An Interview with Environmental Hero Mark Plotkin

By Loraine Van Tuyl, PhD

Have you ever asked yourself what you were born to do? Wondered what dreams and goals you have yet to chase and catch in your life-time, and what the great dream-catchers amongst us know that we don't? Are they anything like the rest of us or are they in a league of their own?

My earliest inklings of a calling occurred when I began to catch glimpses of mischievous spider monkeys, luminescent blue Morpho butterflies, bright macaws, rumbling river rapids, mysterious drumming rituals, and boisterous card-games over hut-covered grave sites at the edge of the Amazon rainforest in my native country, Suriname. Their siren-like allure, mercilessly pulling and tugging at my heart strings ever since I was a little girl, was so powerful that I wailed in despair when I discovered that the jungle was off limits to city-dwelling children because of the risks posed by malaria.

Fortunately, my family's get-away, four acres of land in Saramacca that my parents had leased to cultivate fruit trees and vegetables, was along the coastal strip where savannah and jungle merged, providing me a magical playground of sheer delight and wonder that entertained and satiated me most weekends of my formative years.

Donned in black, oversized rubber boots and smeared with fresh garlic to prevent grass lice from settling into the clammy crevices of my body, I victoriously defeated tall, sharp green blades with my rusty machete and relished in my care-free invincibility. Even occasional sightings of snakes, crocodilians, giant bugs, shrimp-sized coconut tree worms, and startling bats were a treat, heightening my senses and appreciation for the magnificent wild life – whether bold or shy, mesmerizing or hair-raising – that was playing peekaboo all around me.

Then out of no-where, life pitched me the first major curve ball. The turbulent after-math of the 1980 military coup uprooted many families, including my own, through its deadly overshooting, and replanted us in Miami three years later. There, along with my new girlfriends, I experimented with my fancier options – make-up, high heels, late night partying, and mall hopping – in a desperate attempt to achieve the same top-of-the-world high, freedom, belonging, sensuality, and sacred connection that I had experienced in the rainforest.

Luckily, our calling and dreams don't come with an expiration date and tolerate a considerate amount of derailment. Heck, they patiently wait for us, even cheer us on as we reluctantly approach, tackle, and endure test after test to get ourselves back on track. In time, we do get better at hitting the curveballs along our path, and with enough practice, become stronger, clearer, and more skilled in recognizing them and turning each of our setbacks around, sometimes even catapulting them out of the park.

Today, many detours, twists, and turns later, my California-based earth-wisdom healing practice as a holistic psychologist, depth hypnosis practitioner, and shamanic healer may seem very different than my earliest experiences and anticipated dreams, but just one look below the surface reveals that my daily work now is the product of the original sacred seeds of purpose and passion that I've been tending to ever since I was a young child.

So is my almost two-decade role as one of the leaders of the San Francisco Bay Area Surinamese Association (SF BRASA), which offers immigrants from Paramaribo, Suriname's capital, surrounding towns, and a few remote villages in the rainforest ongoing social support, enrichment, connection, and a much-longed-for taste of home. Over the years, BRASA has co-sponsored several educational events and multicultural exhibits (i.e. a prestigious UC Berkeley guest lecture series by our beloved national treasure, author Cynthia McLeod, a celebration and study of the impressive literary works of the prolific late author Edgar Cairo, a museum exhibit of authentic Maroon furniture, carved goods, traditional embroidered dress, food, and much more) that have enlightened and elevated both American and Dutch audiences as well as the Surinamese community in the US by deepening our awareness of our rich ancestry.

It was only a matter of time before Mark Plotkin, President of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) and I would cross paths given our shared interests and concerns regarding the alarming and parallel split between modern society, the natural world, and our divine nature, and the at-risk sacred relationships between the indigenous people of Suriname (and about thirty other indigenous tribes in neighboring vicinities that ACT serves) and the quickly vanishing Amazon rainforest. Interestingly, he started his field-work in Suriname's rainforest in the early 1980's precisely when I began my “field-work” in the concrete jungles of the US.

When Mark visited a BRASA event with Amasina, a well-known and astute Trio shaman from Suriname, about a decade ago en route from a fundraising event, he had already been heralded by Time magazine as "Environmental Hero for the Planet." This was just one of the many prestigious conservation awards that he's accumulated over the past 30+ years for his dedicated service and for generating ingenious environmental solutions to empower Amazon tribes, such as the Trios and Wayanas of Suriname. ACT has trained them in partnership with the Central Office of Cartography to use GPS systems to map and guard more than five million acres of land that covers almost the entire southern region of Suriname (!).

This vast area includes their villages, hunting sites, cultivation areas of medicinal plants and crops, sacred sites, and stretches of rich natural resources. The hope is that these lands will be legally protected from unauthorized intruders, chemical polluters, miners, and many other greed-driven, short-sighted takers, venture capitalists, and/or business opportunists from the capital, neighboring countries, and countries on the other side of the globe, all trying their luck within this “free-for-all”, densely forested, mountainous, and almost impenetrable area that friends in the city endearingly refer to as the “Wild Wild West.” These detailed maps – made first and foremost by the Indigenous tribes themselves – have been key in setting the stage for constructive and collaborative negotations regarding this land and the fate of the Trios and Wayanas.

Despite these jaw-dropping achievements, all the result of one man's quest to protect the birthright and resources of the indigenous people and keepers of Amazon tribal wisdom, ancient practices, and plant expertise, Mark was to BRASA members just one of us, a friend who understood the nuances of Surinamese history, food, culture, and challenges, but more importantly, who shared our strong unspoken bond with her jungles, rivers, mysterious secrets, and breath-taking wildlife. Over the years that followed, our support for ACT's work consisted of raffle ticket winnings from many social events, not the group's deep pockets, and genuine appreciation for literally and figuratively putting Suriname on the map, for recording sacred plant wisdom in the Trio language, for setting up a clinic and a shamanic apprenticeship program within the village, and so much more.

To our bewilderment, just a few weeks ago, someone from Paramaribo visiting remote southern Suriname posted on Facebook that White Americans led by a Mark Plotkin were intending to “steal” plant wisdom and make a fortune of Amasina, who was scheduled for another routine trip to CA to once again engage with fundraisers and donors, like ourselves. This rumor, enhanced by a picture and caption portraying Amasina as an "simple" “naive,” and “ignorant” Trio man “about to sell his secret formula to treat cancer for a trifle,” spread so quickly that it wasn't clear what was more unnerving – the false accusations triggered by the “suspicious” appearance of an indigenous shaman about to travel to the US, or how quickly flocks of people gobbled up this loaded, stereotypical tale, and spit it back out in the national news and to their feeds as if they'd cross-checked the facts and actually had black and white proof in hand, or, the very least, had some personal experience with the Trios, Amasina, Mark, or ACT.

All this transpired online while I was typing up Maya Angelou's inspiring poem “You may write me down in history with your bitter, twisted lies. You may tread me in the very dirt, but still, like dust, I'll rise” for my very first newsletter to express my deep appreciation for the powerful lessons that she has gifted us in her lifetime.

Without a shadow of a doubt, there was some sort of inexplicable, serendipitous connection between the incredible Maya Angelou, for sure already risen to an even higher realm, Mark on the east coast, and myself on the west coast of the US. What were the odds of learning about this incident as a brand-new social media user who intentionally stayed away, bothered that so much of our human complexity gets overshadowed by our best or worst highlights, snapshots, and hashtags? What was the likelihood of this to happen right after I announced my clear intentions to use my social media presence as a sanctuary for healing, integration, and wholeness?

Quite accustomed to incredulous guidance along my path, I couldn't help but wonder – what was the message and learning in this for me? This was clearly a curve-ball, one that I was familiar with, but its loaded charge and potential scope of damage was way out of my league. Even if this was just a case of Mark getting caught in cross-fires of racial mistrust, the result of grave historical oppression and modern-day exploitation by both Surinamese people and foreigners (equally infected by the greed virus today), the final outcome was still a vicious, unwarranted attack that he now needed to confront. This attack was not only on Mark, ACT, and the many local constituents of ACT that have effectively served hundreds of people with an impeccable track record, but it was also an attack on the indigenous people themselves, implying that they are incapable of making good decisions about the fate of their tribe, their culture, their forest, and their wisdom.

I asked my spirit guides what could be happening on a higher level. Do Master Dream-Catchers and Environmental Heroes in the bright lime light get pitched harder and meaner curveballs to match their kindness and generosity, as if darkness is upping the ante to offer a growth and teaching opportunity that would be of equal caliber as the light? Hence the connection to Maya Angelou who was masterful at whacking vicious curveballs out of the park?

And what was the test and challenge for me in aligning myself with my higher purpose? Now, even more than ever, I wanted to retreat back in my shell – why would anyone want get out in the world trying to be of service when this can happen to you?

My fears could have easily been fortified by blind loyalty to my fellow Sranan man and oema based on shared nationality, race, sex, ancestral history, and the like, or I could, like Maya seemed to remind me, look beyond the transparent layers of our outside packaging, social conditioning, life experiences, and status, and trust what I saw with my own eyes.

And then what? Do I speak up and share that, ironically, one of ACT's primary achievements is protecting the intellectual and property rights of the indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest – way before any one us had a clue what all that entailed – and risk being pegged as a White-washed American for “taking the wrong side”? Or do I remain quiet and use as excuse “this is not my business”? Or let my “healthy” paranoia and suspicions go berserk because “you never know . . . “?

Knowing that the secret formula to whacking below-the-belt curveballs is blasting them head on with truth and light, I had only one feasible option. One thing led to another, and light quickly took the upper hand. Mark saw my attempts to stop the rumor mill by directing people to ACT Suriname's homepage with evidence to the contrary in Dutch ( Together, we puzzled over the unwavering confidence some people had in the false speculations despite the availability of contradictory facts.

RIght after my first newsletter went out around this time, it was apparent that Mark, even in the midst of personal crisis, still looked for places where he could be of help, where he could offer his mentorship and support for my writing career, always attempting to level the playing field. I appreciated that no matter how many negative attacks were unfairly directed at him, he remained committed to Suriname and his Surinamese partners, be they Trios in the rainforest or BRASA SF in California.

When he asked “Hey, if you want to interview me at some time for your newsletter, if that is something that would benefit you and your readers, let me know. I'd be happy to help,” I was positioned to catch this perfected-pitched kind ball with both hands. So interview I did:

Mark, to begin with: What exactly is an ethnobotanist?

An ethnobotanist is simply a scientist who studies the relationship between people and plants; in other words, you could study ethnobotany with a farmer in a cornfield in Iowa. My pal Gary Nabhan studies dry land agriculture of the indigenous peoples who live on both sides of the US-Mexico border and has written several excellent books on the subject. I, however, was trained by the great Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Schultes who studied the people and medicinal plants of the northwest Amazon. Inspired by his example, I chose to focus my studies on the ethnobotany of the northeast Amazon while my colleague (and fellow Schultes student) Paul Cox spent much of his career in American Samoa.

What are your reactions to the vicious curveball and accusations that you were somehow "stealing" plants and information in southern Suriname?

When I first went to southern Suriname in 1982, nobody was interested in ethnobotany, including the Trios themselves. They had been “missionized” – taught that their medicine and much of their culture was useless and backward. In fact, they were forbidden to practice shamanistic medicine. Many people – including the Indians themselves (!) – laughed at me, saying this stuff isn’t very effective and the White man’s medicine is always better. I replied that it is good to have a written record of one’s history and culture, whether you use it or not. And I promised to return their knowledge to them, written in their language – a promise I am very proud to have kept! The whole process was documented in detail in my first book, “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice.”

Several times over the past 33 years, I have been in the village when somebody came through from the outside – usually Paramaribo, Belgium, or Holland – telling people that “this White man must be up to no good.” Almost always, the Indians replied, “He is our friend and his people come here to learn, listen and help.” These people who question our motives seldom return.

As of today, my organization (The Amazon Conservation Team) has been working in Kwamala for almost twenty years. We are one of the major employers – based on small scale projects that are culturally friendly and environmentally sensitive and (as a not-for-profit organization) earn no profit from these opportunities. In partnership with the Surinamese government, we have improved educational opportunities, improved water quality, provided cartographic training and trained Indians as Indigenous rangers so they could patrol and protect their rivers and forests – a win-win situation both for the Indians and for Suriname.

The idea that we are stealing anything or are trying to steal something is a sensational falsehood created by suspicious minds, nothing more. In fact, I have worked over the years with all of the great Kwamala shamans, most of whom died long ago. If I hadn’t written down this info and helped the Indians to transfer their knowledge to later generations, it would all have disappeared by now.

How long have you known Amasina and what is your relationship like with him? The Trio villagers?

I met Amasina on my very first visit in 1982. At the time, he was not considered a shaman or an ex-shaman – he used to come by my hut asking for pananakiri epi – bakra dresi – White man’s medicine!

The moment he came out of the “shamanic closet,” fifteen years after we met, was in fact captured on film. In the documentary “The Shaman’s Apprentice,” I am being treated by the last of the Okomoyanas when Amasina takes the plants from him, and begins to chant to heal my affliction. From then on, he was regarded as the second leading healer in southwest Suriname after the Sikiyana Akoi, who passed away a few years ago. (By the way, with the sponsorship and guidance of the Amazon Conservation Team, Akoi’s wisdom was recorded by Akoi’s son and son-in-law – no Sikiyana info had ever been recorded before).

With the passing of Akoi, Amasina became Paramount Shaman. He has in fact been to the States many times, always for fundraising purposes and always accompanied by urban Surinamers 24/7. The idea that there was anything nefarious about these visits is absurd, a fact which is easily checked with his fellow Surinamese travelers.

We strongly believe that indigenous peoples can and should speak for themselves. We believe that donors and potential donors should hear from the Indians themselves. In fact – just last week – we took both a spiritual leader and a political leader from the Kogi tribe of Colombia to address Google Headquarters in person – how cool is that?

Thinking that indigenous (or semi-indigenous) peoples should not have the opportunity to hear and speak for themselves overseas is – to me, at least – a racist concept.

You obviously have gathered a lot of “privileged information” over the decades from working closely with indigenous shamans who have entrusted you with this information. What do you do with it?

The main repository is in the “Trio Epi Panpira,” the Trio Plant Medicine handbook that is kept and used as a reference in Kwamala – just where it should be. Even when I mention some of these plants in my books, I obscure the name, the preparation, the dosage or the use so no one could use this as a “lead” in the laboratory.

In fact, one of the many reasons I work in a conservation organization and not an academic institution is because there is virtually no pressure to publish technical information.

Some people may criticize ACT as another “White savior” endeavor that only disempowers the indigenous people and instills the belief that they can't fend for themselves. How would you respond to such attitudes and why do you think the indigenous people in the Amazon need the help of organizations like ACT?

There is a school of management theory that well reflects the thinking and practice of the Amazon Conservation Team. It is called the “Oz Theory” and the basic tenet is this: there is no Wizard of Oz – if you want to get back to Kansas, live a better life, create sustainable incomes, meet the challenges before you, etc. etc., you have to do it yourself!

What that means for us is that we aren’t there to ‘save” the Indians: we couldn’t if we wanted to. We are there to listen and learn, help and train, encourage and advise. The ultimate decisions are theirs, but they should be informed decisions. We all know of cases where somebody showed up in a village somewhere offering the chief lots of money, promising lots of jobs. Well, we know what happens after the forest is all cut down and the Indians can’t hunt or grow their crops, and we all know what happens when the river is full of mercury and the Indians can no longer safely drink or fish . . .

So again: our job is to work in true partnership with our indigenous colleagues to help them make informed decisions and help them confront the challenges posed by the outside world in a constructive manner.

How could cultural differences complicate matters and distort the perspective of all involved and the shared goals for your presence there?

In some places – particularly those that suffered from severe colonial exploitation – culturally-ingrained layers of resentment and suspicion sometimes linger. There are some people who still think in stereotypes: all white people are evil, all Indians are helpless and/or lazy, all Chinese people are something, something, and all urban Surinamers are good - blah blah blah – what nonsense! Among those with such pre-conceived notions, the notion of a “white man” devoting his life to a non-profit, higher cause may be difficult to believe.

Like I always tell the Indians: “bribi sa joe sjie, no sa joe jere”: “believe what you SEE, not what you hear.” I have kept all my promises to the Trios, and both my organization and I continue to work there. If I was seeking some secret potion or potions, I would have moved on long ago – remember, most of the great Trio and Wayana shamans are long gone. I run a NOT FOR PROFIT – that is what we are and who we are!

What do you get out of doing this work if you are not out to make a quick buck, and on top of that, risk all kinds of attacks, not only on your reputation, but also your life?

For an ethnobotanist, being with tribal people and their plants is a profoundly spiritual exercise. We don’t want to be on Wall Street, we don’t want to be lawyers in a courtroom or doctors in an operating room – this ethnobotanical research is what we were born to do.

Learning from our colleagues and helping them as they navigate the many challenges thrown at them by the outside world is a philosophical and spiritual calling. I knew this as soon as I set foot on the Kwamala airstrip over 30 years ago.

At ACT, we refer to this as the “spiritual boomerang effect” – the more you help these people, the more effort you make, the further you go, the bigger the emotional and spiritual fulfillment you receive . . .

Thank you, Mark, on behalf of SF BRASA, I would like to extend you, your wife, Liliana Madrigal, and the entire Amazon Conservation Team a bigi brasa (big embrace) for all that you've done and endured for the indigenous people of Suriname and throughout the Amazon rainforest to not only benefit Suriname but the world. Knowing the REAL you and the work that you do is truly inspiring and fulfilling, and a blessing I hope that my Sranan man and oema (country-men and women) will have the privilege and pleasure to enjoy if they don't already.

The big lesson that I'm taking away from all this is – if we don't whack through our own entangled inner jungle and lianas to find the sacred mystery deep within ourselves, we will continue to project it onto something else in fashion, something or someone else that seems vulnerable, sacred, and better at holding what's dear, and at-risk of extinction, precisely what's often disowned or inaccessible to us. Right now it's the “exotic” indigenous people – after first devaluing and massacring many of them, we now exalt and objectify them and their practices, want to save and rescue them, keep them in glass cages, get a taste of their secret, and/or exploit or steal their healing powers for our benefit without any intention of giving back or leveling the discrepancies in access and excess. Truly HEROIC are the wisdom warriors and beacons, who despite these incomprehensible ongoing assaults continue to fight for balance, harmony, clarity, release, and sacred connection with the Great Mystery to ensure their survival and equal rights to thrive with any partner willing to do the same.

No matter which jungle we were raised in, whether or not we are the ones bitterly and fearfully throwing curve balls because we are clouded by the past, pained by our unfulfilled dreams and potential, or uninformed and too prone to believing hypervigilant rumors, or whether or not we are the ones being unfairly targeted and needing to withstand the heat as soon as we step into a lime light or enter a brighter and higher center stage – we each as individuals and as a species are presented with numerous daily opportunities to bring out our inner Hero.

By Loraine Van Tuyl, PhD, CHT, the Sacred Healing Well's founder, holistic psychologist, spiritual teacher, and shamanic healer. She also is the coordinator of the SF Space Clearing Society and an ordained minister at the Foundation of the Sacred Stream.