Plant Medicine, Ayahuasca, and Indigenous Culture in the Southern Peruvian Amazon
Updated: Nov 14
William E Brandenburg, MD
June 14, 2019
In my third year of residency, I spent some time in the Peruvian Amazon studying plant medicine as well as the Wachiperi and Machiguenga peoples who utilized it. I wrote the below paper about the experience. The American healthcare system is so broken. When looking at it through the lens of a Shaman, the reasons become immediately apparent. Join me on this culturally enlightening trip into the wild jungles of Peru!
Traditional indigenous healers, or “Shamans”, have utilized plants, fungi, and other natural forest products to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease for hundreds and likely even thousands of years. These Shamans have a knowledge base, which has been passed down orally, through generations. They are familiar with hundreds of plant species and serve as leaders in their communities.
Approximately half of the Amazon Rainforest has been destroyed as a result of farming, logging, mining, and other human enterprises. Indigenous communities and their respective cultures are disappearing as well. Many tribes have been wiped out entirely as a result of disease, colonial expansion, and conflict. Those that still exist are losing their cultural identity as their elders die off. Younger tribe members appear to have little interest in learning the traditional knowledge, and as such information is lost with each passing generation.
The loss of rainforest habitat has led to the extinction of many native species. As organisms are destroyed their genetic and molecular knowledge, which have evolved over millions of years, are lost forever. The author traveled to Manu National Park in southeast Peru in order to learn about indigenous culture, traditional healing, and plant medicine in the Peruvian Amazon, before such information is lost. In doing so, the author was exposed to philosophies and treatments, which could help to ameliorate the deteriorating health of the United States population.
Manu National Park and Santa Rosa de Huacaria
Four hours from Cusco, Peru, on rough dirt roads over the top of the Andes to elevations as high as 4,500 meters, lies the entrance to Manu National Park. Manu is a UNESCO world heritage site. The park encompasses and area of 17,162.95 square kilometers and consists of Andean grasslands, cloud forests, and lowland jungle. Elevations range from 4,200 to 150 meters and include numerous different ecosystems and microclimates. As a result, the park is one of the most bio-diverse locations on the planet. Over 4,000 species of plants, 1000 species of birds, and 300 species of ants have been identified in Manu. There are 4 zones in the park, which define access and use. The restricted zone is accessible only to researchers and native populations. The last un-contacted peoples on earth can be found within the restricted zone. These peoples live in isolation in jungle and have avoided the expanse of the Incan Empire and Spanish colonialization as a result of the impenetrable forests in which they live.
The cultural zone of the park is reserved for human settlement. Here you will the town of Santa Rosa de Huacaria, approximately 8 kilometers outside of the town of Pilcopata, and 8 hours on rough roads from Cusco. The town is surrounded by rainforest. Approximately 45 families and 160 indigenous peoples live in Santa Rosa de Huacaria. The town has a water purification system installed by the Peruvian government and relies on small solar panels and gas generators for electricity. Families live in huts with palm roofs. They have no fixed utilities, Internet, or modern comforts such as microwaves, laundry machines, or couches (Appendix 1). The people earn money from researchers and travelers who stay there and from local Peruvians who come for traditional healing and plant medicine. They farm, fish, and hunt. In the last 50 to 100 years a large amount of their subsistence has come from government support. This support has invariably led to some degree of dependence, complacency, and the subsequent loss of cultural heritage. Traditionally, these people lived as hunters and gatherers, collecting food, making tools, and building shelters from forest products. The author lived in a tent on the floor of one of the community huts during his time in Santa Rosa de Huacaria.
Wachiperi and Machiguenga Tribes
The region of Cusco has approximately 8 indigenous groups or tribes with discrete languages, traditions, and culture (Appendix 2). Historically there were at least 25 additional indigenous groups in the region, but likely hundreds more. Disease, conflict with Spanish colonizers, wars between indigenous groups, and cultural assimilation has led to the extinction of these additional groups and their respective cultures.
Santa Rosa de Huacaria is made up of people from both the Wachiperi and Machiguenga tribes. As stated above, these people were traditionally hunters and gatherers, living off the bounty of the forest. Now they are struggling to maintain their cultural identity. The younger members of the tribe seem to lack interest in learning their traditional language, culture, and knowledge. Persecution and discrimination of indigenous peoples, globalization, and exposure to new and exciting technologies are all likely contributing factors to this. Because these groups tend to pass down their knowledge orally, and very infrequently write such information down, this will likely lead to the loss of a large body of information regarding indigenous culture and traditional Amazonian plant medicine.
The cultural information that follows comes from the Wachiperi, with the Machiguenga philosophy being very similar. Much of the philosophy and culture of these two groups of people have already been lost.
Alberto Manqueriapa Vitente, Curandero and Leader of the Village
Alberto is the leader of Santa Rosa de Huacaria as well as the local healer. He is described by words like “Shaman”, “Curandero” and “Ayahuasquero”. Though he would say that he is not a Curandero or healer, but simply a channel through which the 4 energies can pass and subsequently heal people. It is normal in Wachiperi culture for the actual leader to also be the spiritual leader and Shaman of a given community.
Alberto was born from two tribes. His mom was a Wachiperi Curandero and his father was a Machiguenga Icaro. Both were Shamans, or healers, and both utilized the plant medicine Ayahuasca. Alberto learned from his parents, his aunts and uncles, and his grandparents. He claims his grandmother knew 60,000 different types of plants.
Alberto says he is 62 years old, though it is likely his true age is unknown as birth dates are not recorded in the community. In the last ten years he has become somewhat famous. Different organizations and individuals have invited Alberto to speak, provide information, and hold Ayahuasca ceremonies throughout the world. He has been to multiple locations in the United States, Europe, and Asia. This would come as a great surprise to those who have met Alberto and seen where he comes from.
Alberto has seen considerable trauma and loss in his life. He has seen drug cartels kill thousands of his people, survived multiple accidents, and watched his culture fade away. Through all of this he maintains a very positive demeanor, laughing a lot, and generally enjoying life. He appears to have a tendency to embellish with claims like his grandma knowing more species of plants then are known to exist in the area, and his ancestors regular use of the herb “Diente de Leon” preventing them from ever getting cancer. Through everything, Alberto most enjoys spending time with his extensive family in the Jungle.
Wilbert Camacho Guillon, convinced Alberto, his good friend, to take the author into his village to learn Wachiperri culture, as well as how to identify, prepare, and treat patients with medicinal plants. Alberto was wary of this at first but elected to do so as younger generations in his tribe lack interest in learning such things. The author prepared this manuscript, to share lessons learned with the rest of the world.
The 4 Energy’s
In Wachiperi culture there are 4 energies, “cuatro Energias”, or life forces that exist in a balance. People are in the center of these 4 energies (Appendix 3). The 4 energies are the Universe, the Land, the Water, and the Forest. Each “energy” is made up of several parts, all of which have deep meaning and importance. Alberto often found it difficult to describe these meanings using the Spanish language.
Disease or sickness occurs when an individual is out of balance with the 4 energies. The Shaman analyzes an individual, with regard to the 4 energies and tries to help them achieve balance within the greater system. Alberto claims that all of the information regarding the energies and the universe was given to his ancestors long ago through the “Madre Planta” Ayahuasca.
The Universe is the highest and most important energy. It consists of the sun, moon, stars, comets, and other celestial bodies. The sun is the most important entity and like other celestial bodies, believed to be a deity. All life and energy are derived from the sun. Even such things as medicines, which come from plants, exist because the sun has given the plants energy to make such medicines. The sun is a masculine force and its counter feminine force is the moon. The cycles of the moon have great meaning to the Wachiperi, telling them when to harvest plants, and giving them both energy and the ability to become good at their future work. The stars send their energy through people to purify their blood. Comets serve as indicators regarding the state of the water, forest, and land. Like the Incans, the Wachiperi appear to have been keen observers of celestial occurrences, with interesting parallels to draw between their belief system and current scientific understanding.
Land energy lies below the universe. Pachamama or “Madre Tierra”, is the goddess of the land and was also worshipped by the Incas. Land energy consists of the physical ground and any food or sustenance, which comes from it. Many hills, places, and giant rocks are regarded as sacred to the Wachiperi people. Pachamama gives the people permission to teach and learn new things, to live, and to cultivate or live off the land.
Water energy purifies and cleans human bodies. The water deities are called Shiatoto and consist of the oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, waterfalls as well as all of the fish and other life forms that live in the water. Rainbows are also included in this energy category. The Wachiperi believe that all life depends on water, which is in line with our current scientific understanding. This is why the people of the Amazon make their homes and villages along the borders of rivers and streams. They believe that at 3 am the gates or bridges to the Energy of water open. New babies are bathed at this time of night.
Forest energy consists of the oxygen or atmosphere we breath, the wind, fire, plants, animals, medicine, and rain. The Wachiperi believe that when a person eats good food from the forest, they do not need medicine. They believe that Forest energy is derived from the sun, which creates rain and gives plants energy to grow. There are so many intricacies to this energy as this is the place in which the Wachiperi live.
A person’s health and well-being revolve around the balance of these 4 energies in their life. The Wachiperi Shaman’s job is to try and help people achieve such a balance.
The above 2 drawings are based off of depictions drawn by Alberto.
Levels of the Body
The Wachiperi believe that there are 5 levels with regard to every person. These levels are mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, and masculine or feminine sex (Appendix 4). All of these levels are connected and balance between them is very important to health.
Spiritual well-being is the most important of the all of these levels to an individual’s health. It consists of the soul or the “essence” of a person. Darkness, fear of death, fear in general, and bad energy can all compromise spiritual well-being. In assessing an individual’s spiritual health, Alberto asks about their relationship with their mother and their father as well as how things are going at home. He asks about any trauma or hardships people have had in their life. Alberto also watches the way a person moves to assess spiritual wellness. People who are “fidgety” or cannot relax may have bad energy.
In western medicine, little to no emphasis is placed on the spiritual well-being of the individual. Furthermore, in the author’s experience, patients are often offended when spiritual and mental wellbeing is considered as the cause of illness over more physical etiologies. At the same time, the author and his colleagues have experienced increasing diagnostic and treatment failure for problems such as headaches, stomach pain, depression, anxiety, obesity, and all subsequent comorbidity. Perhaps it is time to start looking at spiritual health as a more real problem, and stop looking for physical problems, when such problems seemingly do not exist.
Plants as Medicine
The diversity of plants in the Amazon rainforest is astounding. On a short walk in the jungle it is easy to appreciate hundreds of different plant species. The diversity of these organisms has led to numerous novel biochemical pathways, producing a vast array of molecules, many of which are metabolically relevant in humans. These molecules can have a number of different effects on those who consume them. Many plants may have little to no effect, when consumed in normal quantities. Other plants may be poisonous, mind-altering, or have therapeutic potential even in small amounts.
Hundreds of pharmaceuticals have been directly purified from or are derivatives of plant-based chemicals. Notable examples include aspirin, morphine, digoxin, and cocaine. With so many species in the Amazon, it seems highly likely that many novel chemicals, of potential medical benefit, remain undiscovered or largely unappreciated by modern researchers and pharmaceutical companies.
Alberto uses approximately 70 different species of plants to diagnose, treat, and prevent disease. From cough to cancer, Alberto seems to have a plant for most all ailments. Traditional names are utilized for each respective plant used. At the time of writing this manuscript the author does not possess definitive speciation for the plants listed below. Plant medicines are utilized in a variety of ways including direct consumption, making teas or “mates”, bathing in plant and water mixtures, apply plant material or resin cutaneously, and even just growing a given species of plant near the home. Below is a list of plants, the diseases that they are used to treat, and the way in which they are used. None of the below listed plants have ever been tested by formal research, to the knowledge of the author. As such, their true efficacy is not known. See Appendix 5 for pictures of selected plants and the environment in which they are harvested.
Huaco Morada (leaf is in the shape of a viper head)
Used to treat: snake bites
Put leaves directly over the bite wound and mix the leaves with water and drink the liquid.
Used to treat: Rheumatism (unclear exactly what this refers to), arthritis, and osteoporosis
Diente de Leon
Used to treat: cancer (any type), gastritis, and inflammation of the uterus
Put several leaves in 2 liters of water and drink 3 times a day before meals. Alberto says that his ancestors use to drink this regularly and as such did not ever have cancer. The author wondered why they do not still practice this.
Lambrancillo “Machi Machi”
Used to treat: headache, migraines, mental imbalance
Mix with cold water and rub on the head and skin. Also may make a tea to drink before bead to help with sleep.
Used to treat: parasites (all types), anemia
Mix 2-3 drops of the white resin produced when plant material is broke with your tea every morning for 4 days. Never use more than 4 drops as this resin is poisonous in large quanties.
Used to treat: asthma
Inhale the crushed leaves or make a tea using the leaves.
Used to treat: Hepatitis A and B, liver disease
Soak the plant in water and drink a cup of this liquid daily.
Used to treat: Conjunctivitis, Milk not coming down after childbirth.
Suerda que Suerda
Used to treat: fractures, bruises, swelling
Make a poltice (thick blend of plant material and water) and place directly over the injured area daily for at least 12 days.
Guia de Café Catorra
Used to treat: hypertension, stress, heart disease, liver disease
Mix 8 large leaves with 1L of water. Drink 1 cup of this liquid 3 times a day.
Used to treat: fever, chills
Bathe in a mixture of the water and leaves and drink a cup of this liquid.
Used to treat: vomiting, diarrhea, cleans stomach
Drink as a tea.
Used to treat: cancer, uterine infections, vaginal prolapse
Apply directly to affected areas.
Used to treat: nausea of pregnancy, dizziness
Drink as a tea
Pan de Arbol
Used to treat: bruises, sprains, tuberculosis
Apply plant resin directly to the affected area. For tuberculosis mix plant material, water, and a particular species of ant (comehin). Drink this liquid twice daily for 2 months.
Hierba de Poliomyelitis
Used to prevent: birth defects, polio
Pregnant woman drink daily as a tea starting in the second trimester.
Used to treat: bad or labile behavior as a result of puberty in adolescents
Take a bath with water and the leaves twice a year.
Coca (three types)
Inka Coca, used as an offering to the gods
Naupa Coca, used to give energy and help make predictions
Monte Coca, used to treat snake bites
Used to treat: colds, muscle aches
Inhale the crushed leaves to open the sinuses. Mix the leaves with water and take a bath in it twice weekly to help with muscle aches.
Hierba de Charcot Blanco
Used to treat: Rheumatism, arthritis, osteoporosis
Mix the roots, leaves, and stem with water and drink liquid daily.
Labio de Mosa
Used to treat: erectile dysfunction
Eat 35 of the blue seeds about 1 hour before sex.
Used to treat: fever, prostate problems
For fever bath with the leaves and drink as a tea. For prostate problems drink as a tea twice a day for 14 days.
Used to treat: dental pain
Apply the plant resin directly to hurting teeth.
Cresta de Gallo:
Used to treat: colicky babies
Bathe babies in a mixture of the leaves and water daily for 6 days.
Used to treat: bleeding, usually from periods
Drink as a tea 3 times as day for 8 days
Used to treat: burns, labor pain, mouth pain, fever
Apply directly to burns, bathe with bark mixed with water, or drink as a tea.
Hierba Lengua de Sapo
Used to treat: pain
Apply plant material directly over hurting areas bathe in water mixed with plant material.
Una de Gato
Used to treat: cancer, prostate problems, uterine infections, stomach pain, stomach ulcers
Mix leaves with water and drink the liquid 3 times a day. Noted to be very potent.
Used to treat: topical fungal infections
Wash effected areas with plant material mixed with water daily for 8 days.
Used to treat: diabetes, kidney stones, colicky abdominal pain, ascaris, abortions
Very sour. Pregnant woman should not use this as it causes abortions. Drink as a tea. Duration and daily amount varies by illness.
Oreja de Elephante
Used to treat: liver disease, heart disease
Mix plant material with water, drink the liquid 3 times a day.
Used to treat: malaria, dengue
Drink as a tea 4 times a day
Used to treat: foot and body fungal infections
Apply resin directly to affected areas daily.
Used to treat: spider and scorpion bites
Apply directly to the bite or sting wound
Used to treat: burns, bruises
Apply plant material directly to affected areas.
Used to treat: mental stress
Also used as: birth control, help with work, help with studying, help with love, help with money
Drink as a tea.
Used to treat: liver disease
Drink as a tea 3 times a day.
Lingua de Elephante
Used to: prevent snake bites
Drink as a tea 3 times a day for 6 days.
Used to treat: diarrhea, dysentery, conjunctivitis
Drink as a tea or apply leaf material directly to the eye.
Ayahuasca, La Madre Planta
The most important medicinal plant utilized by the Wachiperi and most all tribes of the Amazon is Ayahuasca. This plant brew is actually a mixture of different species always containing one essential ingredient, the Ayahuasca Vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). Per Alberto, all of the knowledge of the 4 energies, Wachiperi philosophy, and much of their knowledge of plants is derived from Ayahuasca, the mother plant “Madre Planta”.
Shamans utilize Ayahuasca in ceremonies to treat disease, gain knowledge, and make people better in their lives and work. The plant brew contains the hallucinogenic substance dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT). Many plants in the Amazon make DMT. This chemical is also may be synthesized in the human brain in small quantities. When orally ingested, DMT is rapidly metabolized in the gut, and no effect is realized. The Ayahuasca Vine contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). When plant material containing DMT is mixed with the Ayahuasca Vine, the breakdown of DMT is inhibited, and DMT is readily absorbed. All Ayahuasca brews contain at a minimum, these 2 ingredients.
Alberto makes Ayahuasca by combining 4 different plants. Chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains the DMT, Ayahuasca Vine ((Banisteriopsis caapi), Hierba de Arco Iris, and hierba de lingua tucan are combined with water in a pot and cooked over an open fire for approximately 8 hours. The resulting mixture is then strained to yield a brown, smoky liquid. This liquid can be stored at room temperature for up to 6 months. Ayahuasca batches can vary greatly in both potency and effect.
Chacruna leaves containing DMT
Hierba de Arca Iris leaves
An Ayahuasquero, is a Shaman or Curandero that uses Ayahuasca in ceremonial rituals to treat disease and gain knowledge. Icaros are magic songs used for healing and to gain knowledge. An Icaro is a healer who uses these songs in their practice. As such Alberto is a Shaman, Curandero, Ayahuasquero, and Icaro.
The author was present for 3 Ayahuasca ceremonies during his time in Santa Rosa de Huacaria. All 3 of these ceremonies were used to treat a young girl with anxiety, suicidal ideation, and non-epileptic seizures. The woman had traveled for 12 hours with her father, brother, sister in-law and their 2-month-old baby seeking treatment for her ailments. The family worked as farmers in a poor rural area outside of Cusco. Below is a description of an Ayahuasca ceremony.
Ayahuasca is taken at 7:00 pm as this is the time, per Alberto, when the spirits of the plants are most active. All of those involved arrive at ceremonial hut at 4:00 pm. Alberto explains what is going to happen with the ceremony and asks if participants have any questions. He explains that throughout the ceremony he and participants are a family and that meeting early allows everyone time to get comfortable with each other and the environment. The ceremony lasts approximately 4 hours and starts with the consumptions of Ayahuasca. For the first part of the ceremony he will be singing his Icaros and asks that participants stay awake during this time. After he is done singing, it is ok to sleep or remain awake. The Icaros are directed at participants for healing purposes and directed at mala energia (bad energy) and evil spirits to ward them off.
Throughout the 3 hours prior to taking Ayahuasca and the 4 hours of the ceremony, Alberto smokes Amazonian tobacco (Mapacha) and chews coca leaves. He offers this to anyone who would like it but states that it is entirely optional.
Around 5:30 pm night begins to fall and a candle is lit. Alberto goes around and blows smoke on all participants heads and places an alcohol-based plant cologne/tonic in their hands which is then rubbed all over participants bodies. He blesses all tobacco and cologne with hand gestures and quiet words.
At 7:00 pm he gives all participants another alcohol-based cologne to rub on their bodies. He then blesses the Ayahuasca and pours approximately 1 cup full of the brown liquid for all of those taking part in the ceremony. He says a prayer to “Madre Ayahuasca” asking her to protect and heal participants. He then instructs the participants and himself to chug the liquid. The candle is then blown out and all parties wait in complete darkness.
Many people vomit 10 minutes to 1 hour after taking the Ayahuasca. Everyone participating has a bucket at his or her side as a result of this risk. Interestingly, Ayahuasca may also have anti-helminth properties as a result of this property.
Approximately 30 minutes after the ceremony begins, Alberto begins his Icaros. He starts quietly, and the music arises as if from out of a dream. He uses a morocco type instrument to aid him. His songs are accompanied by forceful exhales to expel evil spirits. The songs are quite beautiful. Upon first hearing them the author could hardly believe it was Alberto singing them. He uses lines in the songs like limpia mi cuerpo (clean my body), curame (heal me), madre planta ayahuasca, and Icaro. After about 1 to 2 hours of continuous singing the songs fade away as mysteriously as they began. Participants then sit in silence as Alberto resumes smoking tobacco and chewing coca leaves. Outside of these ceremonies the author never witnessed Alberto use either tobacco or Coca leaves.
The girl with mental illnesses had a very hard time during 2 of the ceremonies. She was restless, moving back and forth between her mat and the bathroom. She continuously interrupted the Icaros asking Alberto to come to her and at one point running toward and falling on top of him. Her father caught her from falling on a few occasions. Alberto said he could see the manifestation of her illness in the form of a witch. Honestly, I saw this form manifest at one ceremony as well. He tried to cast this evil spirit out. Alberto explained that during the ceremony he absorbed a lot of these bad spirits. This left him debilitated for several hours after his Icaros. On one eventful night he was unable to walk for several hours after. The girl remembers little of what transpired during the ceremonies and she said she felt much better the following days.
Ayahuasca can cause intense visual images and hallucinations. People often describe the experience as profound and life changing. Alberto explained the importance of using Ayahuasca in a controlled and safe environment. The plant brew is not poisonous or known to cause harm to the body. It is even used by indigenous peoples during pregnancy, with no known evidence of ill effect to fetus. However due to its powerful mental effects it can exacerbate and even cause psychological illness. The mind-altering properties may lead people to do dangerous things, which in some instances has led to fatalities. As a result of the rising popularity of Ayahuasca, there has been a rise in untrained individuals advertising themselves as healers and on some instance harming individuals.
Ayahuasca is a powerful hallucinogenic plant brew used by Amazonian Shamans for at least several hundred years. Modern research indicates that when used in the appropriate settings, Ayahuasca has potential in the therapeutic treatment of addiction and mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. DMT is a tryptamine chemical similar to the neurotransmitter serotonin. It acts at many of the same receptors utilized by pharmaceuticals like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors for the treatment of depression and anxiety. Alberto often talked about unblocking the mind (desbloquiar su mente). It seems likely that Ayahuasca may open people’s minds, allowing them to leave the negative thought patterns in which they are caught, and subsequently heal. Tryptamine chemicals like Ayahuasca represent exciting potential therapeutic options in a field that has not seen any real innovation in treatment for several decades.
What Western Medicine Can Learn from Indigenous Amazonian Philosophy
In western medicine we look for pathologies. Diseases we can see, measure, and either treat with medicine or cut away with surgery. However, as we often state in defending our choices as physicians, medicine is both an art and a science.
The Wachiperi, levels of the body, highlight the need for art in medicine. In this philosophy treating things like emotional and spiritual health are more important than treating physical health. Treatments for spiritual health are often highly individualized and as such do not lend themselves to randomized trials or protocolized treatments. They require healers willing to take the time to learn about a patients circumstances and apply customized treatments with compassion and understanding.
In the authors experiences western physicians are often very rigid in their thinking and closed in their mindset. The author hypothesizes that this closed mindset has led to a lack of focus on spiritual and mental wellbeing, which has led to the deterioration of physical health, in many circumstances.
Our United States healthcare system is truly upside down. We have prioritized access to care over spiritual and financial wellbeing. We have marginalized primary care to 20-minute appointments. We have incentivized the quick referral to specialties and hyper focus on organ systems at the expense of treating the whole person.
The author believes it is time to re-evaluated the primary care doctor, patient relationship and prioritize those things that truly lead to wellness, such as emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
Finally, the therapeutic potential of entheogenic tryptamines like ayahuasca has become undeniable. Psilocybin from “magic mushrooms” and mescaline from the Peyote and San Pedro cacti, show similar therapeutic benefit. The fact that these medicines are DEA Schedule 1 in the United States is simply outrageous. They are considered the same as methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine. The government should not be deciding what substances have potential therapeutic benefit, doctors should!
Indigenous Peoples as Stewards of the Forest and the Loss of the Amazon Rainforest
Thousands of acres of Amazon Rainforest have been protected from logging, mining, and oil drilling as a result of indigenous claims to the land. While some indigenous groups have lost their forests, others have maintained and actively preserved their lands.
However, the author worries about these peoples continued ability to do so. Money is very powerful to indigenous impoverished peoples. This is illustrated by the fact that even Alberto worked for several years as lumberjack in his younger years. Moreover, the author has noted and Alberto has confirmed that the government subsidies have left many indigenous people both dependent and lazy. The author observed many individuals in the Santa Rosa de Huacaria community that do not work or make any effort to better themselves, mostly the men. Alberto sons did not appear interested in the learning about plant medicine at all. Like so many impoverished areas, the women are left with the majority of the work with responsibilities for raising the children, cooking, maintaining the home, and the community.
Furthermore, the author noted a culture of littering both in indigenous and non-indigenous Peruvian communities. Copious amounts of trash were present both in and around any communities, roads, or other places with human access. No effort is made to pick this trash up and when asked about it the adults in Santa Rosa de Huacaria blame the children. As indigenous culture is lost, these peoples innate desire to preserve and maintain the forest may be fading as well.
The author worries about what this could mean for the future of the Amazon Rainforest with so many outside entities waiting to exploit the valuable resources present within these pristine jungles. On a walk in Cusco the author counted 18 different storefronts displaying chainsaws with 36-inch blades. Such large chainsaws in the desert highlands of Cusco have one purpose, to turn 500-year-old giant rainforest trees into lumbar.
The Amazon rainforest and the indigenous peoples who live there contain a wealth of information, which is unfortunately and rapidly being lost. Steps must be taken to preserve and protect this valuable information. The author believes that some of the philosophies utilized by Amazonian Shamans, such as the treatment of people’s spiritual health being most important, could be what is missing in western medicine, and may explain why we have so much trouble treating so many chronic ailments in the outpatient setting. Furthermore, the author believes that keeping an open mind about how to treat disease, and exploring all potential options, will help facilitate the medical advancements of the future.
The author would like to thank Wilbert Camacho Guillen, friend, naturalist, environmentalist, native Peruvian, and owner of the guiding company Manu Explorers (manuexplorers.com). Alberto is a longtime friend of Wilbert. Wilbert set the author up with Alberto, and largely facilitated this entire experience and the subsequent knowledge gained from it. If you ever need a guide in Peru for bird watching, Machu Picchu, Manu National Park, or really anything else, check out Manu Explorers! Wilbert does such an amazing job with these trips!
Alberto Manqueriapa Vitente. Leader of the Wachiperi and Machigenga tribes. Shaman in the village of Santa Rosa de Huacaria.
Wilbert Camacho Guillen. Manu guide and Native Peruvian.
Manu National Park. UNESCO. Accessed at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/402
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