Save our diversity.Ethnobotany and the uses of plants for medicines.
Wilderness areas around the world are under pressure from human development. While this is true nearly everywhere on Earth because we have so many more people than ever, it is an especially critical problem in the tropical forests of the world.
These forests in equatorial America, Africa, Asia and Australia, are the most biologically diverse regions of the world - home to over half of all the plants, animals and microrganisms on the planet. So, what's the big deal if we clear the forests and trash the place? There ought to be plenty to go around, right? Well, it seems that way, but tropical forests aren't that big. They only cover about 6% of the Earth's land mass and over half have already been cut down. And rain forests are fragile ecosystems. The topsoil is often very thin, and when the rainy season hits an area that has been clearcut, that soil washes away and there are very few nutrients left to help much of anything grow. But that's not even the big problem. The real mixup is that when these areas are cleared, which is every day, we are losing species of plants and animals and microrganisms that we don't even know exist.
There is really good news though. All that biodiversity isn't out there all by itself. Native people have lived in tropical forests for thousands of years, and in many places they still do. In order to survive they have had to derive ALL of their foods and medicines from the forest. We need what they know, and the forests need them to keep protecting the land from intruders; however, the time IS now or never because primative cultures are even more sensitive to change than wildlife.
Ethnobotany is the systematic study of how people of a particular region use local plants. Dr. Mark Plotkin is an ethnobotanist who studies the plants and people of South America. He is a brave and brilliant adventurer and scientist - an explorer for our times. He doesn't collect plants to preserve them in books or just to have them. He collects to know, to save and to connect the resources of a place to the people who know, value and have ownership in that place. He is racing against time.
Tropical rain forests are very difficult places for people to live. Along with the great diversity of plants and animals come myriad diseases and challenges of survival presented by such a hot and humid world. Over hundreds of generations the people living in the forests have solved many of these problems. As Dr. Plotkin says in his book, Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, "when a Westerner looks at the jungle he sees green - herbs, vines, shrubs, trees (money). When an Indian looks at the jungle, he sees the basics of life - food, medicines and raw materials from which to build shelters, weave hammocks and carve hunting bows." Unfortunately, as we lose the forests themselves, we are also losing the knowledge of these people that live not only in, but in harmony with the forests.
Conservation that works also protects people. Traditional cultures still living intimately with nature can show us how and why to protect the forest. As Dr. Plotkin says, "The tribal healers hold the key to un-locking one of the great mysteries of our day and age - how to demonstrate the value of the rain forest in concrete economic terms and, in so doing, provide the rationale for protecting Mother Nature's ultimate creation." These so-called "primative people" know something we have forgotten - that we are part of nature and depend directly upon her generous bounty for our very survival.
If you've eaten a typical American breakfast lately, you were partaking in the bounty of the rain forest. That's right, corn flakes, hash browns, peanut butter, and even hot chocolate would not be possible today if not for the botanical genius of early South American Indians. Even coffee and tea originated in the rain forest - coffee from the forests of west Africa and tea from southern Asia.
So you could say that even those scrambled eggs you ate for breakfast got their start in the rain forest! The ancient Chinese first domesticated pheasants over 1000 years ago, and over time selectively bred them. The chickens we farm today are their descendents.
Even with all its abundance, there are challenges to this agricultural bounty. Today much of the world's economy and the vast majority of its food supply is dependent on only a handful of plants. For example, there are only five major agricultural crops (wheat, corn, rice, potatoes and soybeans), and only another 20 plant species that provide our substantial nutritional needs. The problem with this generally is not that people cannot grow enough of these crops, but that the future of the plants themselves is at great risk.
Take corn as an example. Most of the corn grown agriculturally today is very closely related to all the other corn grown throughout the world. Periodically, fresh, wild genes need to be brought in to create new strains or breeds of corn that are heartier, or more disease resistant, in order to avoid a catastrophic corn blight. However, as the New World tropics are bulldozed and burned, there are less and less genetic options that are available to botanists. In case you don't think this whole blight issue is a real risk, ask anyone you know who is Irish about what brought their ancestors to the New World a century ago.
Steeped in tradition, myth, and the chemistry of the forest, native shaman are the family practitioners for their village.
Plants provide many of our medicines, but there is much more to learn. Scientists have tested the chemical makeup of less than 5% of the 250,000 known plant species.
"The knowledge that a single medicine man holds in his mind is priceless. When a shaman dies, it is like a library burning down."-Mark Plotkin
Many of the foods we eat originated in rain forests. Coffee was first discovered in Africa and is still grown principally in tropical countries.
Dr. Mark Plotkin is an ethnobotanist who studies with shamans, or medicine men, to learn the traditional uses of rain forest plants. His book, Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice, is a remarkable recounting of his work over the past two decades.
It has taken 20,000 years of trial and error for the shamans, or healers, of the tropics to develop their forest medicines. Unfortunately, "One of the first aspects of primative culture to fall before the on-slaught of civilization is knowledge and use of plants for medicine. The rapidity of this disintegration is frightening. Our challenge is to salvage some of the native medico-botanical lore before it becomes forever entombed with the cultures that gave it birth." So wrote Richard Evans Schultes, the world's greatest ethnobotanist, in 1963.
Twenty years later his student at Harvard, Mark Plotkin, took that advice to heart and pursued that challenge, not only by researching the native use of medicinal plants in South America, but by taking a straight-ahead, problem-solving approach to the loss of such vital traditional knowledge. In 1989, Plotkin and his team of tropical biologists working with the World Wildlife Fund, began a project called "The Shaman's Apprentice Program" to encourage local young people to work and study with their village healers and medicine men to examine the benefits of herbal supplements from plants.
Today, through the Shaman's Apprentice Program, a new generation of healers are being trained. And partnerships with drug companies, such as the new Shaman Pharmaceuticals, provide income for indigenous people, help fund programs that protect the forest, and may lead to the discovery of new drugs.
The intention of this new type of "bio-prospecting" is to create a sustainable program that will lead to the long-term protection of tropical forests, rather than the traditional one-time exploitation for oil, gold, timber, or other resources. The Shaman's Apprentice Program is a perfect example of conservationists focusing on a problem and working toward a solution, a solution in which the people of the forest are empowered and included.