Interview dr. Mark Plotkin

Izmar: Hi Mark, thanks for taking time for this interview. So tell me, what are you currently involved in?

Mark: I serve as President of the Amazon Conservation Team. We’re on the web at www.amazonteam.org. We are working in partnership with the indigenous cultures of the Amazon to both protect the cultures as well as the rainforest. Outside of national parks, you can’t have rainforests without Indians and you can’t have Indians without rainforests. We have the great honour of working with 7 of the original ayahuasca tribes that taught Schultes the magic plant. He was my mentor and he was the first ethnobotanist, who scientifically described ayahuasca.

I: Can you tell something more about your work, and how it is related to ayahuasca?

M: The Amazon Conservation Team works with 27 tribes and less than a quarter of those are ayahuasqueros, or ayahuasca-drinking people, so we’re not focused particularly on the vision vine. ACT stands for “Amazon Conservation Team,” not “Ayahuasca Conservation Team!” But I think it’s sort of a shamanic circle: the Indians taught Schultes, Schultes taught me, and now, as I said, I have the honour of working with the Indians. It seems like a kind of cosmic payback.

I: The icon Schultes is, how is it to have been working with him?

M: I think that it’s important for everybody to have the right mentor, whether it’s your father or a great teacher or somebody you’ve met in the workplace. I was very lucky to have met Schultes when I was 19 and he really put me on my career path. And I would like to point out that it wasn’t just ethnobotanists who were inspired by him. Take for example E. O. Wilson, who was probably the greatest biologist of the latter half of the 20th century, Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet, or Daniel Goleman, who has quite an audience here in the States as the author of “Emotional Intelligence,” or even the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpientier. Schultes’ impact goes far beyond the ethnobotanical or psychonautic scene.

I: Have you spoken with indigenous people about this psychonautic scene? What do they think about Westerners using their traditional medicines?

M: The ones to whom I have spoken seem mildly curious to mildly annoyed by this. There’s been a lot of controversy here in the United States with people going onto Indian lands and sort of mixing and matching traditions and creating these neo-shamanic rituals. I personally think what people need to do to find spirituality in their lives they should do, as long as it doesn’t have a negative impact on anybody else. There’s a wonderful saying in English: “the right of your fist stops in front of my nose!” I would never be the one to tell people ‘well, you can’t do peyote or magic mushrooms without Indians.” I’m in a very lucky position. I’ve had a chance to do that sort of thing. But I also think we need to be respectful of other people’s cultures in a way that doesn’t harm their culture. So it’s a grey area, and it’s one where a lot of us are still thinking our way through it.

I: Yes, the same goes for me. When I look at the amounts of Banisteriopsis caapi offered on the internet, I’m also concerned about where this comes from. I’m concerned about whether it’s harvested in an ecological way, as well as about what the people who harvest them earn. Not to mention what they think of Westerners using their ancient medicines.

M: It’s a difficult issue. This is a slow growing forest vine, and unless these people are doing it from tissue culture, which I don’t think is the rule yet, they may be having a very negative impact on the wild populations. This is what I mean when talking about a negative impact. If you are destroying somebody’s sacrament, whether it’s communion wafers in the Catholic Church, or whether it’s ayahuasca vine in the Amazon, I don’t think having some third party making a profit on this sort while your sacrament becomes less and less available to you is an acceptable state of affairs. So I do think we need to be very concerned about the impact on wild populations.

There is a healer in Oaxaca, a shaman of the Mazatecs, the tribe that Schultes worked with when he did the research on magic mushrooms in the 1930’s. She told me that, since she was a kid, two of the mushrooms had gone extinct as a result of climate change. When we talk about negative impacts on the environment, negative impacts on indigenous peoples or negative impacts on their practices, we’re talking about over-harvesting, climate change, commercialization, and deforestation. Bad impacts caused by the industrial world can have direct and negative impacts on tribal and/or other poor people around the world.

I: I agree. I think it is interwoven with how ayahuasca is currently presented to the people who don’t know about it yet. This is a difficult issue and one of the hardest parts, if you ask me, about making an informative website about ayahuasca. What do you think about Westerners using ayahuasca?

M: Broadly speaking, it’s exciting that people have discovered this sacred Amazon plant, and furthered their own quest for spirituality because of it. I believe this reflects the fact that Western spirituality is not meeting people’s spiritual needs and so they look elsewhere. It shows that these magic plants of power can open the doors of perception, in some cases.

I regard these neo-shamanic movements as a sort of picking the fruit of a tree whose roots are dying. The roots of the tree are the forest, and the indigenous people that live in those forests. So I would think that at the very least, if you want to engage in these ceremonies, you should be doing so in a way which is respectful, and which gives back to the earth, gives back to the culture and gives back to the forest. It seems to be that anyone who is even interested in ayahuasca should be supporting efforts to protect the Amazon, and supporting efforts to protect the original ayahuasca cultures.

Having said all that, ayahuasca is a phenomenally powerful plant, not to be trifled with. Personally, I would NEVER take this plant on my own – I always have done so under the care and guidance of a Shaman. I say that not out of some ethnobotanical snobbery, but out of genuine concern for people who think this is some cool experience that they would like to have with no potential downside. Don’t EVER make the mistake of thinking this is something fun or entertaining or to be taken lightly.

I: What would be a good alternative for sustainable harvest? Growing your own plants?

M: It’s a difficult question and I do not have an easy answer for that. I do think that one of the great stories of technology, and bio-technology, potentially allows us to relieve some of the pressure on natural products. I’ll give you a story from my book ‘Medicine Quest’. Researchers were working with cone snails to find a new painkiller. They found something that is non-addictive, effective, potentially a billion-dollar market, but there aren’t enough cone snails in the world to meet a billion-dollar market. They went in the lab and they synthesized it. So there’s no negative pressure on the population as a result of this. And so I would hope we would move towards some sort of method which involves more intensive cultivation, more tissue cultivation, whatever it takes so we’re not ripping this stuff out of the forest and not replacing it. And, as I said, ayahuasca is a slow growing forest vine.

I know some people who certainly don’t ever want to take a total synthetic version of ayahuasca. How about giving back? How about helping the people who brought this vine to the world? How about protecting the culture or protecting the forests that produced this vine? These forests are being burned to the ground, these forests are being bulldozed into the ground. Isn’t the sacred about reciprocity, about making the world a better place? Do you really want to be somebody who’s just destroying the world for your own spiritual or material benefit? I would think not.

I: Are you saying that Santo Daime or UDV is involved with the depletion of the ayahuasca vine, if we can even speak of this?

M: I know virtually nothing about where these groups or any other groups are obtaining their plants. All I am saying is this: make sure your connection with this plant has no negative impact, anywhere. Period.

I: Can you tell something about your own experiences with ayahuasca?

M: I wrote a very extensive account of my most meaningful experience with ayahuasca in my book ‘Medicine Quest’. The last chapter, entitled ‘Shamans’, goes into it in great, great detail. I certainly don’t have anything to add to what I wrote there.

I: I read you are researching cannabis as well.

M: Yes, I have a theory that the importation of cannabis into this country had a big effect on the development of music in this country. This is not related to the Amazon Conservation Team, though. It is a personal belief of mine. Schultes always said that the problem with history is that it’s written by historians, not by people who know anything about plants! So they overlooked a botanical component.

For example, the story of the gift of the Magi, the Three Wise Men coming to baby Jesus and giving him gold, frankincense and myrrh, never made any sense to me until I wrote my book on drug-resistant bacteria and I found out that frankincense and myrrh are antibiotic: they kill bacteria. So, through the botanical prism, sometimes you can better understand history that have previously been explained by people that didn’t know their plants.

I: We’re approaching the end of the interview, so thanks again for your time. The speed with which you come up with all your answers is very high. You must give a lot of interviews.

M: I give interviews from time to time, as part of my job is getting the message out. And I love talking about ethnobotany. Schultes said: ‘If you can’t make rainforests, hallucinogens and tribal people interesting, you shouldn’t be an ethnobotanist!”