Circling back to Ps and Ms, both Laurie and I want to express our gratitude to long-time colleagues, conservation activists, writers, and science writing editors Mark Plotkin and Liliana Madrigal of Amazon Conservation Team.
Mark and I share a friendship that goes back to 1985 or so, when he was with WWF and supported cross-border, cross-cultural inventories of endangered indigenous food and medicinal plants through our FLORUTIL project.
I worked with both Liliana and Mark in the earliest days of Conservation International, when they helped shape the conservation communications strategy for our ironwood conservation work and sponsored a CI monograph on ironwood through University of Chicago Press. I remember mentioning to Mark that I though most of the ironwood hidden in bags of mesquite charcoal was going to restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area.
He got excited, and said “Follow the charcoal!” to celebrity chefs,. Within three weeks Alice Waters of Chez Panisse was on the front page of California newspapers announcing that she would no longer use mesquite charcoal in any of her restaurants until suppliers could verify there was no ironwood charcoal in the bags. Within a month, mesquite charcoal use in the Bay area dropped 109-015% and suppliers were willing to shift their sourcing!
One key distinction is important about Mark and Liliana’s work supporting Indigenous rainforest communities in 4 countries that have long-time traditions of using psychotropic plants for healing ceremonies.
Unlike Michael Pollan or Wade Davis, they have invested years on the ground helping these communities conserve not only the habitats where these now-threatened plants grow, but the overall biocultural landscapes and livelihoods associated with sustainable use of all non-timber forest products. In other words, they are neither culturally-appropriating ritual plants nor promoting their uses outside their original cultural contexts, contexts where taita “shamans” carefully guide locally users into utilizing dosages appropriate for their body size, health condition and spiritual maturity.
That is far different than “drive-by ethnobotany” or the unethical sales of cultural ritual events thousands of miles from the original habitats of the plants and ancient practices of distinctive cultures; it cannot be replicated by exporting toads or plants to California, Hawaii, Florida or France and offer “medicine” around resorts.
What Mark and Liliana have more than twenty years of helping communities do is collaborative conservation of the tropical forests, traditional livelihoods and practices with the goal of keeping these elements integrated and alive for local community benefit. They have raised millions of dollars that go directly to the Indigenous communities for their own well-being and for intercultural exchanges for communities facing similar challenges.
For their tireless work in assisting in the building capacity and resilience within the Indigenous communities themselves, they have my deepest admiration.