Amazon Rainforest Conservationists Visit Colgate

Tory Glerum

While environmental awareness, climate change and medicine are extremely broad and complicated topics in and of themselves, Dr. Mark J. Plotkin brilliantly addressed all three in his presentation on Friday, October 3 in Love Auditorium entitled “Indigenous Rainforest Conservation and the Amazon: Is the Sky Really Falling?”

Dr. Plotkin is an ethnobotanist, author and president of the Amazon Conservation Team, or ACT, a non-profit organization whose mission is to work in partnership with indigenous people in conserving biodiversity, health and culture in tropical America. His visit to Colgate was made possible by Ian Starr, ’04, Native American studies major and a current member of ACT. Starr began work for Dr. Plotkin in March of 2005 and visited Anthony Aveni, Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies last spring to suggest bringing Dr. Plotkin to campus.

“We both thought it was a great idea,” Aveni said. “I am delighted that Ian made it happen and that we were able to fund it.”

Dr. Plotkin’s lecture was co-sponsored by the Center for Ethics and World Societies, the Native American Studies Program, the Environmental Studies program and the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. It was preceded by a Brown Bag Lunch at ALANA Cultural Center, during which he discussed “Biodiversity, Shamanism and Google Earth: Saving the Amazon in Six Dimensions.” Aveni said that the presentation at lunch served as a background to his main talk.

At 3 p.m., Starr welcomed students and professors from across multiple disciplines to Plotkin’s lecture.

“Dr. Plotkin is a great fit for Colgate because of the interdisciplinary nature of the ACT’s methodology,” Starr said.

Aveni then introduced Dr. Plotkin as “a researcher and prolific writer on issues that touch American citizens.” He mentioned several of his books, as well as awards and honors he has garnered for his work. Plotkin was named one of Time Magazine’s “Environmental Heroes for the Planet,” in 2001, and has been featured on PBS, FOX, NBC, and the Today Show.

Plotkin’s lecture was in two parts, the first covering the importance of nature and indigenous peoples’ knowledge of nature, and the second covering the conservation of rainforests. Much of his presentation delved into the field of medicine as he discussed how many of our modern day treatments are found directly in nature. For example, the first image on his PowerPoint presentation was of a giant tarantula, and he explained the process in which a particular fungus devours the organism, thereby creating spores that are now essential to the process of transplant surgery.

“The rainforest is being destroyed at a fast pace, which affects us here at home,” Plotkin said. “We have to consider the potential cures that are being lost in the process of the biological holocaust.”

Plotkin mentioned several other drugs and medicines found directly in the Amazon, such as a chemical identified as a muscle relaxant in certain mushrooms, the hallucinogen produced by the skin of one species of frog and the anticoagulants in the saliva of vampire bats. He talked about the importance of gaining the trust of the Shamans, the medicine men and women at the heads of indigenous tribes, in order to learn about the rainforest and its many medicinal possibilities.

“The Shaman is the world’s oldest profession,” Plotkin said. “For the past 35,000 years they have been the ones thought to communicate between the spiritual and natural worlds. Today they combine chemistry and spiritualism to do things our own Western scientists cannot do.”

Plotkin also discussed how the destruction of the rainforest affects climate change, and vice versa.

“The glaciers are melting, and there are more fires, and more deforestation,” he said. “Everything is interrelated. The rainy seasons are getting rainier and the dry seasons are getting drier. The indigenous people of the Amazon have to pay the price for something we have been causing.”

With regards to rainforest conservation, Plotkin said that the indigenous people are ACT’s best allies. ACT has been introducing technologies such as Google Earth and GPS systems to the natives so they can make their own maps, and has facilitated meetings between Shamans of different tribes so that they can share wisdom.

“Our role is to bring together and train the indigenous people to take control of their destiny,” Plotkin said. “We want to work with the natives to protect nature because it remains the greatest expression of life on earth.”

Plotkin finished his lecture with some thought-provoking questions for Colgate students.

“The world is a mess, so you have to ask yourselves as today’s youth, what are you going to do about it? Who causes all the problems, and who are the people that can solve them?” Plotkin asked.

Overall, Aveni was enthusiastic about the outcome of the lecture.

“It was great to see the auditorium filled with students and professors from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences departments,” Aveni said. “I think a lot of students were inspired by what Dr. Plotkin had to say. He was articulate, accessible and passionate about a subject that touches everybody.”