Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
December 11, 1999

Botanist to Speak on Rain Forest's Medicinal Plants
Adapted by Garnet 1654 from an article
By MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Tulsa World:

A modern-day botanist, like himself, is a lot like Christopher Columbus, as Mark Plotkin likes to say. And, not just because botanists have made many important discoveries in the field of medicine -- much like Columbus was credited with discovering America.

But because, Plotkin says, "in both cases, the Indians got there first." Don't be surprised if Plotkin spends a lot of time talking about native tribes during his speech to Tulsa Town Hall, the annual lecture series.

Officially, he's supposed to speak about "New Medicine from Nature's Drug Store." As the executive director of the Ethnobiology and Conservation Team in Washington, D.C., Plotkin has spent the last 20 years studying the medicinal value of plants and fungi from the Amazon rain forests.

Medicinal Plants from the Rain Forest

But talking about the "new" medicines means talking about the men who have been using them for thousands of years, the shamans of the Amazon Indian tribes.

As suggested by the title of his 1993 book, "Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice," Plotkin learns about Amazon medicines by venturing into the rain forests of South America and studying directly under the aging medicine men.

"There are hundreds of medicinal plants that have not yet been documented," Plotkin says. "And time is running out to do it."

Fires and industrial logging destroy between 5,700 and 17,000 square miles of rain forest a year, according to various estimates.

Part of his job is to find ways to preserve the plant species that have potential medical uses. And that, of course, means preserving the rain forests.

And preserving the rain forests, in turn, requires the preservation of the native cultures that live there, Plotkin said.

"You always hear about how fast the rain forest is disappearing. But I tell you, the Indians are disappearing much faster."

With them goes much of the knowledge that Plotkin has spent his life trying to gather.

Shamans, for example, taught the world about the quinine alkaloid, which led to the cure for malaria.

To carry on that kind of knowledge, Plotkin has established the Shaman's Apprentice Program, which pays for young Amazon tribe members to return to their villages and study traditional plant medicine with their elders.

The Shaman's Apprentice Program is funded in part with donations from the Tulsa Zoo.

To find out more about the Rain Forest and how you can help save it visit these sites:

The Rain Forest - Index

Let's Go Around the World

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