Members of the indigenous Matsés tribe of Peru are creating a compendium of their plant lore as well as preserving “healing forests” wherein they grow medicinal plants.
Planting in a healing forest [Photo by Acate Amazon Conservation]
Many, if not all, indigenous peoples around the world have their own plant and herblore. After all, in the millennia before aspirin and antibiotics, people had to treat their ailments by learning how things in their environment can affect their health. Surely, many of these pieces of knowledge have been lost to time, but there are those that have endured to this day.
Even in the era of medicine coming in neat little pills or bottles, indigenous medicinal knowledge still has much to offer. Thus, Bill Park and Christopher Herndon founded Acaté Amazon Conservation, a non-profit that aimed to partner with the Matsés in planting “healing forests”, which are medicinal agroforestry plots that have about 3,000 medicinal plants included in Matsés plant lore.
A copaiba tree, whose resin has medicinal properties [Photo by Jonathan Wilkins]
There are now a total of seven of these medicinal agroforestry plots dotting Matsés territory, which is situated in one of the most remote regions of the Peruvian Amazon forest. Each plot has hundreds of different plant and trees species, which are overseen by a Matsés elder and traditional healer, also called a “maestro”.
Preserving the Matsés tribe’s traditional plant lore serves many purposes. Not only does doing so preserve a long tradition of medicinal knowledge, but it also has the potential to help the Matsés tribe adapt to a fast-evolving world without completely changing their way of life. The medicinal agroforestry plots can provide the tribe with revenue that does not entail the destruction of their biodiverse home, nor the abandonment of their culture.
Matsés territory isn’t exactly teeming with jobs. Thus, like most other places with the same issue, the youth of Matsés have been migrating out of the territory, with many going on find work in the nearby city of Iquitos. However, the creation of the healing forests may generate some much needed jobs. For instance, Acaté provides maestros and their assistants a daily stipend to tend to the plots.
It’s these elders that hold a trove of information on the medicinal plants and what they can do. There are plants for constipation, snake bites, and even for hemorrhaging women. The resin of copaiba trees, meanwhile, have anti-septic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal properties. Other plants like aguaje, uña de gato, and reishi mushrooms have the potential for commercial use.
Members of the Matsés tribe [Photo by Alicia Fox]
Now, 14 Matsés villages have come together to work on a number of projects relating to medicinal agroforestry, including a 1,044-page two-volume encyclopedia of Matsés plant lore, sustainable agriculture, herpetology, and more. This encyclopedia took a total of five years to make.
Younger people are now interested in learning about medicinal agroforestry to preserve the healing forests. “My university is the jungle,” quipped 38-year-old Mariano Lopez Rengifo, who aims to be his village’s healer. Because Matsés territory is so remote, the tribe doesn’t have easy access to medical facilities. Learning about how to access medical treatment from their immediate environment is thus vital. However, more of the younger generations are disinterested in learning their tribe’s plant lore.
Still, these efforts to preserve the tribe elders’ medicinal knowledge will likely ensure that the knowledge will remain even after the elders pass on. Park, for example, calls the encyclopedia as “almost like an emergency insurance policy”. At least now, there’s assurance that the knowledge will be passed on to future generations.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!