Preserving the local soil - Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice

“Every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down.” - Mark J. Plotkin, PhD

Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice

The old caboclo woman stopped abruptly in her explanation of the plant in her hand and stared to the back of our group, at the tall, sun-browned, shirtless man who had just stepped into her garden.  “Ele é índio?” the old midwife asked excitedly, “ele entende muito de plantas, ervas, remédios?!” The newcomer had been just about to snap a photo of the scene but the force of old woman's reaction startled him into almost dropping his camera. He turned to my girlfriend Amber and I with a confused look, “What did she just say?” 

I chuckled out loud and translated for him while Amber explained to the old woman that no, our friend Kenny was neither a “native” nor from the jungle, that he was originally from Hong Kong and - as an energy trader on Wall Street – Kenny’s particular knowledge of stocks and plants probably wasn’t quite what the old woman was hoping for. The midwife’s mistake was easy enough to understand though: a dark brown, muscular man with long raven-black hair, Kenny looked like a piece of history stepping out of the jungle. In fact, most of the people we had met during our weeklong tour of riverside communities had made the same mistake about Kenny’s heritage.  What surprised me instead about the old midwife’s reaction was that even though practically a medicine woman herself - born and raised in the Amazon - she still seemed desperate to pump an outsider for his knowledge of local plants and medicines.

That incident took place in Cachoeira do Aruã, a small community by the Arapiuns river, west of Santarem, Brazil. Like most of the river communities in the Brazilian Amazon, Cachoeira’s population consists primarily of caboclo: the Brazilian term for a person of mixed indigenous and European descent.  I later learned that that no truly indigenous cultures are believed to still exist in the Brazilian Amazon. I also learned that as the indigenous populations had slowly disappeared or mixed with European settlers, much of the local knowledge had also disappeared, in particular the cultures’ understanding of local plants and medicines.  Outsiders brought in new knowledge and medicines and the local solutions faded back into the jungle: the knowledge to apply those solutions lost with the culture that had once developed them. All of that explains why the midwife had been so excited to see Kenny: he looked like a link to a culture and knowledge that had been lost.

A week after returning from the Amazon, I picked up a copy of ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin’s Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice, a book published in 1993 that chronicled Plotkin’s fifteen-year effort to discover and record local medicines in the Amazon. After my own short trip visiting communities there, Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice captivated me: the book is a beautifully written account of an outsider’s respectful quest to record an ancient and important local knowledge and culture. To have seen face-to-face what Plotkin had feared - the loss of local and diverse solutions in communities that needed them - gave me a lot to think about in terms of our own business forays into communities and cultures in the Base of the Pyramid. In particular, Plotkin’s story highlights a number of important lessons for people working with communities in the BoP.

Lesson 1: Practice humility

Dr. Richard E. Schultes, Plotkin’s old advisor, gave the following description about his former student:

Because he went there to learn from the Indians, [Mark] was able to collect plants, participate in ceremonies and rituals, and share other experiences as few outsiders have been able to do.  One of Mark’s outstanding qualities as field ethnobotanist is his conviction that among the Indians, he is the student and they are teacher.

I find one of the hardest hats to remove while working with communities in the BoP is the hat of an expert. Entering a BoP community can be unsettling and it's easy to cling to the image of being an expert or a teacher in order to feel more secure. On the flip side, BoP communities are used to outsiders coming in to tell them what to do, and many have learned to give the "best answers" to gain whatever reward outsiders might be offering (grants, loans, jobs, services, etc.). This upper-to-lower dynamic makes it extremely difficult to learn what actually goes on in a community, much less build a new business together.  To overcome this requires us to level the playing field and to engineer humility into our engagements, so that communities can understand that outsiders have strengths and weaknesses just like they do.  And as Plotkin demonstrates, one of the best ways to demonstrate humility is to actually go live with a community. There’s nothing like demonstrating how bad you are at a common local task to show people that you’re human.

As part of the Base of the Pyramid Protocol (BoP), my colleagues and I do homestays with families in the communities that we work with; the resulting trust, respect, and knowledge that blossoms from those homestays is nothing short of incredible.  Given that experience, it has always amazed me how rarely well-meaning outsiders conduct homestays, this despite the huge number of NGOs that already operate in those communities. Instead the message that many NGOs and businesses convey to communities seems to be this, “We’re here to transform you, not be transformed ourselves.” 

Lesson 2: Make it relevant

On the other hand, even while practicing humility it’s important to demonstrate to the community that what you’re doing is relevant to them, that you have knowledge and strengths that can help them (just like they have knowledge and strengths to help you).   To gain the local chiefs' approval to study with the communities’ shamans, Plotkin had to convince the chiefs that 1) he knew what he was doing, 2) he wasn’t there to exploit them (or to fool around with their women) and 3) his work would create value for the community.  As a result of Plotkin’s work, the Tirio communities of Suriname now have a handbook of their own medicinal plants in the Tirio language (the only other book in Tirio being the Bible).  Plotkin also set up the Shamans and Apprentices program, a program to support and encourage young people to study under the old shamans and carry on their traditions.  Both these acts helped preserve the shamanistic knowledge of the community, which created tremendous value for the community and for Plotkin’s own work as an ethnobotanist. Often it takes time to figure how to best make your work relevant to community, but if you base your work on on what they have and what you have, on what they need and what you need, then you're much more likely to be relevant. Your chances of success are also much higher if you don’t lock onto a solution before actually spending significant time in a community.

Lesson 3: Open up

Taking part in the local life of a community is a great way to build trust and relationships; it’s also a great way to see things you never would have otherwise.  During his stays in Amazon communities, Plotkin set aside the idea of being a dispassionate observer and tried to participate in local activities and events as much as he could.  Sometimes this meant trying his hand at fishing (using local plant chemicals, bows, and arrows), sometimes this meant snorting the local intoxicant, sometimes this meant partaking in local healing rituals, and often this meant being the brunt of many jokes.  The relationships and knowledge Plotkin gained as a result of his open participation formed the foundation for many of his discoveries of new plants and medicines.  How much you participate as an outsider depends on how much you’re willing to do, but I know from my own experiences that the more that I participate with and open up to a particular community, the more the community opens itself up to me.

Lesson 4: Preserve the local soil

In the Amazon, thousands of years of accumulated knowledge of local medicines and plants has been lost. The opportunity to use that knowledge to create sustainable economies to conserve and grow the Amazon has disappeared - possibly forever - largely because the glitz of the Western alternative seemed so much brighter than the local solution. Plotkin documents this trend in the communities he visited: as Western missionaries and NGOs came in to teach local communities “better” ways to live, but ultimately made the communities dependent on a system that they had little leverage or strength in. Having traded in a deep expertise in their local knowledge to become novices in Western ones, is it any wonder that some communities feel like they can never catch up?

Plotkin reminds us that to preserve local traditions and solutions (and the Amazon itself), efforts have to be made to both conserve old methods and to make those methods relevant to the modern world. At the end of Tales, Plotkin describes a number of his activities to preserve and promote the local knowledge of shamans in the Amazon.  Although the initial business attempt that came out of Plotkin’s work has since foundered (Shaman Pharmaceuticals, which gave up on commercializing drugs based on Amazon plants due to the difficulty of meeting US FDA demands), his work continues via the Amazon Conservation Team, an organization focused on conservation through partnerships with communities in the Amazon. For companies looking to do business in BoP communities, Plotkin’s experience reminds us to be thoughtful before rushing to replace local solutions with outside ones.  After all, silver bullets rarely work like we expect them to and often kill off the sheep in lieu of the wolf. In contrast, a local solution might form the basis of a future innovation or competitive advantage, but that can only happen if local solutions are encouraged not just to survive, but to blossom and to grow.

Summary: a great read for the Amazon and the BoP

In addition to all the above, Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice is just a good read, with beautiful descriptions and historical anecdotes of the Amazon.  Plotkin is quick to point out when he made mistakes with communities, but you also see how quickly he tries to learn and make up for them.  And although the book is now over ten year’s old, his coverage of the history and challenges of the region makes Tales a required reading for anyone looking to work with BoP communities in the Amazon.  And for anyone who’d like to experience living in BoP communities through another person’s eyes - to feel all the tribulations, traumas, and triumphs such work entails – Mark Plotkin’s “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice” is highly recommended.

Additional Resources

  • Mark J Plotkin, Phd - English Wikipedia entry
  • Amazon Conservation Team - working in partnership with indigenous people in conserving biodiversity, health, and culture in tropical America.
  • USAID - Hydropower Energizes Remote Village - Cachoeira do Aruã (literally, Waterfall of the Aruã) was the recipient of a USAID energy pilot project. I got to take a tour of their 50-KW energy facilities while I was there.
  • Projeto Bagagem - (in Portuguese) - a community- and cultural-exchange-focused tourism project in Brazil, with whom I visited Cachoeira do Aruã and other communities along the Tapajós and Arapiuns rivers.
  • Saude e Alegria - (in Portuguese) - a communtity health and happiness NGO based in Santarem, Brazil, also with whom I visited communities in the Amazon.

This article is part of the BRINQ BoP Books Discussions series. Follow the link to read about the series and find other books.