In one of the great tragedies of our age, indigenous traditions, stories, cultures and knowledge are winking out across the world. Whole languages and mythologies are vanishing, and in some cases even entire indigenous groups are falling into extinction. This is what makes the news that a tribe in the Amazon—the Matsés peoples of Brazil and Peru—have created a 500-page encyclopedia of their traditional medicine all the more remarkable. The encyclopedia, compiled by five shamans with assistance from conservation group Acaté, details every plant used by Matsés medicine to cure a massive variety of ailments.
“The [Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia] marks the first time shamans of an Amazonian tribe have created a full and complete transcription of their medicinal knowledge written in their own language and words,” Christopher Herndon, president and co-founder of Acaté, told Mongabay in an interview (in full below).
The Matsés have only printed their encyclopedia in their native language to ensure that the medicinal knowledge is not stolen by corporations or researchers as has happened in the past. Instead, the encyclopedia is meant as a guide for training new, young shamans in the tradition and recording the living shamans’ knowledge before they pass.
“One of the most renowned elder Matsés healers died before his knowledge could be passed on so the time was now. Acaté and the Matsés leadership decided to prioritize the Encyclopedia before more of the elders were lost and their ancestral knowledge taken with them,” said Herndon.
Acaté has also started a program connecting the remaining Matsés shamans with young students. Through this mentorship program, the indigenous people hope to preserve their way of life as they have for centuries past.
“With the medicinal plant knowledge disappearing fast among most indigenous groups and no one to write it down, the true losers in the end are tragically the indigenous stakeholders themselves,” said Herndon. “The methodology developed by the Matsés and Acaté can be a template for other indigenous cultures to safeguard their ancestral knowledge.”
Christopher Herndon: The encyclopedia marks the first time shamans of an Amazonian tribe have created a full and complete transcription of their medicinal knowledge written in their own language and words. Over the centuries, Amazonian peoples have passed on through oral tradition an accumulated wealth of knowledge and techniques of treatment that are a product of their deep spiritual and physical ties to the natural world. The Matsés live in one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and have mastered knowledge of the healing properties of its plants and animals. Yet, in a world in which cultural change is destabilizing even the most isolated societies, this knowledge is rapidly disappearing.
It is hard to overstate just how quickly this knowledge can be lost after a tribe makes contact with the outside world. Once extinguished, this knowledge, along with the tribe’s self-sufficiency, can never fully be reclaimed. Historically, what has followed the loss of endemic health systems in many indigenous groups is near total dependency on the rudimentary and extremely limited external health care that is available in such remote and difficult-to-access locations. Not surprisingly, in most countries, indigenous groups have the highest rates of mortality and disease.
The initiative is important from the Matsés perspective because loss of culture and poor health care are among their greatest concerns. The methodology they pioneered to successfully protect and safeguard their own knowledge can serve as a replicable model for other indigenous communities facing similar cultural erosion. For the broader conservation movement, we know that there is a strong correlation between intact ecosystems and regions of indigenous inhabitation, making strengthening of indigenous culture one of the most effective ways to protect large areas of rainforest.
Christopher Herndon: The Matsés knowledge and the accumulated wisdom of generations stood on the very precipice of extinction. Fortunately, there remained a few elder Matsés who still held the ancestral knowledge as sustained contact with the outside world only occurred within the past half century. The healers were adults at the time of initial contact and had already mastered their skills before being told they were useless by missionaries and government workers. At the time we started the project, none of the elder shamans had younger Matsés interested in learning from them.
One of the most renowned elder Matsés healers died before his knowledge could be passed on so the time was now. Acaté and the Matsés leadership decided to prioritize the Encyclopedia before more of the elders were lost and their ancestral knowledge taken with them. The project was not about saving a traditional dance or costume, it was about their health and that of future generations of Matsés. The stakes could not be higher.
Christopher Herndon: After two years of intense work by the Matsés, the Encyclopedia now includes chapters by five Matsés master healers and is over 500 pages long! 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, the first to our knowledge of its kind and scope.
Christopher Herndon: We believe that empowering indigenous peoples is the most cost effective and enduring approach for rainforest conservation. It is no coincidence that the remaining tracts of intact rainforest in the Neotropics overlap closely with areas of indigenous habitation. Tribal peoples understand and value the rainforest because they are dependent upon it. This relationship extends beyond a utilitarian reliance; there is a spiritual link to the forest, a sense of interconnectivity that is difficult to comprehend through the compartmentalized Western mindset but real nonetheless.
Many of the serious environmental threats in remote indigenous areas that you hear about in the news—petroleum, timber, mining and the like—are external industries that opportunistically prey on the weakened internal social cohesion of recently contacted indigenous peoples, their limited resources, and increasing dependency on the outside world. The unifying theme of Acaté’s three programmatic areas, sustainable economy, traditional medicine, and agroecology is self-sufficiency. Acaté did not predetermine these three conservation priorities; they were set in discussion with the Matsés elders who know that the best way to protect their culture and lands is through a position of strength and independence.
From the global conservation perspective, the Matsés protect over 3 million acres of rainforest in Perú alone. This area includes some of the most intact, biodiverse, and carbon-rich forests in the country. The Matsés communities on the Brazilian side of the Javari and Yaquerana rivers frame the western borders of the Vale do Javari indigenous reserve, a region roughly the size of Austria that contains the largest number of ‘uncontacted’ tribes in voluntary isolation remaining the world. At the southern margins of the Matsés territory, in the headwaters of the Yaquerana river, lies La Sierra del Divisor, a region of staggering natural beauty, biodiversity, and also uncontacted tribal groups. For these reasons, although the Matsés may only number a little over 3,000 in total population, they are strategically positioned to protect a vast area of rainforest and a number of isolated tribal groups. Empowering them is high-yield conservation.
Christopher Herndon: The completion of the encyclopedia is a historical and critical first step towards mitigating existential threats to Matsés’ healing wisdom and self-sufficiency. However, the encyclopedia alone is insufficient to maintain their self-sufficiency as their healing systems are based on experience that can only be transmitted through long apprenticeships. Sadly, due to outside influences, when we started the project none of the elders had apprentices. Yet, at the same time, most villages still depended on and actively utilize the medicinal plant knowledge of the remaining elder healers, most of who are estimated to be over the age of 60.
In Phase II, the Apprentices Program, each elder shaman—many of whom are also Encyclopedia chapter authors—will be accompanied in the forest by younger Matsés to learn the plants and assist in treating patients. The apprenticeship program was initiated in 2014 in the village of Esitrón under the supervision of elder shaman Luis Dunu Chiaid. Due to the success of the pilot in Esitrón, it was unanimously agreed by the Matsés at the recent meeting that this program should be expanded to as many villages as possible, with priority given to villages that no longer have traditional healers.
The ultimate objective of the initiative is Phase III, the integration and enhancement of ‘Western’ health delivery with traditional practices. Wilmer, a health promoter in the small clinic in Estirón and one of the apprentices from the pilot program provides a role model for other Matsés health care workers. He understands that the future health of his people depends on the creation of dual, vibrant systems of health that allow the community to draw upon the best of both worlds.
In addition, it was agreed that our agro-forestry work should be expanded to include medicinal plant integration. This will be based on the healing forest created by one of the greatest Matsés healers in Nuevo San Juan and currently maintained by his son Antonio Jimenez. To an outsider, this forest looks like non-descript stretch of rainforest along the footpath to their farms, about a 10 to 15 minutes walk away from their village. In the presence of a master shaman pointing out the medicinal plants, you realize in a moment that you are surrounded in fact by a constellation of medicinal plants cultivated by the Matsés healers for use in treatment of a diverse range of ailments. Many rainforest vines and fungi don’t grow in open sun-exposed gardens and require rainforest ecosystems for their propagation. The placement of the healing forest 10 to 15 minutes away from their villages is characteristic Matsés efficiency. If you have a sick child, you don’t want to have to travel 4 hours to find the remedy.
Christopher Herndon: Unfortunately, history abounds with examples of theft from indigenous peoples. For the Matsés in particular, it is all too real. The skin secretions of the giant monkey frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) are used in hunting rituals by the Matsés. The secretions, rich in a diversity of bioactive peptides, are administered directly into the body through application onto fresh burn or cut-wounds. Within moments, the toxins induce intense cardiovascular and autonomic responses, ultimately leading to a state of altered consciousness and heightened sensory acuity.
Although the range of the giant monkey frog extends across northern Amazonia, only the Matsés and a small number of neighboring Panoan tribes have been recorded to use its powerful secretions. After reports of the Matsés use of it emerged from the forest, investigations of the frog’s secretions in the laboratory revealed a complex cocktail of peptides with potent vasoactive, narcotic, and antimicrobial properties. Several pharmaceutical companies and universities filed patents on the peptides without recognition of indigenous peoples for which it has long held a unique and important role in their culture. One antifungal peptide from the frog was even transgenically inserted into a potato.
The fear of biopiracy is unfortunately a door that has swung both ways. Many conservation groups and scientists in the Amazon have done projects documenting indigenous knowledge of local fauna, such as recording bird names, but have generally been completely hands-off when it came to medicinal plants due to the fears of being accused of facilitating biopiracy. Yet with the medicinal plant knowledge disappearing fast among most indigenous groups and no one to write it down, the true losers in the end are tragically the indigenous stakeholders themselves. The methodology developed by the Matsés and Acaté can be a template for other indigenous cultures to safeguard their ancestral knowledge.
Christopher Herndon: Acaté and the Matsés developed an innovative methodology to protect their ancestral medicinal plant knowledge from extinction while safeguarding the sensitive information from theft by outside parties. The Encyclopedia is written only in Matsés. It is by and for the Matsés and no translations will be made into Spanish or English.No scientific names are included nor photographs of flowers or other easily identifiable characteristics of the plants to outsiders.
Each chapter of the Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia was written by a renowned elder shaman chosen by the community. Each elder was paired together with a younger Matsés who over months transcribed his knowledge in writing and photographed each plant. The photos and text were compiled and typed up on laptop by Wilmer Rodríguez López, a Matsés who is an expert in a written transcription of their language.
At the meeting, the compiled Encyclopedia, the draft of which exceeded 500 pages in length, was collectively edited and reviewed by the tribal shamans over several days. The completed Encyclopedia is now being formatted and printed for the Matsés, at their direction, and will neither be published nor disseminated outside of their communities.
We expect that the non-controversial success of the methodology pioneered by Acaté and our indigenous partners will open the door for similar efforts across the Amazon and beyond. We are already seeing efforts by other organizations eager to replicate it.
Christopher Herndon: Acaté cannot speak for the Matsés on this matter. I can say from working with indigenous healers throughout the Amazon that I have found them to be generally open to sharing their knowledge, when approached with respect. They also have an intellectual curiosity regarding other systems of healing, including our own.
Some of mankind’s most important pharmaceuticals, such as quinine and aspirin, have been developed through learning from traditional healers. Due to the political climate and international fears of biopiracy, it is challenging for even well intentioned pharmaceutical companies committed to equitable profit-sharing agreements to undertake such initiatives. Practically speaking, the complexity of indigenous knowledge and medicines is such that it is not possible to fully evaluate the phytochemistry within the timeframe that the knowledge is poised to be lost. The Encyclopedia, although not designed for this purpose, keeps options open in the future for the Matsés; a future that, in contrast to most historical precedents, will be one of their own determination.
We should also not lose perspective that, until their encyclopedia, the Matsés entire traditional health system was on the unchecked verge of disappearance due to influences of the outside world. The Matsés live in remote areas for which external health provision is challenging and limited. The health dispensaries in many Matsés communities, particularly the ones farthest upriver, chronically run short of the most basic medications, such as those used to treat falciparum malaria, an introduced disease. The Matsés pay out of pocket for these outside medicines, which are a considerable expense for many elders without sources of income. The simple microscope for malaria smears was broken in almost every village that I have visited. Comparatively, we live in a world of health care abundance. If there is to be dialogue, in my view it should begin with how we can support them in the present rather than how they can help us in the future.
Christopher Herndon: The health of a people, their culture, and environment are inextricably linked. One should not think of the harsh medical and socioeconomic realities in Haiti without appreciating the context that 98% of the half-island country is deforested with much of the land, along with its future potential, eroded away. The border between Haiti and the adjacent Dominican Republic can be viewed from satellite as an abrupt transition from brown to green, the result of different approaches to resource use. Likewise, the images of Ethiopia that exist in the modern consciousness belie the fact that, a mere century ago, Ethiopia was a country with a significant amount of forest cover.
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. Viewed in this way, biocultural conservation initiatives can be extremely cost-effective and preventative approaches to healthcare.
Christopher Herndon: Sometimes change on the ground begins with something as simple and as powerful as an idea. The idea that your culture, traditions and way of life are not inferior or something to be ashamed of, as others may have told you. The idea that the rainforests you call home have a value infinitely greater than petroleum reserves or mahogany sourced to produce luxury furniture. The idea that your mastery of the rainforest environment does not make you primitive and backward, but rather positions you to be at the forefront of the global movement for conservation. The Encyclopedia is a tangible first step towards bridging an increasingly widening generational gap before it is too late. The Encyclopedia initiative renews respect for the wisdom of the elders and returns the rainforest to a repository of healing and a place for learning.
Christopher Herndon: The unprecedented meeting was held in one of the most remote villages in the Matsés territory. It is extremely difficult to describe in words the emotion felt by all in attendance as the elder Matsés spoke of the battles they fought—
literally—to defend the Matsés territory and their way of life. Many were choking back tears as one elder after another called on the youth to seize this opportunity to fill the impending void left as the elders pass away, just as they did when their grandfathers were alive. I have been working in biocultural conservation in the Amazon for 15 years but it was one of the most inspirational experiences to hear the power of their oratory and the determination in their voices. You realize at once that the Matsés are warriors at heart, who have long fought to protect their lands and they are going to continue that fight.