Sustaining Matses traditional medicine and self-sufficiency through indigenous-led rainforest medicinal agroforestry
About the Implementing organization
Name: Acaté Amazon Conservation
Year of establishment: 2012
Type of organization: Legally recognized non-profit status
The completion of the Encyclopedia was a historical and critical first step towards mitigating existential threats to Matsés’ healing wisdom and self-sufficiency. The Matsés leaders and elders outlined their vision for Phase II, in which elder shamans will be accompanied in the forest by younger Matsés to learn the plants and assist in treating patients. Collecting, planting and tending plants is the most effective way to teach identification and applications. It is important to emphasize that Healing Forests are not a new introduction but a restoration of traditional Matsés agroforestry. To an outsider, this forest looks like non-descript stretch of rainforest along the footpath to their farms about a fifteen minutes walk from their village. This forest is in fact a constellation of medicinal plants cultivated by the Matsés healers for use in treatment of a diverse range of ailments. Each plant was transplanted and cultivated by the Matsés in a zone according to its ecological demands, underscoring indigenous mastery of rainforest agroforestry not well understood by outsiders. The creation and maintenance of Healing Forests was disrupted for over two decades under the influence of missionaries before the onset of Acaté’s work. The healing forest systems will both hasten Matsés communities’ ability to treat ailments due to their proximity to village life, and offer a rapidly accessible classroom to the forest flora culturally significant in Matsés traditional medicine.
Type of Action
Protection / Restoration / Sustainable use / Access and benefit sharing
Sustainable Development Element
The process of collecting, planting and tending medicinal plants is the most effective way to understand their growing habits, needs, and use. Restoring this forgotten horticultural art provides many benefits to the Matsés and functions as training grounds for apprentices. Each Healing Forest structured differently and may cultivate as many as 300 species of plants. The outcomes of the program include immediate health care delivery mechanisms with less external dependence and improved cultural cohesion. By growing healing forests and transmitting healing knowledge, the program alleviates dependency on the limited external medical resources available in their remote villages. We anticipate maintaining utilization of renewable medicines from the forest will lessen need for limited outside medications, which are costly and have potentially greater adverse risk-profiles. The propagation of medicinal plants around the village ensures sustainability and mitigates against over-collection.
Sustainable Development Impacts
The value of traditional medicine in social cohesion cannot be underestimated in Matsés society. The knowledge and techniques accumulated within their healthcare system are products of their deep spiritual and physical ties to the natural environment. The Matsés’ spatio-temporal understanding of the world, as well as their ability to survive in the jungle, are largely dependent upon their knowledge and interaction with local biota. Acaté’s promotion of traditional medicine encourages both Matsés oral and written literacy and, by extension, a sense of belonging that enriches the strength of Matsés tribal relationships and identity. The renewal of pride and identity self-propagates and magnifies amidst tribal members and communities, increasing the likelihood Matsés adherents remain connected to their culture, identity, and their lands as they adapt to 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. The initiative is important from the Matsés perspective because loss of culture and poor health care are among their greatest concerns. The methodology they developing to 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. The strengthening of indigenous cultures remains one of the most effective ways to protect large areas of rainforest.
At our most recent meeting, Matsés High Chief Wilder Gonzalez Flores proclaimed his intent during his tenure of leadership to see Healing Forests restored in all 14 Matsés villages. As of writing, Healing Forests have been established by the Matsés in almost half of their villages. We believe our initiative is replicable to other indigenous groups in Perú and beyond. Following the completion of the Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia in 2015, two established conservation organizations announced their intent to replicate the initiative with their indigenous partners.
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