The amount of life found in the Amazon rainforest is staggering. Western minds have documented less than half of all plants of an estimated 40,000 species , 10,000 of which are potentially at risk.
These plants each have their own unique habitat, interspecies relationships, phytochemistry, and long-standing relationships with human beings. As the Amazon rainforest shrinks and globalization creeps into the jungle, a deep well of knowledge and wisdom carried by the indigenous of the Amazon is at risk of disappearing.
“Every plant has a story,” says Dennis Mckenna, a researcher renowned for his contributions to understanding ayahuasca and other Amazonian plants.
His project Mckenna Academy, a public benefit and non-profit, has initiated “Biognosis,” seeking to catalog and preserve the incredible amount of information Amazon and the people within it contain.
Most of us are aware of the relentless deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Analysis in 2002 put destruction at over 20,000 square kilometers per year in the 90s.
National Geographic says the number has tempered to around 5000 in recent years, but it’s still too much. The estimates of trees lost are in the billions and animal life in the millions—largely so cattle and soy monocultures can export profits .
Reading the numbers about deforestation sucks and is difficult to grasp. We don’t actually understand the consequences, particularly when considering the loss of biodiversity. Species those of us in the Global North even have names for are being destroyed. While it is theoretically possible to regenerate a landscape, when a species goes extinct, it is forever.
The tribes in the Amazon, however, do have names for the plants. Through this direct connection and experience of nature, a system of knowledge still exists rarely to find alive in today’s world.
“Doctors learned from a book,” says Ignacio Magio Iqushima, a 75-year-old Médcio Tropical. “Not us. We learn from the very root of the plant, taking plants and going into meditation. From there are our wisdom is born.” He says the miracle in the jungle is that “Everything is found — everything — all types of medicine.”
Iqushima’s statement is literal. The Amazon has long provided for the needs of people. Plants are more than food or building materials or even a highly functional system of medicine, but beings integrated into a curandero’s world.
Ethnobotanical explorers have been seeking to catalog the plants and their uses for some time. Dennis Mckenna is one of these explorers and, while grounded in science, acknowledges that the use of Amazonian plants is part of a worldview that lives in the hearts and minds of the people who use them,
Over the years, ethnobotanists have painstakingly gathered and placed plant specimens inside the Herbario Amazonese at the Universidad Nacional de la Amazonia Peruana. The small building in Iquitos, Peru, houses over 160,000 individual dried plant specimens along with vouchers containing details about the collections. This library of plant material is more than a long list of botanical names in Latin. Mckenna says the plant collections are a bridge to a living culture. It is this that Biognosis seeks to preserve.
Long-time curator of the herbarium Juan Ruiz Macedo, who is now preparing to retire. Juan’s encyclopedic knowledge of the herbarium and the plants within it is also information to be honored with preservation. Before Juan’s legacy can disappear, Mckenna Academy is working to create a series of modules aimed at academics about Amazonian plant medicine. The eventual goal is interactive multimedia content along with an immersive augmented reality experience.
Part of this process is to raise money to upgrade these facilities and digitize the specimens for the creation of an online database. By creating a digital catalog of current collections, the dream is to go beyond an online database and create a virtual 3D collection to explore with VR, known as the “Visionary Rainforest.” The team envisions being able to fly through a digital rainforest while calling up details of individual plants.
The dream is to have the app be open source and accessible from anywhere, including the people in the Amazon Rainforest. The platform will also partner with museums, botanical gardens, and other educational institutions.
Part of the effort to educate and raise awareness is the creation of a series of documentaries to further highlight the situation in the Amazon. The first, titled “BioGnosis Bridges to Ancestral Wisdom,” premiered at Dennis’s symposium, the Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs (ESPD), in 2022 and shares the stories of people still working with the plants in the Amazon. A plan for more episodes addressing the impacts of climate change, globalization, and tourism is in the works.
The BioGonsis project is seeking seed funding to fix the herbarium in Iquitos, digitize the plant species, create an online database, film 6-8 documentaries, create academic-level modules, and ultimately realize the end goal of the “Visionary Rainforest” immersive experience.
Through his many trips to the Amazon, Mckenna says he learned to listen to the people who dwell there, and he says, more importantly, to “listen to nature.” He explains that the knowledge of Amazonian people is not separate from the relationship they have with nature. “When a medicine man dies, it’s as though a library has burned down.” And adds, “We don’t know what we are losing.”
There is no doubt that efforts to curb deforestation and climate change by addressing the long and complex list of problems are important. But ultimately, we don’t know what is going to happen to Amazon. What is certain is that we still have a chance to treat the wisdom that exists within it with great respect by doing our best to honor it by making it available for future generations.
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