Miranda Smith: What is an ethnobotanist?
Mark Plotkin: An ethnobotanist is a scientist who studies how people interact with plants. He or she could study a farmer in Iowa, or a shaman in the Amazon. Most ethnobotanists tend to focus on indigenous peoples in rain forest areas because those are the biologically richest areas of the world and the chemically and medicinally least known areas of the world.

Ethnobotany is science and art. There is no handbook that tells you how to do it. You’re working with people, which is always the unknown component. My focus has been conservation of both the ecosystems and the culture.

Miranda: What’s happening in the rain forests?
Mark: It depends where you’re talking about. Rain forests are found on several continents: Africa, Asia, Latin America, including the Caribbean, including the Pacific islands. If you look at a place like eastern Brazil, 98 percent of the rain forest is already gone. If you look at the island of Madagascar, 90 percent of the original forest cover is already gone.

If you look at the northeast Amazon, it’s all still here. Conservation by and large has been a reactive movement - we see a problem, we try and solve it. This[Suriname] is one of the few corners of the world where we can try and head off problems before they become unstoppable or unsolvable.

Miranda: What brought you here?
Mark: I was really interested in following in my mentor’s footsteps in the northwest Amazon and was all set to go to Colombia to work with the Yakuna tribe. My mentor, Richard Schultes at Harvard, came back from Colombia and said, there’s a drug war that’s broken out in that river valley and they’re fishing bodies out of the river. He said, why don’t you go to the northeast Amazon, nobody’s ever worked there? So that’s how I got my start.

Miranda: Tell us about Schultes
Mark: Schultes is the father figure in the science of ethnobotany. He went down to the Amazon in 1941 for six months and ended up staying for fourteen years. His work has impacted everybody from Aldous Huxley to Allen Ginsberg, to E.O. Wilson. He has had a broad impact on our culture. There weren’t many Harvard professors in the early ‘40s who were willing to stand up and say, these guys in penis strings know more than we do. That belief, that fact, has impacted every ethnobotanist who’s followed since him.

Miranda: How did you meet Schultes?
Mark: I had dropped out of college and was working in a museum at Harvard and a friend of mine said, as long as you’re working at a university you might as well get an education. So I got the night school catalog and I opened it up and there was a course on the botany and chemistry of hallucinogenic plants. Well this being the end of the ‘60s, it had a certain appeal at the time. It was this incredible lecture the very first night of these extraordinary scenes of these nearly naked people under the influence of these powerful hallucinogens doing these incredible dances.

It was one slide that did it for me. It was a picture of three Indians in grass skirts and bark cloth masks. He said, here you see three Indians of the Yakuna tribe, all of them are doing the Kai-ya-ree dance to keep away the forces of darkness. All of them are totally intoxicated on a hallucinogenic potion made from the Banisteriopsis liana. The one on the left has a Harvard degree, next slide please.

Well that got me hooked, hooked on plants, hooked on peoples, hooked on the Amazon.

I was so impressed and so taken with him that I ended up taking that course three times.

Miranda: When did you first come to the Amazon?
Mark: My first trip to the Amazon was in 1977. I came down to Suriname actually as a gofer, just following around some other biologists, trying to get the lay of the land, and figuring out if this is really for me.

You know people still ask me, how can you stand to work in the Amazon? It’s hot, it’s humid, there’s mosquitoes, some of these countries there’s lots of political corruption. Well I’m always quick to point out that I grew up in Louisiana, so that’s all second nature to me.

Miranda: Mark, you once told me that your interest in biology started when you were a little kid.
Mark: When I was a kid growing up, like many kids I was fascinated by dinosaurs. I always had plastic dinosaurs, always had dinosaur books. I remember one of the saddest moments of my early life was finding out that there were no more dinosaurs, they were extinct, it was too late, they were gone. Now certainly the complexity of that was something I couldn’t really understand the way that I can now, but it created a certain sadness in me. I think that had something to do with the fact that I’ve been a conservationist ever since then.

Miranda: What is happening with the people of the forest?
Mark: We hear a lot about the disappearance of the rain forest. It’s been on the cover of Time Magazine, it’s been on the cover of The New York Times, but what is less widely realized is that the peoples of the rain forest are disappearing much faster than the rain forest itself.

I firmly believe that if you want to save the forest, the best way to do that is to save the cultures.

If you look at the way that conservation of the rain forest has operated since its inception about twenty or thirty years ago, it’s the idea that people are bad, let’s get them out, let’s build fences around these areas and keep people out. Well these rain forest peoples, be they Indians in the Amazon or Baca peoples in the Congo, have a lot greater stake in these forests than we do in the industrialized world. In the best of all possible worlds it’s enlisting them as conservationists, it’s giving them some technical expertise, some encouragement, a little bit of financial support because I believe that’s the best way to protect the rain forest. And I think what we’ve seen here in much of Suriname is concrete evidence of that.

Miranda: Why is Suriname such a good place for conservation?
Mark: Suriname is a very special place for a lot of reasons. In many ways it’s a microcosm of the tropics. You have the Indians, that’s the Amazon. You have the forest blacks, called Bush Negroes or Maroons, that’s a little bit of Africa. You also have Hindustanis, Chinese, Javanese, all from tropical Asia. So tropical Asia, tropical Africa, tropical South America all coexist together.

You have a very low population density, less than 500,000 people. Ninety-eight percent of country of Suriname is uninhabited. You don’t have these terrible population pressures. You don’t have this terrible poverty which afflicts so much of the rest of tropical America, from Mexico all the way down. There's an opportunity to be proactive here because you don’t have to find other solutions to this all-encompassing human misery. Conservation of the rain forest in Haiti isn't going to happen, it’s too late, it’s all gone.

Miranda: What other benefits to us, in our world, can be had from conservation of the rainforests?
Mark: The greatest killer of our species is malaria. Malaria’s killed more people than cancer and AIDS combined. The front-line treatment for malaria is quinine, which was taught to us by South American Indians. The list goes on and on from there. Some of the hottest leads in the laboratory come from nature, right now.

We’ve just had this weird forty-year period after the antibiotic revolution where people believed for this half century that synthetic chemistry had all the answers. Mother Nature has been inventing weird chemicals for three and a half billion years and we’ve just scratched the surface. The potential is unlimited in the rain forest and everywhere else.

It’s not just a question of what chemicals are out there. There’s also medical practical practices here we can learn from. About half the medical schools in the U.S. have courses in so-called alternative complimentary therapies. Aromatherapy, massage, visualization -these are all shamanic techniques. These guys have been practicing this stuff for 50,000 years. I think we can learn a few things from them too.