Q&A with the creators of the ‘Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes’ story map

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Richard Evans Schultes was a Harvard professor, a scientist, an explorer, a writer, and a photographer. He is often referred to as “the father of ethnobotany,” a field of study that focuses on indigenous cultures and their use of plants.

Schultes first ventured into the Amazon rainforest in 1941 and spent the following decades researching how indigenous peoples use plants for a variety of purposes: as medicine, in rituals, and in more practical applications. Throughout his career, Schultes collected more than 24,000 plant specimens — primarily in the Colombian Amazon — including at least 300 species that were then new to science. More than 100 of those species have been named after Schultes, as is a 2.2 million-acre tract of protected rainforest in Colombia.

The Amazonian Travels of Richard Evans Schultes is a new “story map” created by an Arlington, Virginia-based NGO called the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) that lets anyone explore Schultes travels, discoveries, and photos through an interactive online resource.

“In our map journal, we retrace Schultes’ journeys, exemplify his vast botanical collection — a great legacy to science — and explore the natural and cultural context of the environments he traversed, then and now, impressing upon us the immense importance of their conservation,” according to ACT.

Schultes died in Boston in 2001 at the age of 86. In an obituary, the New York Times called him “a swashbuckling scientist and influential Harvard University educator who was widely considered the preeminent authority on hallucinogenic and medicinal plants.”

Mongabay had the opportunity to speak with Mark Plotkin, an ethnobotanist who is president and co-founder of ACT as well as a former student of Schultes’, and Brian Hettler, a cartographer who serves as GIS & New Technologies Manager for ACT, about the Schultes story map’s origins and the impact they hope it will have on the future of conservation.

Dr. Richard Evans Schultes in the Amazon. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Mongabay.com: How did the idea for the Schultes project come about and who’s behind it?

Brian Hettler: The first idea for this project began over four years ago. I had recently joined the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) when Dr. Mark Plotkin, the president of ACT, and I began trying to determine the precise location of a spectacular dome-shaped mountain in the Chiribiquete Mountain Range in Colombia known as Cerro Campana. Schultes had climbed Campana in June 1943, when he discovered previously unreported ancient cave paintings and took one of his most famous photographs where he sat perched on top of a mountain with sheer cliff faces in the background. This area of Chiribiquete hasn’t been explored by outsiders since Schultes, and the location wasn’t marked on any maps, so Mark, our Colombian colleague Germán Mejía Londoño, and I used aerial photos and satellite imagery to identify Cerro Campana. This was the first part of Schultes’ travels that we mapped. After that I was hooked on learning more about Schultes and the Amazonian landscapes and cultures he researched.

Another major inspiration for the project occurred about a year later when I was travelling in the Putumayo department of Colombia conducting mapping fieldwork for ACT with Inga and Kamentsá indigenous communities. I was living with a Kamentsá family at the time, and spent the evenings in a hammock reading Wade Davis’ fantastic biography on Dr. Schultes: One River. It was inspiring to read about Schultes’ 1942 travels in that same region of Putumayo as he studied the medicinal use of plants by Inga and Kamentsá communities, brilliantly brought to life by Davis’ detailed and vivid writings. As I read One River in the field, I recognized many place names where Schultes had travelled around Mocoa and the Sibundoy Valley, and mapped those out.

Mapping Schultes’ travels became a fun historical detective game for Mark and I. We combed through historical maps and documents to find approximate locations of the settlements and geographic features that Schultes had noted in his specimen records and field reports, and cross-referenced those notes with aerial photos, high-resolution satellite imagery, and elevation data to create a detailed database. As we began to amass a sizable amount of data, we were struck by the incredible distances that Schultes had covered on his travels. We thought that we could add to previous work done by Davis and others by telling Schultes’ story using a place-based narrative. We decided to make a fun, interactive map following Schultes’ travels through the Amazon, utilizing the ‘Story Map’ templates developed by the GIS software company Esri.

Mongabay.com: Can you tell us a bit about the process of creating the map and the many resources it pulls together?

Brian Hettler: As Mark and I continued our research, we soon discovered that an incredible amount of Schultes’ herbarium specimens, academic papers, and even field notebooks has been digitized by Harvard and the Smithsonian. The project evolved from a travelogue to a more comprehensive educational resource.

First, we added a mechanism for the user to directly access Schultes’ digitized herbarium specimens, which also allowed us to map Schultes’ travels with even more precision. Next, we pulled together key information from Schultes’ academic papers and combined it with more recent botanical and ethnographic research, as well as whatever interesting related historical and cultural maps that we could find. Finally, we tried to weave together all of this information with the narrative of Schultes’ travels, drawing from stories that Schultes had personally told Mark as well as Wade Davis’s book One River. Schultes’ remarkable feats of exploration are meant to serve as a vehicle for the reader to learn about the amazing ecosystems and indigenous cultures of the Colombian Amazon.

Mongabay.com: The website contains a description of the project as a “map journal” of Schultes’ journeys in Amazonia. How is the website structured? And can you tell us more about what information regarding Schultes and his research it is designed to present?

Brian Hettler: Schultes rarely kept a detailed field journal in his travels, which has made this project a bit challenging. This map is designed to serve as a comprehensive journal of Schultes’ work that allows the user to experience the full scope of ethnobotanical research by combining Schultes’ initial research, his experiences in the field, and the results of the research he later published in academic journals.

The map is designed to foster a sense of discovery, using interactive features to reveal maps and other information to the reader. We strove to replicate the feeling of combing through a dusty historical archive and spotting a fascinating map, or the thrill of discovering a new species of plant amidst the difficulties of tropical rainforest travel. More than anything, we hope to convey the constant sense of amazement and admiration that Schultes expressed for the incredible botanical knowledge possessed by Amazonian indigenous tribes.

The name was also fitting because the map utilizes a ‘Story Map’ template called a “map journal,” developed by Esri. That name seemed fitting for this project.

Mongabay.com: What do you hope this “map journal” will ultimately achieve?

Brian Hettler: As a professor at Harvard, Schultes’ vivid descriptions of Amazonian tribes inspired hundreds of students to follow careers in biology, anthropology, medicine and conservation. We hope that the map will engage new audiences to learn about the incredible landscapes and indigenous cultures of the northwest Amazon. We want Schultes to continue to inspire future generations to care about protecting the Amazon rainforest and its peoples, just as he has inspired us.

Mongabay.com: Where all did Schultes travel in Amazonia and who funded his work? Where did he publish his findings, primarily? How was his work received in his day?

Mark Plotkin: Schultes is best known for his travels and work in the Colombian Amazon, although he also conducted field work in Oklahoma (with the kiwis) and in Oaxaca, Mexico (with the Mazatecs), as well as in Brasil, Ecuador, and Peru — most of this is detailed in the current map.

His work was funded by Harvard at the outset but I believe he later received substantial federal support.

Brian Hettler: Schultes primarily traveled in the northwest Amazon, mostly in Colombia and Brazil but also in Ecuador and Peru. His journey down the Putumayo River in 1942 in search of plant-based curare hunting poisons (which were revolutionizing surgical anesthetics at the time) was funded by the National Research Council.

His research between 1943 and 1953 was funded by the U.S. government, which had established the Rubber Reserve Company to address critical rubber shortages in World War II following the Japanese invasions of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. His mission was to find sources of natural rubber and later to gather unique varieties of seeds needed to establish disease-resistant rubber plantations in the Americas, where they would be close to home and in more secure countries like Costa Rica.

Unfortunately, much of Schultes’ work with rubber was lost after the U.S. government decided to shut down the rubber program following the end of World War II and with advancements in synthetic rubber. The rubber plantations in Costa Rica were cut down, destroying the repository of genetic materials that could have produced disease-resistant and highly productive rubber plantations in the Americas. This short-sighted decision has left the world’s supply of natural rubber vulnerable to this day: if the South American leaf blight were ever transported to Southeast Asia, it could prove disastrous because natural rubber is still needed for many purposes, including surgical gloves and special vehicle tires.

Some of Schultes’ early research into hallucinogenic plants including peyote, ayahuasca, and psilocybin ‘magic mushrooms’ went unnoticed for many years until the 1960s and 1970s, when renewed interest in his research helped spark what is commonly known as the ‘psychedelic era.’ There continue to be remarkable discoveries into the medicinal properties of these plants. In fact, just this week (December 2016), The Journal of Psychopharmacology published a study on the medicinal value of psilocybin in relieving anxiety and depression in cancer patients.

Mongabay.com: Can you give us some examples of the plants Schultes discovered, and how those discoveries have impacted the world we live in today?

Mark Plotkin: His major “discovery” (of course, the Indians got their first) was ayahuasca — the vision vine of the northwest Amazon which is widely used and studied around the world as a treatment for a variety of “incurable” diseases like depression and PTSD. He also did the scientific description of “yoco” which is employed in the Colombian Amazon as a stimulant and to prevent malaria.

The major impact was not that he found “the cure for x” — which may indeed prove to be the case one day when all his collections are analyzed — but that he helped the world see the rainforest and the indigenous peoples as a world of wonder inhabited by people who had a profound knowledge of these most complicated of terrestrial ecosystems. A Harvard professor who said indigenous peoples know more than we do — 50 years ago! — was a visionary who was way ahead of his time.

Brian Hettler: I echo Mark’s sentiment that one of the most important results of Schultes’ research was helping to raise awareness on the incredible botanical knowledge of indigenous peoples. Schultes was outspoken in this belief, which preceded by decades the very modern sentiment that indigenous peoples are the ideal conservation partners given their knowledge of the forest and cultural values.

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