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

Germán Zuluaga Ramírez

Abstract


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.”

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Ethnobotany Research and Applications (ISSN 1547-3465) is published online by the Department of Ethnobotany, Institute of Botany, Ilia State University.
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