Mongabay Features

Colombia, ethnobotany, and America’s decline: An interview with Wade Davis

Wade Davis is a celebrated anthropologist, ethnobotanist, photographer, and author who has written thought-provoking accounts of indigenous cultures around the world. These have ranged from The Serpent and the Rainbow about the “zombies” in Haitian vodoun religion to One River about the explorations of famed ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes who studied the remarkable knowledge of traditional shamans in the Amazon. Through his writing, Davis has documented the disappearance of indigenous languages and cultures, the loss of which is outpacing the destruction of the world’s rainforests.

Davis’s newest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia, traces the path of the Magdalena River as a vehicle to tell the story of Colombia, including the nation’s tumultuous recent past, the tenuous peace of its present, and its future promise. Colombia holds a special place for Davis: it trails only Brazil in terms of biodiversity, is geographically and culturally diverse, and has gone to great lengths to recognize indigenous rights and protect its forests. His writing about the country — especially One River — prompted Colombia’s former president Juan Manuel Santos to grant him honorary citizenship in 2018.

Rainforest creek in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
Rainforest creek in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Davis’s research into Colombia, indigenous cultures, and other societies has given him an unusually broad perspective with which to evaluate recent developments in the United States, which he compared to a collapsing empire in a commentary he authored in August for Rolling Stone.

“In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism,” he wrote. “COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken. As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease. The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock.”

Davis talked about his career path, his new book, and the decline of America in an October 2020 interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.