News - February 9, 2011

'Conservation speaks to our soul'

Mark Plotkin speaks to Woodside-Atherton Garden Club

by Kate Daly

Conservationist Mark Plotkin came to Portola Valley recently to share his message with several hundred women from garden clubs all over the Bay Area. As an ethnobotanist who makes a living out of studying cultures, plants and their relationship, he acknowledged, "You're my kind of people ... conservation is something that speaks to our soul."

The Woodside-Atherton Garden Club hosted his talk and invited five other clubs to join at Woodside Priory in Portola Valley on Jan. 18.

Mr. Plotkin has studied at Harvard, Yale and Tufts, earned a Ph.D., and worked in the past for the World Wildlife Fund and Smithsonian Institution. In 1996, he co-founded Amazon Conservation Team, a nonprofit based outside of Washington, D.C., with field offices in Brazil, Columbia and Suriname.

The organization's goal is to preserve the Amazon by working with indigenous people. One of ACT's major thrusts is to focus on the plants in the rain forest because they are such a valuable source of medicine and food. Mr. Plotkin pointed out how popular items such a coffee and chocolate originated in the tropics, and stated, "Eighty percent of our antibiotics come from nature."

ACT is involved in many different projects. In Brazil, Mr. Plotkin said, his group is trying "to protect the plants by working with the Indians; these are your park guards, the people who know the plants. … They have extensive ecological knowledge."

ACT is helping train the locals to be park guards.

So far, Mr. Plotkin said ACT has worked with 32 tribes covering over 70 million acres of rain forest. In one project ACT is teaching the locals how to use computers to map their land to help establish boundaries and keep track of natural resources. Google Earth Outreach is involved, too.

In another project, ACT is seeking to support shamans and their traditions of using healing plants. "Shamans are the glue that hold the culture together," Mr. Plotkin said.

He spoke about his own mother's experience with pain and seeing a shaman. After the shaman touched her, he promised to mix a potion. A little while later she had her blood pressure measured and it had dropped and the pain had subsided. "The healing is about plants and magic and the spiritual world and placebos."

Mr. Plotkin's books include "Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice" and "Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature's Healing Secrets."

Visit for more information about ACT.


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