
where it's driving climate change.
06:12
In fact, the number two cause
06:14
of carbon being released
into the atmosphere
06:17
is forest destruction.
06:19
But in talking about destruction,
06:22
it's important to keep in mind
06:24
that the Amazon is the mightiest
landscape of all.
06:26
It's a place of beauty and wonder.
06:30
The biggest anteater in the world
06:32
lives in the rain forest,
06:35
tips the scale at 90 pounds.
06:37
The goliath bird-eating spider
06:39
is the world's largest spider.
06:41
It's found in the Amazon as well.
06:43
The harpy eagle wingspan
is over seven feet.
06:45
And the black cayman —
06:49
these monsters can tip the
scale at over half a ton.
06:52
They're known to be man-eaters.
06:55
The anaconda, the largest snake,
06:58
the capybara, the largest rodent.
07:01
A specimen from here in Brazil
07:04
tipped the scale at 201 pounds.
07:06
Let's visit where these creatures live,
07:09
the northeast Amazon,
07:12
home to the Akuriyo tribe.
07:13
Uncontacted peoples hold a
mystical and iconic role
07:15
in our imagination.
07:21
These are the people who
know nature best.
07:23
These are the people who truly live
07:25
in total harmony with nature.
07:27
By our standards, some would
dismiss these people as primitive.
07:30
"They don't know how to make fire,
07:33
or they didn't when they
were first contacted."
07:35
But they know the forest far
better than we do.
07:37
The Akuriyos have 35 words for honey,
07:40
and other Indians look up to them
07:43
as being the true masters
of the emerald realm.
07:45
Here you see the face of my friend Pohnay.
07:49
When I was a teenager rocking out
07:52
to the Rolling Stones in my
hometown of New Orleans,
07:53
Pohnay was a forest nomad
07:56
roaming the jungles of
the northeast Amazon
07:58
in a small band, looking for game,
08:01
looking for medicinal plants,
08:04
looking for a wife,
08:06
in other small nomadic bands.
08:08
But it's people like these
08:10
that know things that we don't,
08:12
and they have lots of
lessons to teach us.
08:14
However, if you go into most of
the forests of the Amazon,
08:18
there are no indigenous peoples.
08:22
This is what you find:
08:24
rock carvings which indigenous peoples,
08:25
uncontacted peoples, used to sharpen
the edge of the stone axe.
08:29
These cultures that once danced,
08:33
made love, sang to the gods,
08:35
worshipped the forest,
08:38
all that's left is an imprint in stone,
as you see here.
08:39
Let's move to the western Amazon,
08:43
which is really the epicenter
of isolated peoples.
08:46
Each of these dots represents
08:49
a small, uncontacted tribe,
08:51
and the big reveal today is we believe
there are 14 or 15 isolated groups
08:53
in the Colombian Amazon alone.
08:58
Why are these people isolated?
09:01
They know we exist, they
know there's an outside world.
09:04
This is a form of resistance.
09:06
They have chosen to remain isolated,
09:08
and I think it is their
human right to remain so.
09:10
Why are these the tribes
that hide from man?
09:14
Here's why.
09:16
Obviously, some of this
was set off in 1492.
09:17
But at the turn of the last century
09:21
was the rubber trade.
09:23
The demand for natural rubber,
09:25
which came from the Amazon,
09:26
set off the botanical
equivalent of a gold rush.
09:28
Rubber for bicycle tires,
09:31
rubber for automobile tires,
09:33
rubber for zeppelins.
09:35
It was a mad race to get that rubber,
09:37
and the man on the left, Julio Arana,
09:40
is one of the true thugs of the story.
09:42
His people, his company,
09:45
and other companies like them
09:47
killed, massacred, tortured,
butchered Indians
09:49
like the Witotos you see on the
right hand side of the slide.
09:52
Even today, when people
come out of the forest,
09:57
the story seldom has a happy ending.
10:00
These are Nukaks. They
were contacted in the '80s.
10:02
Within a year, everybody over 40 was dead.
10:05
And remember, these
are preliterate societies.
10:09
The elders are the libraries.
10:12
Every time a shaman dies,
10:13
it's as if a library has burned down.
10:15
They have been forced off their lands.
10:19
The drug traffickers have
taken over the Nukak lands,
10:21
and the Nukaks live as beggars
10:25
in public parks in eastern Colombia.
10:27
From the Nukak lands, I want to
take you to the southwest,
10:30
to the most spectacular
landscape in the world:
10:33
Chiribiquete National Park.
10:36
It was surrounded by three isolated tribes
10:38
and thanks to the Colombian government
and Colombian colleagues,
10:40
it has now expanded.
10:43
It's bigger than the state of Maryland.
10:45
It is a treasure trove
of botanical diversity.
10:47
It was first explored botanically in 1943
10:51
by my mentor, Richard Schultes,
10:54
seen here atop the Bell Mountain,
10:55
the sacred mountains of the Karijonas.
10:58
And let me show you
what it looks like today.
11:01
Flying over Chiribiquete,
11:03
realize that these lost world
mountains are still lost.
11:05
No scientist has been atop them.
11:07
In fact, nobody has been
atop the Bell Mountain
11:09
since Schultes in '43.
11:11
And we'll end up here
with the Bell Mountain
11:13
just to the east of the picture.
11:16
Let me show you what it looks like today.
11:19
Not only is this a treasure
trove of botanical diversity,
11:21
not only is it home to
three isolated tribes,
11:24
but it's the greatest treasure trove
11:27
of pre-Colombian art in the world:
11:29
over 200,000 paintings.
11:32
The Dutch scientist Thomas van der Hammen
11:35
described this as the Sistine Chapel
of the Amazon Rainforest.
11:38
But move from Chiribiquete
down to the southeast,
11:43
again in the Colombian Amazon.
11:46
Remember, the Colombian Amazon
is bigger than New England.
11:48
The Amazon's a big forest,
11:50
and Brazil's got a big part of it,
11:52
but not all of it.
11:54
Moving down to these two national parks,
11:55
Cahuinari and Puré
11:57
in the Colombian Amazon —
11:59
that's the Brazilian
border to the right —
12:00
it's home to several groups
12:03
of isolated and uncontacted peoples.
12:05
To the trained eye, you
can look at the roofs
12:07
of these malocas, these longhouses,
12:09
and see that there's cultural diversity.
12:11
These are, in fact, different tribes.
12:13
As isolated as these areas are,
12:15
let me show you how the
outside world is crowding in.
12:18
Here we see trade and transport
increased in Putumayo.
12:22
With the diminishment of
the Civil War in Colombia,
12:25
the outside world is showing up.
12:27
To the north, we have illegal gold mining,
12:30
also from the east, from Brazil.
12:33
There's increased hunting and fishing
for commercial purposes.
12:34
We see illegal logging
coming from the south,
12:38
and drug runners are trying to
move through the park
12:41
and get into Brazil.
12:44
This, in the past, is why you didn't mess
12:46
with isolated Indians.
12:49
And if it looks like this
picture is out of focus
12:50
because it was taken
in a hurry, here's why.
12:52
(Laughter)
12:55
This looks like — (Applause)
12:58
This looks like a hangar
from the Brazilian Amazon.
13:04
This is an art exhibit in Havana, Cuba.
13:06
A group called Los Carpinteros.
13:09
This is their perception of why you
shouldn't mess with uncontacted Indians.
13:11
But the world is changing.
13:15
These are Mashco-Piros
on the Brazil-Peru border
13:17
who stumbled out of the jungle
13:20
because they were essentially chased out
13:22
by drug runners and timber people.
13:24
And in Peru, there's
a very nasty business.
13:26
It's called human safaris.
13:29
They will take you in to isolated
groups to take their picture.
13:31
Of course, when you give them
clothes, when you give them tools,
13:34
you also give them diseases.
13:37
We call these "inhuman safaris."
13:39
These are Indians again
on the Peru border,
13:42
who were overflown by flights
sponsored by missionaries.
13:44
They want to get in there
and turn them into Christians.
13:47
We know how that turns out.
13:50
What's to be done?
13:52
Introduce technology
to the contacted tribes,
13:54
not the uncontacted tribes,
13:56
in a culturally sensitive way.
13:58
This is the perfect marriage of
ancient shamanic wisdom
14:01
and 21st century technology.
14:05
We've done this now with over 30 tribes,
14:08
mapped, managed and increased protection
14:11
of over 70 million acres
of ancestral rainforest.
14:14
(Applause)
14:18
So this allows the Indians to take control
14:23
of their environmental
and cultural destiny.
14:27
They also then set up guard houses
14:30
to keep outsiders out.
14:32
These are Indians, trained
as indigenous park rangers,
14:34
patrolling the borders
14:37
and keeping the outside world at bay.
14:38
This is a picture of actual contact.
14:41
These are Chitonahua Indians
14:44
on the Brazil-Peru border.
14:46
They've come out of the jungle
14:48
asking for help.
14:50
They were shot at,
14:52
their malocas, their
longhouses, were burned.
14:53
Some of them were massacred.
14:56
Using automatic weapons to
slaughter uncontacted peoples
14:58
is the single most despicable and
disgusting human rights abuse
15:04
on our planet today, and it has to stop.
15:08
(Applause)
15:11
But let me conclude by saying,
15:18
this work can be spiritually rewarding,
15:20
but it's difficult and
it can be dangerous.
15:23
Two colleagues of mine
passed away recently
15:26
in the crash of a small plane.
15:29
They were serving the forest
15:31
to protect those uncontacted tribes.
15:33
So the question is, in conclusion,
15:36
is what the future holds.
15:38
These are the Uray people in Brazil.
15:40
What does the future hold for them,
15:42
and what does the future hold for us?
15:43
Let's think differently.
15:46
Let's make a better world.
15:49
If the climate's going to change,
15:50
let's have a climate that changes for
the better rather than the worse.
15:52
Let's live on a planet
15:56
full of luxuriant vegetation,
16:00
in which isolated peoples
16:02
can remain in isolation,
16:05
can maintain that mystery
16:06
and that knowledge
16:08
if they so choose.
16:10
Let's live in a world
16:12
where the shamans live in these forests
16:14
and heal themselves and us
16:16
with their mystical plants
16:19
and their sacred frogs.
16:22
Thanks again.
16:24
(Applause)
16:26

▲Back to top

About the Speaker:

Mark Plotkin - Amazonian ethnobotanist
As fast as the rainforest is disappearing -- the people of the rainforest are disappearing even faster. Mark Plotkin works to preserve generations of knowledge.

Why you should listen

Mark Plotkin is an ethnobotanist, studying the traditional uses for plants in Central and South America forests. He works closely with shamans, community leaders who practice traditional healing techniques using plants and animals, learned over uncounted generations. But when forests are disrupted (by illegal logging, for instance), that knowledge risks being lost. Plotkin's work helps to collect and share shamanic learning, with a twofold goal: to preserve the rainforest by showing its value as a source of yet-to-be-discovered pharmaceuticals.
 
Plotkin pioneered his research working with the Trio Indians of southern Suriname, and has also worked with elder shamans from Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Brazil. He's the author of the best-selling book Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice. With his wife, Liliana Madrigal, he co-founded the Amazon Conservation Team, a group that helps indigenous people purchase and protect their sacred sites.

 

More profile about the speaker
Mark Plotkin | Speaker | TED.com