This Amazon tribe is making an encyclopedia of traditional medicines


An indigenous tribe that lives deep in the Amazon is putting its encyclopedic knowledge of the jungle into writing for the first time ever.

With the help of an American NGO and a local publishing house, Peru’s Matsés tribe is preparing to publish a 500-page encyclopedia to catalog its traditional medicine practices. It will be first tome of its kind published by any Amazonian tribe.

The encyclopedia will document traditional methods for curing dozens of illnesses with local plants, thereby helping to preserve ancient healing practices that have been passed down orally by shamans through the centuries. Much of that traditional knowledge is now at risk of being lost as the isolated Matsés tribe comes into more frequent contact with the outside world.

“The project began in 2012, when we met with Matsé elders and talked about what their pressing needs were,” said Christopher Herndon, president of Acaté a San Francisco based non-profit. “The elders said younger Matsés were not interested in knowledge of medicinal plants…they had no apprentices who wanted to learn their knowledge.”

The Matsés only started to come into regular contact with the outside world in the 1960’s, when they were approached by Christian missionaries.

Herndon says isolated tribes like the Matsés tend to lose interest in their own culture after making contact with the outside world, since many feel pressured to adopt western customs and begin to view indigenous ways as “primitive and backward.”

The encyclopedia project intends to preserve the Matsés’ collective knowledge and get the youths interested in learning it. The book’s content was produced by five master healers, who led younger tribe members into the forest to show them medicinal plants and explain their properties. The younger Matsés, who were first taught to read and write by missionaries who wanted them to translate the Bible into their own tongue, recorded the observations of the elders. The encyclopedia is now in final edits before going to print.

But don’t expect to find the Matsé encyclopedia in your local bookstore. The health encyclopedia will be printed only in the Matsés language — a tongue spoken by fewer than 3,000 people — and will only be distributed in that tribe’s villages to keep the tome from falling into the hands of big pharma.

The encyclopedia is also being written in a way that’s intended to be indecipherable to outsiders. No scientific names are used to identify local plant species, and no plants will be pictured in detail, so as not to be identifiable to outsiders.

Herndon says that the Matsés decided to take these “security” measures so that pharmaceutical companies cannot steal their medicinal recipes or try to patent them.

Bio piracy has already affected the Matsés. Recently, a couple of pharma companies claimed patents on frog secretions that the Matsés use for traditional rituals but can also be used to accelerate a patient’s heartbeat during medical treatments.

Although the encyclopedia will only be available to the Matsés, Herndon says that the project can serve as a “template” for other tribes looking to preserve traditional knowledge. Since news of the Matsés book project got out online, Herndon has been contacted by two organizations that want to implement similar initiatives in other parts of the Amazon.

“Most organizations have been hands-off with the issue of medicinal plants because they were afraid that if they published something they would be accused by indigenous groups [or their country’s government] of facilitating biopiracy,” Herndon told Fusion. “The methodology that the Matsés developed protects the knowledge while safeguarding it from theft from the outside world.”

After the encyclopedia is published, tribal shamen will travel to villages that no longer have traditional healers to train local apprentices in indigenous medicine practices.

Herndon hopes the initiatives will help the Matsés become less dependent on conventional doctors and western drugs. That will help the Amazon tribe become more self-reliant, since many of its villages are days away from the nearest hospital, with doctors few and far between.

“The heart of what we do is to help indigenous people maintain their self-sufficiency,” Herndon said. “It’s about adapting to the current conditions, as opposed to being preserved and frozen in time.”

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

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