Why We Should All Care About The Amazon's Disappearing Tribes

"Western medicine is the most sophisticated system of healing ever devised, but it's still got a lot of holes in it."

Before Mark Plotkin became a successful Amazonian ethnobotanist and rainforest conservationist, he was a 19-year-old college dropout working the night shift at the Harvard Zoology Museum. 

Having developed an insatiable curiosity about the world's flora and fauna as a child, he decided to take a night course at the university led by a famed ethnobotanist. After attending that first lecture in 1974, Plotkin knew that he wanted to spend the rest of his life exploring the rainforest. Within months, he was invited to join an expedition to the Amazonian region of French Guiana as a research assistant.  

Since that first trip, Plotkin has spent decades in South America -- mostly in Suriname, a small country in northeastern South America which is made up for 90 percent rainforest -- studying the plants and peoples native to the Amazon. Most of this time has been focused on tracking and learning from indigenous healers called shamans, whose unique healing practices and knowledge of native plants may unlock the cures to many of the chronic diseases that Western medicine has struggled to treat. Despite the fact that 25 percent of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest plants, less than 1 percent of tropical plants have been analyzed for medical purposes.

In his 1994 memoir, Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, Plokin says that every time a shaman dies, it is "as if a library burned down." To protect these tribes and their vast untapped knowledge, Plotkin founded the Amazon Conservation Team, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the forests and its people. 

HuffPost Science chatted with Plotkin to learn more about ethnobotany, shamanistic medicine, and the urgent need to protect the world's largest rainforest before it's too late. Here's what we learned. 

Do you believe the Amazon holds the keys to unlocking the cures to diseases that Western medicine has struggled to address? 

Western medicine is the most sophisticated system of healing ever devised, but it's still got a lot of holes in it. All you've got to do is look at pancreatic cancer, insomnia, acid reflux, stress -- all these things that Western medicine can't cure -- to realize we need alternatives or additions. As Westerners, we're kind of taught that anything that isn't done by a white guy in a lab coat isn't science, but that obviously isn't true. 

Clearly, systems like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda have done something. I've focused on Amazonian shamanistic medicine for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it isn't written down. So, in some ways it's the most endangered. Is there potential to treat things we can't cure? Absolutely. Is there potential to treat things that we can cure, but with fewer side effects and more cost-effectively? I certainly think so. 

What is so special about the shamanistic worldview and approach to healing? 

Shamanistic medicine is built on two pillars: the chemistry, which is what's in the plants, and shamanism, which is harder to define. Some people say it's the power of prayer, others say it's placebo effect, and others say it's a form of spirituality. I think it's all of those things. The proof in the pudding is that sometimes they can cure things we can't. 

There are 80,000 species of plants in the Amazon -- we haven't tested all of them. And even if we had, did you test the leaves? Did you test the bark? Did you test the roots? Did you do it at the right phase of the moon? There are also different parts of the same plant with different chemistry, and the plant's chemistry can change over time. Think of all the possible permutations. 

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These tribes and their knowledge have been subject to years of exploitation by Westerners. Can you tell me a little about the ongoing challenges these people are facing?

Well, in my TED talk [below] I point out the particularly egregious case of an ACE inhibitor for high blood pressure [developed from the venom of a snake found in the Brazilian rainforest], which is a billion-dollar drug and the Brazilians never got a piece of the action. It's not right.

The idea that the jungles are full of drug companies looking for and developing stuff is not right either. The pharmaceutical industry by and large is not looking at this stuff, which I think is a terrible mistake.

So there's a wrong way to do this, which has been done before, and a right way to do this, which we have an outline for, but it isn't being done.

How quickly are these tribes disappearing, and what can we do to protect those who are still with it? 

It's hard to put a number on it because this happens in the shadows. The statistic that's handed out is that 90 tribes went extinct in Brazil in the 20th century -- and none of those tribes had their botanical wisdom documented. And those are just the ones we know about. What about the ones we don't know about? 

My major priority these days are the isolated and uncontacted tribes. We've identified what think are 14 in Colombia.

They're living in the biggest and most remote stretches of the forest, and even these guys are being impacted by the drug trade and by gold miners. So we protect the uncontacted tribes, we protect the forest, we fight global warming, we keep the rivers clean. It's all the same thing. 

At the Amazon Conservation Team, we've worked with over 30 tribes. We've mapped, managed and improved protection over 70 million acres of rainforest. That's not bad for a small organization. We're small but mighty. 

Also, we see the shamans as the glue that holds the tribes together. If you look at what people do when they go in and mess up a tribe -- particularly missionaries -- they target the shamans. Why is that? Because the shaman is the cultural glue. He or she is the one who holds the culture together. 

It's estimated that one and a half acres of rainforest are lost every second. Why is it so important for us to protect the Amazon?

Well, it's not just about protecting the Amazon. I think it's a mistake to say that we should just focus on this rainforest when the rest of the world is on fire. When you work with shamans, one of the major lessons you learn is that it's all connected -- it's all the same thing. From an ethnobotanical perspective, the rainforest is the biggest source of botanical diversity on the planet. 

I'm an ethnobotanist, so I'm interested in new medicines. But I think conservation is an ethical exercise first. We should be protecting these species just because they're here, not because they have the cure for AIDS -- which they might. 

Shamans have been using hallucinogens as healing tools for generations, and now, we're seeing a huge resurgence of medical and popular interest in psychedelics as therapeutic tools. What potential do you see here?   

First of all, we don't seem very successful in curing mental illness. Psychedelics can help us get into the mind and treat it in a way that we can't with lithium or hypnosis. If this stuff seems to work, and in the hands of experienced practitioners -- which are real shamans, not the rent-a-shamans that are all over the Internet -- then why not honor that, empower it and put it forth? 

I've seen this stuff work. It doesn't always work but there's huge potential there. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Plotkin will be giving a keynote on hallucinogens as therapeutic agents at the Boston Museum of Science on Friday, Oct. 16.