Above is a sobering and thought-provoking and -- yes -- hopeful talk from ethnobotanist and Amazon conservationist Mark Plotkin, entitled "What the people of the Amazon know that you don't," given at TEDx in Brazil in October of 2014.
In it, he addresses many important subjects, all of them interconnected: the threat to the rainforest and the threat to the cultures of those who have lived there and whose ancestors have lived there for centuries or millennia, the relationship between the indigenous cultures and nature contrasted with the disconnect and even hostility towards nature exhibited by modern "western" culture, the shamanic wisdom that has been preserved and passed down in those cultures and the loss of that wisdom as members of the older generation leave this life, and the desire by some representatives of literalist Christian religious groups to convert uncontacted indigenous peoples to their literalist religion.
The issues that Dr. Plotkin addresses so movingly in his talk are important in their own right, as they apply to the specific situation of the Amazon rainforest and its precious ecosystems and the irreplaceable cultures and wisdom of the people of the Amazon. They are also illustrative, I believe, of the disconnectedness which has been an unfortunate aspect of literalist Christianity since its inception: by insisting that the scriptures of the Bible are literal and "historically true" in a way denied to all the other sacred traditions of the world, this literalist approach creates an artificial disconnect between the world's sacred traditions (when in fact they are all united by an incredible shared system of celestial metaphor -- including the scriptures in the Bible), and it also creates an artificial disconnect between humanity and the universe, between mankind and nature.
Dr. Plotkin provides powerful examples of the contrast between western medicine and traditional healing techniques derived from a deep connection to and knowledge of the plants and animals of the rainforest.
He provides stunning visual evidence of the contrast between the traditional stewardship of the rainforest and the devastation and destruction wrought by representatives of the western world-system.
And he describes the precarious state of uncontacted tribes. It is no accident that the people who have not come in contact with the source of the "disconnects" described above are described by Dr. Plotkin as the most connected, saying at 7:22 in the talk:
These are the people who know nature best. These are the people who truly live in total harmony with nature.
And it can be argued that the critical element in this contrast between connected and disconnected stems from the relationship to the spirit world, as evidenced by the frequent references to shamans and shamanic knowledge throughout this discussion. I would submit the possibility that the deep connection to and harmony with nature Dr. Plotkin describes among those who have not been absorbed into the western world-system cannot be separated from their sense of connection to the invisible world, a connection which the shamans embody and preserve for those shamanic cultures.
And I would submit the possibility that the disconnectedness from and hostile relationship with nature that characterizes the western world-system is also directly related to the deliberate rejection of the shamanic worldview and denial of the importance of the spirit world that is inherent in the western world-view (a rejection and denial which has remained the same whether driven by literalistic interpretation to the Bible or whether driven by the new western religion of "Science," which I have also called "the ideology of materialism," after a phrase in an essay by Dr. Neal Grossman).
This disconnectedness and hostility towards the shamanic worldview is perhaps most nakedly exhibited in the example of missionaries from literalist Christian religious orders who, as Dr. Plotkin explains at about 13:40 in the talk, "want to get in there and turn them into Christians." One can deduce from the expression in his voice that Dr. Plotkin has personally encountered this attitude and activity from missionaries during his many years of working to preserve the rainforests and the rights of the indigenous people of the rainforests.
Viewed in a wider context, I believe it is abundantly clear that the ongoing desire of some literalist Christians to make contact with and then attempt to convert men and women who have remained outside of the world-encircling western system and who have preserved their original shamanic wisdom and shamanic worldview is part of a pattern stretching back nearly two thousand years. Another example of the manifestation of this desire to spiritually conquer and colonize was discussed in the previous post entitled "Literalists against the shamanic."
Other examples can be found around the world, starting at the center of the Roman Empire in the second through fifth centuries AD and then spreading in ever-expanding circles worldwide from that point, first across western and northern Europe and ultimately across oceans and continents in successive centuries to reach nearly every corner of the planet. The depths of the Amazon are some of the few places that this system has yet to fully reach.
The good news is that this artificially-imposed disconnect is becoming harder and harder to pass off as legitimate or healthy. More and more people are realizing how much has already been lost, and realizing the urgency of preventing further destruction. Courageous individuals like Dr. Plotkin and his fellow-conservationists and researchers are helping to expose the world to this enormous issue, and to express it in terms of human rights, and to enlist aid and create groups and perform the hard work to defend the human rights of those who are most threatened by some of the worst aspects of the disconnectedness that is such a hallmark of the western world-system.
We should all do what we can to support that work and to help to spread that message. The website of the Amazon Conservation Team can be found here.