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 rainforest. 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.
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.