TEDxBerkeley – Maria Fadiman – Finding Balance: People, Plants, and Culture in the Amazon

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Hiyah! Whack whack whack whack whack. Whack whack whack. Whack whack whack. Ahh. Yeah. (Laughter) So people say,
“What do you do for a living?” And I say, “Well, you know,
I’m an ethnobotanist.” And they say, “Oh, that’s cool.
You’re a … you’re a what?” So ethnobotany – ethno, people; botany, plants. And this can take on all kinds of ways, but it’s basically the relationship
between people and plants. And this can be in the form
of fiber, food, construction, medicinal, ritual. And then there’s some uses
that are hard to define. Usually when I go out and I work
with a group in the rain forest, when I leave, they like to give me
a little something. So sometimes it’s a banana
or some palm fruit. And there was a group, and I’d been working with them
for quite a while, and we were really very close, and as I was leaving, the eldest daughter
came down out of the hut, down the bamboo stairs, and she was carrying a duck. (Laughter) And she gave me the duck,
and I took the duck, and I said, “Thank you,
I really always needed a duck.” And you know, the duck
is doing this, and I’m doing this – thank you, this is terrific. And I’ve only got – it’s about an eight-hour walk
back to the biological station, through the mud, and there is no way. Now, Don Felipe, who walks with me,
also knows there is no way because he walks
much more quickly than I do, and he goes, and he takes a leaf
and he takes a vine, and he wraps up the duck, and then he flips it
on the back of his backpack. So for eight hours,
I walk behind Don Felipe. I’m walking face to face with this duck. Quack. Quack. (Laughter) That’s ethnobotany. (Laughter) (Applause) So, how I got into this is I was always
interested in conservation, and I didn’t know
very much about science, and I didn’t know very much about,
or anything about the rain forest, so I got myself a job
as a rain forest guide. Hmm. And the very first night when I got there, they said, “Be very careful where you step
because there are poisonous snakes.” And they said, “Don’t reach under
anything because there are scorpions.” And spiders – I appreciate
the role spiders play in our world; I don’t particularly like spiders. And they said, “Just so you know,
spiders are everywhere.” I was like, oh, terrific, good. So I walked to my bed
that night, very carefully, and I laid there, and I put a calendar in my head, and I looked at every day
I was going to be in the forest and a big star on the day
when I was going home. Well, I ended up extending that trip, and I’ve been working
in the rain forest ever since. And once I got how the snakes
and the scorpions and even the spiders and the monkeys
and the plants and the soil – how it all works together
to create this just awesome ecosystem, and then also I got,
well, this is not so scary – I can do this – and then I entered … my cool phase. (Laughter) So the cool phase
didn’t last long, but … (Laughter) It was during that phase –
this is when I got the machete, and oh my gosh, I was like, yeah. You know, I am the rain forest. And I wore it all the time,
and I would whip it out, and I would – I really didn’t actually do much with it, (Laughter) but I did wear it, constantly. But it was also during this time when I got who the really cool
people were out here. And these were the people
who had taught me about how the snakes
and the monkeys and everything – how all that goes together. And then I realized if I’m going
to look at this ecosystem as a whole, if I want to conserve it, I have to include the people
who live there as well. So, my angle on this
is through sustainability. I was walking one with Don Porres, and we’re walking along,
and he says, “Toucan,” and I look up, and toucan –
it’s a big, beautiful toucan. I look over my shoulder, and there he is. Boom. Boom. Oh. And he walks over: “Dinner.” But who am I to say
what he should eat for dinner? I’m not. But in terms of sustainability, unless we have tons and tons of toucans,
then that’s not sustainable. So I wanted to look at, How could you use a resource
and continue to use it? That led me to ethnobotany. And one of my first projects
that I did was with Marta. I was with an indigenous
group in Costa Rica, and there was one girl, Marta,
and she was always scrunched over. She had chronic stomach pain; la infirmita, the little sick one,
they used to call her. And the whole group got together,
the whole village, and they got her
a doctor’s appointment in town. So they pooled their money,
they walked out of of the forest, they walked through the fields. There they caught a bus
to take her to town. At the end of the day,
the rest of us were waiting, and they came up over the field, and she says, “I’m cured.” “I have medicine.” And she opened her hands, and there was a little
crumpled plastic bag with six pills, and on each pill, it said Advil. (Laughter) And I walked away,
and her sister came after me, and she said, “You know, our father used to know
how to cure from the rain forest.” She said, “But we don’t know anymore.” So part of what I do
is I record information so it’s not lost and also to get, What is this connection? You value something if you understand it
and you know how to use it. So I work with trying
to keep that information available to the people who knew it
in the first place. So I’m going use an example today, talking about ethnobotany
in the context of Amazonian oil, which is kind of weird. This is contradictions
that we’re going to talk about, but they’re beyond the ones
I thought I was going to find. Of course, it’s is going to be
kind of weird – a plant used in oil – but there’s far more nuance
to aspects that became clear. So I went with another
National Geographic Emerging Explorer, who was also the person who started
a group called Adventure Ecology. This is David de Rothschild,
who also did his own TED Talk, and what he was doing is he wanted
to raise environmental awareness and do that through art. Now, I was not brought along
for my artistic abilities because I don’t have any, but traveling with artists … This is Orozco, who is
a very famous Mexican artist. He’s so famous that a magazine
has sent a journalist to follow Orozco’s
experience on this trip. So he’s always taking notes,
seeing what Orozco’s doing, and we’re in the helicopter,
about to take off, and you can see Kevin is taking notes on a tortoise. (Laughter) We had been walking through the market, and there was a tortoise
that was being sold for soup. Orozco said, “I don’t want
that tortoise sold for soup.” So for three dollars,
he bought that tortoise, and then we, well, on Kevin’s lap, are taking it back out
to the rain forest to set it free. I love traveling
with artists; they’re great. So there we go, just up,
over the rain forest. When people say, “Ah,
you know, it looks like broccoli,” and you look at it – it does, it looks like broccoli. So you’re swish, and then boom! Just right out there is the oil – open oil pits. This was the original
impetus for the trip. And these are well-documented, and there’s various lawsuits
that are going back and forth about them, and again, it was these more nuanced things
that came up that were surprising. So we went and talked to an oil company, one that was considered
more environmental, and it is. They were not responsible
for those open oil pits; they do their oil processing differently. And they were explaining to us how they maintain a very good relationship with the indigenous people
on whose land the’re drilling. And they said, “One of the things we do
is we send in doctors every month.” And they do, and they see
the people for free. And we talked to the indigenous people, and they said, “Yes, yes,
we get the doctors.” And I said, “You know,
it kind of changes things.” And as one indigenous man said, he said, “Before, the snake bit you,
the shaman would cure you. Now it is different. You go to town, and you buy pills.” What I work with is choice. I’m not saying they shouldn’t use
Western medicine; I use Western medicine. But it’s about the dependence. Once you depend on these doctors,
what if the doctors don’t come? What if the oil company pulls out? What if it’s bad weather
and the helicopter doesn’t land? You have no doctor. And in the meantime, you’ve separated yourself
from the natural environment. This is a picture of a Kichwa
medicinal plant bundle. And again, the more removed you are, the less you are going to value
that environment in which you live. So further showing us what a great relationship
they have with the local people, they take us to a traditional village. I’ve got “traditional” in quotes because if you notice
these houses in front, it’s not particularly traditional. And then you can
kind of see one in back; it looks kind of traditional, and it is, but it’s also got blue tarps
that are hanging over it. I live in Florida now, and to me, a blue tarp on your roof means
you have just had a hurricane, and you don’t know how
to fix your own roof. If you are a traditional
indigenous person, you go to the forest, get some material,
and you fix your own roof. So something wasn’t adding up. And then it got very strange. The people began to come out, and they all assembled in front of us
in this little parking lot/soccer field. They clearly have assembled
for photographs before. And we all looked at each other, and one of the photographers, he said, “Well, could we
take a picture in the forest?” And the translator said, “Well,
there isn’t really any forest here.” So they’re taking us to see
traditional forest-dwelling people, but there doesn’t happen to be any forest. So, we get this picture. We find a patch of green. You know, this is what’s really happening. There we are. So, these kids are growing up
working for the company, but they’re parading
as versions of themselves who do not. So we take this in,
and then we get in our helicopters, we’ve got two helicopters, and we take
pictures between them, and that’s great, and talk about contradiction – helicopters run on oil. And they get you where you need to go
pretty quickly, so here we go, and we are leaving the oil territory, voilĂ , there are rainbows, and it’s beautiful, and we’re leaving the oil contradictions. What we’re doing is we’re going south. We’re going to do a comparison in an area
where the oil is not being drilled. So we arrive at the village,
our helicopter lands, and we take off
the photographic equipment, and it takes off. We look around, and our guide says, “We aren’t in the right village.” (Laughter) And we looked at that helicopter. Luckily, they were very friendly;
they were having a village meeting. They invited us in, and you can see he’s wearing feathers
and his face is painted and he’s wearing Western clothes. But whatever they’re doing,
it isn’t for us; we aren’t even supposed to be there. So this is what’s happening
in their culture, and one of the traditional things
they’re doing is they’re drinking chicha. And chicha is made out of manioc –
they’ve got bubble tea down the road, those little chewy things
made out of manioc root, but this, they smash it up
and they ferment it, and then you need a special
ingredient to make it ferment. (Spitting sound) Umm. You don’t just take a sip; you have to drink the whole thing
if you’re going to be polite. And you just showed up
into an indigenous village, and it’s not like you fit in. So they give you one
and you glub, glub, glub, and it is just as disgusting
as you are thinking it is. (Laughter) But after you drink a few of them, and they’re fermented – Kind of, yeah. (Laughter) I’ll take another. So we ended up getting a canoe
to the correct village, and they invited us to be part
of their guayusa ceremony, an early morning ceremony. So in the morning,
we come out and it’s dark, and we arrive at the main hut,
and the elders are seated in a circle, and there’s leaves that are boiling,
the guayusa leaves, on the fire. And they give you a gourd, and you look and you see
nobody has spit in it, and you’re like, “All right.” They say, “Drink another, drink another.” And then you see
some people are peeling off, and you hear this bleh, bleh. And they say, “Drink another,” and you go (Slurping sound) And then the woman next to me,
she’s like, “Come on, now it’s our turn.” So we go to the manioc field,
and she bleh, bleh, bleh, and so I go over, but I’m not
very good at throwing up. So ach, ach, ach. (Laughter) And she says, “Well,
how’s it going over there?” Ack. And she says, “Well,
take a manioc leaf, pick it off and stick it down your throat.” Ethnobotany, right? So I go okay, bleh. Woohoo. Oh yeah, I can throw up
with the indigenous people. And we go and we sit in a circle,
and we analyze our dreams. Now, personally, this is a ceremony
I could totally do without. But for these people,
these leaves are essential. And as one man said to me, he said, “Nobody can live in the North;
that’s where the oil drilling is.” And he said, “We need our trees.” So they get the cultural importance
of having an intact forest. So these people are more traditional, and they are less conflicted. And they’re not an untouched group. So, they’re afraid
of what they see in the North, they’re afraid of the oil drilling and the agreements that are made
between the groups and the company. And they do value
their forest; they get it. And they use oil. This is one of our photographers. He’s looking over the river
in the morning, standing on an oil drum. Hmm. They know about the doctors. They want those too, and they want money. So you have contradictions
and conflicts that are happening, even in the areas
where the oil hasn’t yet come. So this is in London – we’re going to do
an awareness through art. And there was photographs
and a movie, and this is Orozco’s –
he does installation art. And you can see the red on the paper. What that is is that’s the plant
that they use to paint their faces. And you see little blobs on there. That is when Orozco’s painting them, we’re out in the forest,
and they’re fluttering in the wind, and he asked the children, he said, “Could you gather
some stones to put on these so they don’t fly away while they dry?” And the children brought back
pottery shards, and so he incorporated those into his art. So the idea for this
was to get people to care. And in order for people to care, then they start to make a difference. And we can make a difference. We can make a difference
in the rain forest, we can make a difference here, and what it starts with is awareness, so awareness inside of ourselves and the awareness
that we share with other people. And in order to do this, we need to really understand
the whole situation. That means the ecosystem
and the people who live in it. Thank you. (Applause)

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