A digital map of the heart of the Amazon

Original article appears in El Espectador. Written by Mateo Guerrero Guerrero.

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In September 1941, Richard Evans Schultes first arrived in Bogota. That same year, he had finished his doctoral studies at Harvard, after lengthy ethnobotanical research on oliliqui, a seed that according to the Spanish chronicles was used by the Aztecs for divination, and on teonanacatl, a preparation with hallucinogenic fungi that apparently was served in the coronation ceremony of the Aztec emperors and that for years it was assumed lost was confused with peyote.

One morning in Oaxaca, while Schultes was preparing the plants that he would bring back to the United States, a Mazatec man brought him a handful of "holy children," the fresh mushrooms that would compose the first collection of botanical specimens that would rescue teonanacatl from oblivion and that, years later, after the analysis conducted by Albert Hoffman, would lead to the synthesis of LSD and the beginning of the psychedelic era.

Schultes arrived in Colombia at the age of 26, thanks to a research grant that took him to the Amazon River basin with the initial intention of identifying the plants with which the natives prepared poisons used both in fishing and hunting. At that time, curare, which this type of preparation was generically called, was considered particularly promising in the pharmaceutical world for the manufacture of anesthetics.

However, at the end of 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Schultes’ trip had to deviate from its original intention in order to become a scientific mission of the American government in search of alternatives for the production of rubber, a primary resource for winning the war that had just been declared against Japan, Germany, and Italy.

Schultes' expeditions through Colombian territory led him to sail for hundreds of kilometers on the Putumayo, Apaporis and Mirití-Paraná rivers; to collect more than 24,000 botanical specimens, of which 300 were unknown by Western science; and to obtain a privileged knowledge of the life of the indigenous communities and the ritual use they made of certain types of plants.

Because of the importance of his work, and thanks to the fact that much of the ethnobotanical collection collected by Schultes was digitized by the Smithsonian Institute and available online, Mark Plotkin, president of the nonprofit Amazon Conservation Team and one of the many disciples Schultes had at Harvard University, decided to lead the creation of an interactive map to follow the travels of his teacher through the Colombian jungles, narrating the details of the expedition and showing the species that Schultes found at each point of his journey.

For Daniel Aristizábal, an ACT-Colombia staff member who supported the creation of the map, this type of digital tool is "a valuable resource for the academic community, as it offers a novel method for presenting scientific research. Rarely is a text accompanied by a map that changes simultaneously with the story, making the reader feel more immersed in the narrated journey. Also, for those who want more specific or specialized information, the platform offers hyperlinks that lead to academic literature and the original samples collected by Schultes found in the different herbaria of the United States and Colombia."

To make the map, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) worked with ESRI Colombia, a software company that develops applications for the collection, analysis, processing and presentation of geographic information.

On other occasions, ACT has used this kind of virtual tool to map the struggle of the indigenous Kichwa community of Sarayaku in Ecuador to protect their ancestral lands from oil extraction, as well as "Amazon Gold Rush: Gold Mining in Suriname," a map that examines the expansion and impact of mining in Suriname through cartography and digital narratives, similar to that used in the interactive map on Schultes.

At the moment, the map that tells the story of the Schultes expedition has three chapters that will be updated annually and that will eventually include expeditions other than those realized by the American ethnobotanist. The relevance of Schultes as the father of his discipline and his work to teach to raise awareness of other modes of knowledge and ways of life were the reasons why the project was inaugurated.

Like José Celestino Mutis and Alexander von Humboldt, Schultes is part of a large group of non-Colombians who throughout history have been interested in the nation’s natural wealth. For Aristizábal, "it is no coincidence that the first explorers who visited Colombia came from the colonizing countries, who sponsored their expeditions because the logic of describing in order to appropriate is intrinsic to colonialism."

"What is important now is to take advantage of the knowledge that these explorers collected for other purposes, such as the claim of the right of indigenous peoples to manage and protect these resources and territories. With the map, and following the teachings of Schultes, we are working precisely on that, increasing awareness of and increasing the protection of the natural and cultural riches of the tropical forests and the cultures that inhabit them. Everyday Colombians recognize the importance of their forests, but they do not know very well why it is so important to take care of them."

View the story map here: http://amazonteam.org/maps/schultes

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