Richard Kahn: Sparking the Amazon Conservation Team 

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Richard Kahn was one of those quiet visionaries—a brilliant lawyer and activist with a profound sense of social and environmental justice and a believer in the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics in healing. Truly, a man ahead of his time.  

At the end of 1995, Richard, who at the time was a trustee of a family foundation, called to ask why we were not presenting a proposal to continue the work that Mark had begun in Colombia focused on strengthening the more traditional uses of ayahuasca with some of the most powerful “taitas” or shamans deep in the Colombian Amazon.  

We were taken aback since neither one of us believed it would be possible to continue the work after a difficult time at one of the larger conservation organizations in which we both worked.  We told Richard we were grateful for the offer but did not have the infrastructure for accepting the funds to continue the work.  With his eloquent deep voice, he adamantly said, “Well, you find a way.  The work is important”.  And with this injection of belief and support, we began the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) with a mission that holds today: work in partnership with indigenous people in the conservation of their territories and traditional knowledge systems (culture, health, etc.) with an integrated holistic approach, as advised by the indigenous Elders who through their ceremonies provided invaluable guidance.  

Today we look back at 28 years during which Richard believed in us and patiently encouraged us to continue, bringing a new conservation paradigm to the philanthropic world.  Our approach, where indigenous people are partners from the start, was a novel idea for many funders and “too esoteric” for others at the time of our founding.  Securing funding was extremely difficult, and Richard would brilliantly edit our proposals to get foundations to support our work. 

Richard Kahn, Mark Plotkin, and Liliana Madrigal
Richard Kahn, Mark Plotkin, and Liliana Madrigal

Because of Richard’s vision, ACT became a pioneer in the field of bio-cultural conservation and has benefitted thousands of indigenous people, their ancestral territories, wildlife and plants, which was one of Richard’s passions.  We’ll miss Richard dearly, but his legacy lives on and I know that, though a tough and often painful task, we made him proud.  Thank you, Richard, and may you continue to look over us. 

To learn more about Richard’s life, and his dynamic pairing of fierce intellect and legal acumen with loving generosity and passions for the environment and spiritual exploration, we invite you to read his obituary here.

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