Conservation of the Biological and Cultural Diversity of the Colombian Amazon Piedmont: Dr. Schultes’ Legacy

Ramírez, Germán Zuluaga
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University of Hawaii at Manoa
Richard Evans Schultes, the father of modern ethnobotany, arrived in Colombia in 1941. Over a period of 50 years, Schultes carried out the most extensive research of his era on the plants and cultures of the Colombian part of the Northwest Amazon. His invaluable work stands out not only for its scientific excellence, but because he was the first researcher to emphasize the important role to be played by ethnobiology in the coming years. Even in Schultes’ time, ethnobotanists across the world were pressed to recognize the importance of focusing on both the conservation of the Amazon jungle and of its inhabitant cultures, societies which serve as repositories of knowledge about many medicinal substances with great potential application for the Western world. Schultes took direct action, strongly urging the research community to cease expeditions having the sole purpose of searching for new medicines; instead, he insisted on the need to train professionals willing to share life with the peoples of the tropical jungles. Dr. Schultes worked to transform a botany increasingly concerned with economic potentials into an ethnobotany with heart. The Amazon piedmont is the world’s region of greatest biodiversity, as well as home to one of the last surviving ancient shamanic traditions, the yagé culture, which comprises five distinct ethnic groups. The yagé culture preserves a comprehensive set of shamanic practices, including the ritual use of their sacred plant, yagé or ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis sp.), alongside a vast knowledge of the jungle and its medicinal plants. With the enthusiastic support of ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, one of Schultes’ dearest disciples and President of The Amazon Conservation Team, we have implemented a program that seeks the protection, recuperation and strengthening of the indigenous cultures of the Amazon piedmont. We believe that their knowledge and practices, as well as their shamanic systems, are extremely important and useful for biodiversity conservation and for expanding the scope of health models around the world. The diverse programs of the Amazon Conservation Team have a common objective: to engender a true intercultural dialogue between traditional indigenous knowledge and Western science. Thus, our program in Colombia has developed an integrated strategy for biodiversity and cultural conservation that includes shamans and apprentices programs, construction of ceremonial houses, planting of medicinal gardens, sacred lands reclamation, ethno-education and sustainable production projects, in each case in concordance with the shamans’ guidance. The culmination of our recent work was the historic gathering of forty indigenous healers from 7 tribes across the Colombian Amazon, surviving practitioners of one of the last great shamanic traditions. The participating elders produced the first code of ethics of traditional medicine of the Colombian Amazon, which was published with the title “The Beliefs of the Elders.”
Ramírez GZ. 2005. Conservation of the biological and cultural diversity of the Colombian Amazon piedmont: Dr. Schultes’ legacy. Ethnobotany Research & Applications 3:179-188.
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