Author and ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin is an outspoken advocate for protecting the plants and people of the Amazon. He has spent years researching the healing potential of botanicals, particularly in the rain forests of South America. His book Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest (Viking Press, 1993) describes his experiences working with the shamans and healers in the Amazon basin, while Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature's Healing Secrets (Viking Press, 2000) describes the many medicines being developed from natural sources, from frogs to fungi.
In the last decade, Plotkin has worked to save not only the forests, but also the unique cultures of the indigenous peoples who live there. He is the founder of the Amazon Conservation Team in Arlington, Va., (www.ethnobotany.org), an organization that has helped fund many positive initiatives in the Amazon. Among these are mapping projects that will allow native groups to gain title to their traditional lands, and funding for a shamans and apprentices program in which younger tribe members are paid a stipend to learn the spiritual and healing traditions of their elders.
Plotkin's work with traditional healers was featured in the IMAX film "Amazon," and is the subject of "The Shaman's Apprentice," a recent documentary filmed in Suriname and released by Miranda Productions Inc. of Telluride, Colo.
Q: Tell us about your new book, Medicine Quest.
A: With Medicine Quest, I picked up with the same people and the same village, and looked at a broader horizon. Since I wrote Tales, you have this expanded interest in natural products. It's the interface between biotech and bioprospecting, with all of these companies developing killer drugs from natural products—not just rain forest plants, but also from rain forest frogs, fungi and temperate plants.
My point is that the rain forest isn't the only place to look, and indigenous wisdom isn't the only place to go. For a variety of reasons, much of the interest is on coral reefs. And for a variety of reasons, it's not on plants being used by local peoples. [Companies] don't want to get into it. It's too difficult.
If you asked the pharmaceutical industry whether the future is in natural products, they'd all say no, the future is in genomics. My answer to that is, 'Where's the cure for cystic fibrosis?' They figured out the genome 12 years ago; I don't see that cured yet. Where's the cure for schizophrenia? Where's the cure for depression? Where's the cure for most forms of cancer? Where's the cure for AIDS? Western medicine doesn't do everything perfectly. There's a lot of holes in it.
In the short term and probably in the medium term, most new drugs are going to come from synthetics, semisynthetics or natural products. I don't think natural products is the be-all-and-end-all that's going to cure everything, but I think [pharmaceuticals companies are] missing the boat by not having a more systematic focus on natural products as a source of new medicines.
Q: Are pharmaceutical companies doing a better job than they used to of working fairly with indigenous peoples, especially regarding intellectual property issues?
A: There's not much happening. They've really pulled back, because they're worried about [intellectual property issues] or because they think there's nothing there. Because they're shortsighted.
I don't see any big programs across the board. And the little bit that's done with pharmaceutical companies, the ethnobotany isn't even second-rate; it's third-rate in some cases. I think the horizons are incredible, but for a variety of reasons the pharmaceutical companies haven't cottoned on to this yet. That's one of the reasons I wrote Medicine Quest. And the fact is, it's easier to do this stuff than ever before in terms of the science; more difficult in terms of intellectual property rights, but that's the way it should be.
Q: In terms of botanical formulations, are there supplements companies that are doing it right? There are plenty of companies using indigenous wisdom as part of their marketing, but do they have the knowledge and foresight to work with native groups? A: Well, let me put it this way. You turn to any magazine and you see, 'From the deep, dark secrets of the rain forest: Maca.' Well, maca is a mustard that grows in the Andes. It doesn't grow in the rain forest that I've ever seen. So that should tell you something.
My beef with the natural products industry is that the botany doesn't seem to be very good. We all use natural products and think, 'It's good for us and it's good for the earth.' Well, how many natural products companies have botanists working for them? How many are doing sustainability studies? I mean, when you take echinacea, you think you're helping the earth and helping yourself; how do we know that echinacea isn't being ripped out by the roots, as often it is in many places? I would like to see some of these companies step up to the plate and say, 'The botany is good and the environmental practices are good.' I'm sure it's being done, but I don't hear that loud and clear. I'd certainly pay more to buy from a company that's doing that.
When I was working on the IMAX film, I was in Iquitos, Peru, and there was an Indian there with a basket full of una de gato, cat's claw. I said, 'What's this?' He said, 'Una de gato, senor.' I said, 'Are you sure?' He said, 'Absolutamente.' I said, 'This isn't una de gato. I know that and, more importantly, you know that. This is mycurium. This is not even the same family as una de gato. What the hell are you doing?' He said, 'Well, we've collected all the una de gato. We pick this stuff because the gringos can't tell the stuff apart.'
Now Iquitos is a major shipment point for the herbal industry. How many times when you think you're getting una de gato are you actually getting mycurium, which is not only another family, but is full of alkaloids? The point here is, I'd be curious to know how many botanists [dietary supplements companies] have on their staffs.
I don't mean to give the impression that nobody's doing it. I don't work with the herbal industry. All I'm saying is that people are always coming to me saying, 'Where do I buy? Which brand is the best? Who has the best environmental practices? Who has the best botany?' The answer is, 'I don't know.' Now, I've been in ethnobotany for 25 years, and if I don't know, somebody's not doing a good job of marketing. The consumers know a lot less than I do, for the most part. A more aggressive campaign to do these good practices and advertise these good practices would be a benefit to everybody. It would give the company a competitive advantage.
Somebody needs to step up to the plate and say, 'Look, I've got five Ph.D. botanists on my staff, three ethnobotanists, we're growing this stuff, we're not ripping it off from nature, we're wildcrafting it in a sustainable manner.' Any company can do that. Now, are they doing it for real? That becomes the issue of certification. But there are trustworthy names in the business that could be making a better case for this.
Q: Una de gato is still the best-known rain forest botanical. Are there other botanicals in the Amazon that have that sort of sales potential?
A: Absolutely. There are a lot of people with a lot of sangre de grado in barrels that they'd love to market. This is a great drug. I mean, the only way this stuff can hurt you is if the tree falls on top of you. It's about the most nontoxic stuff on the planet and it's so useful for so many things.
There are many, many other things out there. The great thing about una de gato—and most people don't realize this—is it's basically a weed. It'll grow in cleared areas. So it's tailor-made to be marketed. You really don't want some slow-growing hardwood in the rain forest that you can cut down to cure X, Y or Z, and then have to wait 70 years for it to come back. You want stuff that'll grow in degraded areas because it comes right back. Una de gato is perfect for cultivation and harvesting. There are other things like that, and that's where the focus should be, not these slow-growing endemic species with a very narrow distribution.
Mitchell Clute is a poet, musician and freelance writer based in Louisville, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 10/p. 78-79