The Amazon and Global Health – An Interview with Dr. Mark Plotkin

As you are all aware, we’ve been posting a lot of information centered on the pivotal role of the diversity of gut microbes in terms of health and disease. Now it’s time to take a broader view.

In today’s interview I explore how loss of biodiversity on the planet, and specifically in the Amazon, poses a threat to the health of our planet. While we jump from micro to macroscopic in our scope, the underlying principles are remarkably similar, as you will learn from my discussion with my long-time friend, Dr. Mark Plotkin.

Dr. Plotkin was educated at Harvard, Yale and Tufts University. He is a renowned ethnobotanist who has studied traditional indigenous plant use with elder shamans (traditional healers) of Central and South America for much of the past 30 years.

As an ethnobotanist—a scientist who studies how, and why, societies have come to use plants for different purposes—Dr. Plotkin carried out the majority of his research with the Trio Indians of southern Suriname, a small rainforest country in northeastern South America, and has also worked with elder shamans from Mexico to Brazil.


Dr. Plotkin has a long history of work with other organizations to promote conservation and awareness of our natural world, having served as Research Associate in Ethnobotanical Conservation at the Botanical Museum of Harvard University; Director of Plant Conservation at the World Wildlife Fund; Vice President of Conservation International; and Research Associate at the Department of Botany of the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Plotkin is now President of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), a non-profit organization he co-founded with his fellow conservationist and wife, Liliana Madrigal, in 1996, now enjoying over 15 years of successes dedicated to protecting the biological and cultural diversity of the Amazon. ACT has been a member of the United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Roll of Honour since 2002, and was recognized as using “Best Practices Using Indigenous Knowledge” by UNESCO, the United Nation’s cultural organization.

Dr. Plotkin has authored or co-authored several books and scientific publications, most notably his popular work Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, which is currently in its twenty-seventh printing and has also been published in Dutch, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish. Acclaimed filmmaker Miranda Smith produced a related documentary, The Shaman’s Apprentice, featuring Dr. Plotkin’s work, which has since garnered awards at sixteen different film festivals. His children’s book, The Shaman’s Apprentice – A Tale of the Amazon Rainforest, co-authored with Lynne Cherry, was called “the outstanding environmental and natural history title of the year” by Smithsonian.

The author of numerous scientific papers and reports, Dr. Plotkin’s critically-acclaimed book, Medicine Quest: In Search of Nature’s Healing Secrets, was published in early 2000. His most recent book (coauthored with Michael Shnayerson), The Killers Within: The Deadly Rise of Drug-Resistant Bacteria, was published by Little, Brown in September of 2002. It was hailed as “One of the Top Ten Science Books of the Year” by Discover magazine.

In 1998, he played a leading role in the Academy Award-nominated IMAX film Amazon. Time Magazine hailed him as an environmental “Hero for the Planet” in 1999.

Dr. Plotkin’s work has been featured in a PBS Nova documentary,  an Emmy-winning Fox TV documentary, on the NBC Nightly News and Today Show, CBS’ 48 Hours and in Life, Newsweek, Smithsonian, Elle, People, The New York Times, along with appearances on National Public Radio.  Smithsonian magazine’s 35th anniversary issue profiled Dr. Plotkin as one of “35 who made a difference” in November 2005. In March 2007, he was honored with the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens Conservation Award, and In March 2008, Dr. Plotkin and Liliana Madrigal were awarded the Skoll Foundation’s prestigious Award for Social Entrepreneurship.


In May 2010, Mark Plotkin received the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. The degree citation read in part:

For teaching us that the loss of knowledge and species anywhere impoverishes us all; for combining humanitarian vision with academic rigor and moral sensibility; and for reminding us always, with clarity and passion and humor, that when we study people and plants, we are simultaneously exploring paths to philosophy, music, art, dance reverence, and healing.” In October of the same year, the great Jane Goodall presented Mark with an award for “International Conservation Leadership.

Dr. Plotkin’s TED Talk on the protection of the Amazon’s uncontacted tribes has attracted well over a million views and is absolutely worth watching.

So sit back and take this one in. We cover a lot of information.

Be sure to visit The Amazon Conservation Team’s website. This is a nonprofit organization so please consider a donation!

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