For far too long we have been following painful stories about how giant international business interests, especially the oil companies, have destroyed the ways of life of indigenous people and their ancestral lands.
It is exciting—for a change—to share how one Amazon tribe has organized to preserve both the knowledge of their traditional system of medicine and the biological diversity of the critical medicinal plants in their rainforest ecosystem. They continue to live off of the land and when school’s out, parents still take their children to their gardens to teach them how to grow their own food.
The Matsés people, whose ancestral lands traverse Brazil and Peru, have a rich traditional system of medicine. The healing knowledge passed down through generations of shamans was at risk of being lost as their way of life has become increasingly endangered by outside business interests.
Acaté, a nonprofit conservation organization, provided technical support for Matsés elders to record their healing knowledge in their own language. The result is a 1,000-page, two-volume traditional medicine encyclopedia to be used to retain the tribe’s own system of healing with local herbal remedies. 1
One of the reasons the encyclopedia is all the more important is that it prevents the Matsés from becoming dependent upon the extremely basic kinds of external health care that is provided to remote villages once they have lost their traditional healers which contributes to high rates of disease and mortality. 1
The Matsés traditional medicine encyclopedia documents the tribe’s concepts of illness, origin of illnesses, and healing practices. The volumes provide an introductory guide to the Matsés grammar, words, and phrases, and the Acaté volunteers have helped to provide biomedical correlations to the tribe’s own medico-anatomical terminology. 1
Here is how an Acaté volunteer described the encyclopedia: “Each entry is categorized by disease name, with explanation of how to recognize it by symptoms; its cause; which plants to use; how to prepare the medicine and alternative therapeutic options. A photograph taken by the Matsés of each plant accompanies each entry in the encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia is written by and from the worldview of the Matsés shaman, describing how rainforest animals are involved in the natural history of the plants and connected with diseases. It is a true shamanic encyclopedia, fully written and edited by indigenous shamans.” 2
The Healing Forests
Another exciting part of the Matsés commitment to preserving their traditional medicine practices is the preservation of the medicinal plants that are critical to their system. They have created seven “healing forests” where they have transplanted 100 types of trees and plants onto plots of land where over 3,000 plants are maintained by six young Matsés men guided by elder and traditional healer Arturo Tumi Nëcca Potsad. Healers like Arturo are called “maestros.” 3
Currently, most of the maestros like Arturo are over 60 years old. Between the documentation of their traditional medicine practices in the encyclopedia and the creation of the healing forests, it is hoped that younger Matsés will become interested in becoming the next generation of maestros. 3
The project has specifically barred the Matsés traditional medicine encyclopedias from being used by international pharmaceutical companies for bioprospecting. No collection of plant or biological specimens is permitted for use outside of the Matsés communities or commercial use of the traditional knowledge.1 This is another reason that the encyclopedias are only printed in the Matsés native language to make sure their traditional knowledge is not stolen by corporations or researchers. 2
The lead volunteer with Acaté sums up one of the larger goals of their involvement in helping the Matsés to document their healing methods and preserve the healing forests: “The fate of the Matsés and their culture are forever bound to the future of their forests. By protecting their forests and strengthening their culture, you are protecting their health from a future blighted by diabetes, malnutrition, depression and alcoholism, the second wave of ‘introduced’ diseases that typically sets in indigenous communities a few short generations following contact with the outside world.” 2
Thank you for reading our article. Please feel free to share your thoughts on our Facebook page. Do you think it’s vital to preserve this knowledge of traditional medicines?
Here’s a traditional healer chanting during a healing ceremony:
1Acaté Amazon Conservation. Indigenous Medicine.
2Hance J. Amazon tribe creates 500-page traditional medicine encyclopedia. 24 June 2015. Mongabay.
BY JEREMY HANCE ON 24 JUNE 2015
3Hill D. Amazon tribe saves plant lore with ‘healing forests’ and encyclopedia. 24 November 2017. The Guardian.
Photo credits: Acaté
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