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Amazon tribe saves plant lore with ‘healing forests’ and encyclopedia

Traditional healer Arturo Tumi Nëcca Potsad at the entrance to the “healing forest” near Buenas Lomas Nueva village in Matsés territory in Peru’s Amazon. Photograph: David Hill

In a bid to safeguard knowledge the Matsés in Peru have been planting “medicinal agroforestry” plots and written a 1,044-page two-volume book.

By David Hill

The seven indigenous Matsés elders were slowly meandering through the forest. They were explaining how different trees and plants are used for medicinal purposes, exchanging stories about how they had acquired their extraordinary knowledge and put it to good use. There were memories of an encounter with a jaguar and someone’s father struck by some kind of pain in the eye - “not conjunctivitis!” - while claims were made for successfully treating women haemorrhaging, snake-bite, a swollen leg and constipation.

The forest we were in was actually more of a garden - or “healing forest” or “medicinal agroforestry” plot - planted late last year by six young Matsés men under the expert guidance of elder Arturo Tumi Nëcca Potsad. “There are all types [of trees and plants] here,” Arturo told the Guardian, holding a spear made of peach palm and looking about him. “About 100 types, 3,000 plants.”

Segundo Shabac Reyna Pérez, a younger man who coordinated the planting, agreed with Arturo. “2,000, no, 3,000, over about half a hectare,” he said.

Where were we all? This was a 30-40 minute walk from Buenas Lomas Nueva village on the River Chobayacu in Matsés territory in one of the remotest, most inaccessible parts of the Peruvian Amazon, close to the border with Brazil. It is one of seven “healing forests” that have recently been planted across Matsés territory. To date, it is estimated that 1,000s of trees and plants of 100s of different species have gone into the ground, with each site overseen by an elder and traditional healer, or “maestro”, like Arturo.

The “healing forests” are just one result of the Matsés partnering with Acaté Amazon Conservation, a Peru- and US-based non-profit legally incorporated in 2012. Its publicly-stated aims are to work with the Matsés and implement “strategic programs” that “maintain their self-sufficiency and independence as they adapt to the outside world”, and that “provide much needed revenue without destroying their land and chosen way of life.” Another way of saying that: to develop long-term, sustainable economic opportunities for the Matsés that don’t involve cutting down the forest in what is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, that respect and nurture their knowledge and culture, that improve their food security, and that respond to some of their most urgent needs, including better healthcare and education.

Founded by two Americans, Bill Park and Christopher Herndon, Acaté currently has three full-time Matsés staff, one American field coordinator, and an office manager, Carla Noain, a Peruvian and Park’s wife. In addition, it coordinates with an Indigenous Advisory Board composed of seven Matsés, and so far has employed on a temporary basis approximately 200 men and women. Operating on a shoe-string budget, it is funded by family foundations, individual donations from the public, Lush’s Charity Pot, and sometimes their own personal contributions.

Herndon - Acaté’s president and a US-based medical doctor - says there is “a desperate lack of jobs” in Matsés territory. Partly that is why so many, particularly the younger generations, have been migrating to the nearest city, Iquitos, or elsewhere.

“How many people work in timber? How much trickle-down is there? What about next year?” Herndon asks. “That’s why we’re trying to bring economic opportunities. That’s why diversity is so important. There’s no one solution.”

Several 100 metres back down the track leading towards the village stands a large white sign, marking the entrance to the “healing forest.” In green capitals it states: “Medicinal plants project for Buenas Lomas Nueva with the NGO Acaté Amazon Conservation directed by maestro Arturo Tumi and Acaté’s legal representative Mr Wilian T. Pacck.”

Acaté supported the maestros and assistants with a daily stipend to do the planting. The sites were all chosen according to the same criteria - along a well-trodden path or an area of primary or secondary forest that the villages agreed to be set aside from hunting or swidden agriculture - but each garden has been laid out differently.

“Each maestro was his own designer,” says Park, Acaté’s director, who also runs a Peru-based company, Eco Ola, exporting “Amazonian superfoods”, and has become a friend of mine over the last three years. “The maestros are the undisputed designers.”

Each tree or plant was transplanted from elsewhere in the forest: some as seeds, some seedlings, some cuttings, some saplings, and others as epiphytes grafted onto standing trees. Examples - in the Matsés language - include nad iesho issun bedtequid nec, nadec caniquid nee, and nisin shёta dauё.

One of many 1,000s of plantings in the seven “healing forests” recently established in Matsés territory. Photograph: Acate Amazon Conservation

Park is keen to emphasise that the “healing forests” aren’t necessarily new to the Matsés. According to him, one can still be found today near Nuevo San Juan village that was established decades ago by “one of the finest ever Matsés healers”, Jorge Tumi. This was before sustained, peaceful contact with the “outside world” in the late 1960s, effectively encouraged by US evangelical missionaries. Before that, contact with non-Matsés had been marked by decades of conflict.

“This is not a new concept,” Park says. “This is a restoration. This is how they did it before the missionaries.”

The aims are numerous. Regenerating the forest is one and providing the maestros with a source of income is another, but more important is improving the latter’s capacity to administer cures and remedies by bringing as many of the healing plants as possible into one comparatively accessible place. Many of the fungi and vines with healing properties won’t grow in the Matses’s swidden plots, which are almost always exposed to the sun.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the “healing forests” aim to safeguard the maestros’ extraordinary plant knowledge - either by promoting interest in it among the younger Matsés or, even better, encouraging them to become maestros themselves. Plant knowledge among the younger Matsés is, in general, low. If the maestros - most of them estimated to be over 60 years old - pass away without training successors, their knowledge will be lost forever.

“Who knows? I could die at any moment,” said Alberto Bai, a maestro from Puerto Alegre village, standing in the “healing forest” near Buenas Lomas. “I’d like to leave behind all I’ve learnt about the plants to the young people - my students, my children - so they can replace me when I die.”

Alberto Bai, a Matsés traditional healer, in the “healing forest’ near Buenas Lomas Nueva in Peru’s Amazon. Photograph: Acate Amazon Conservation

Alberto had expressed the same concern the day before during a series of annual meetings with Acaté - held in May this year - when delegates from 14 Matsés villages congregated in Buenas Lomas to discuss the “healing forests” and other projects, which include a two-volume 1,044-page encyclopedia of Matsés plant knowledge, mapping, sustainable commerce, sustainable agriculture and now a pilot herpetological inventory. “I’m an old man now,” he told the audience, roughly 100 people. “All the elders are dying and getting ready to go, but if any young men come to Alegre we’ll be happy to teach them.”

Mariano Lopez Rengifo, 38 years old, did just that. He took the opportunity to start learning under Alberto when he was invited to Buen Perú village, where there is no resident maestro. Subsequently, Mariano travelled to Puerto Alegre, on the River Yaquerana, to continue studying with him there.

To date, Mariano has spent 50 days with Alberto and reckons he has taken notes on roughly 120 plants. Why does he want to learn?

“Because the elders are dying, because there are fewer and fewer,” he told the Guardian. “There are many young people among the Matsés, but the majority don’t want to know. Only a few do. This is very important. The elders are dying and if I get ill, or my wife gets ill, I don’t want to have to go to [Colonia] Angamos [the nearest town and main gateway into Matsés territory].”

Mariano has said he wants to be his village’s resident healer, but acknowledges it takes a long time to learn. “‘My university is the jungle,” he told Herndon last year.

But why are so few young people interested? “I can’t tell you that,” Mariano says. “I don’t know. Some of them want to live like the mestizos.”

Mariano, who in recent months coordinated the planting of a new “healing forest” in San Ramón village, says that previously he knew nothing about medicinal plants. “I congratulate - I thank - this NGO, Acaté. And I thank the maestros too. . . Alberto Bai. He has taught me well. Not everything, obviously. You can’t learn all the medicinal plants in a month. There are so many. Maybe in a year, yes. If William [Park] asks me “Do you want to continue?” I’m going to say yes.”

A sense of importance - and urgency - is patent among many Matsés, particularly those directly involved with the planting. This has been heightened by Jorge Tumi’s death in 2011, and then, on the very same day last year, just before the annual meetings with Acaté, both Arturo and Roberto Tumi Nëcca Unan, a maestro from Remoyacu village, were bitten and seriously wounded by fer-de-lance and bushmaster snakes.

One Matsés man who has played a key role in establishing all seven new “healing forests” is Segundo, now on Acaté’s full-time staff. He emphasises the lack of jobs in Matsés territory and the potentially tragic loss if the maestros pass away before transmitting their knowledge to younger generations.

Segundo Shabac Reyna Pérez, one of Acaté’s full-time staff. Photograph: David Hill

“Our elders, our grandfathers and our fathers are dying now and taking their medicinal plants knowledge with them. Who is going to replace them?” Segundo asks.

The idea to plant the “healing forests” emerged organically out of two other Matsés projects with Acaté: the 1,044-page encyclopedia and a sustainable agriculture initiative in Estirón village. The encyclopedia is written only in Matsés, in order to prevent bio-prospectors from ever understanding it. Entries are categorised by disease name followed by an explanation of symptoms, cause and the plants to cure it. A photo of each plant - numbering roughly 800 in total - accompanies each entry, but no scientific names are included, nor photos of flowers or other readily identifiable features. On the back of the first volume are two sentences in Matsés, roughly translating as “This isn’t a book for non-Matsés to see. Don’t let non-indigenous people see it.”

Park calls the encyclopedia, which has taken five years to write, “almost like an emergency insurance policy.” An interview with Herndon about it - or rather, what at the time was just the first volume, coming to 511 pages - became Mongabay’s “most shared and most read article” of 2015.

Herndon calls it the “first encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge written by Amazonian tribal shamans ever produced”, and believes the methodology developed by the Matsés can be a “template for other indigenous cultures” around the world.

Different chapters were overseen by different maestros, each supported by an assistant. Paid by Acaté, the maestros and assistants headed out into Matsés territory together, with the maestro identifying each plant and the assistant photographing it and recording what the maestro said about it. The final editing was done by a man from Estirón, Alejandro Jiménez, before being printed in Iquitos and then distributed back among the Matsés.

“Literally the entire encyclopedia was written and edited by the Matsés in their territory and brought out in a pdf,” Herndon told the Guardian.

The methodology developed through both the “healing forests” and encyclopedia has been applied to another Matsés project with Acaté: mapping the estimated 1.2 million hectares of their ancestral territory in Peru. Again, this has involved elders and assistants heading out into the forest, with the elder identifying important social, cultural, economic, historical and spiritual sites, and the assistant recording the names and information in a notebook and the locations in a handheld GPS unit. Both are overseen by one of Acaté’s full-time staff, providing logistical support and on-site GPS instruction for the assistants.

The staff themselves have only recently been trained in basic computer literacy and geographic information systems (GIS), in Iquitos, by Acaté. Neither Segundo nor his colleague Felipe Ëpë Bai Una had known how to use the GPS before their classes, while Mariano Lopez Rengifo, now an employee, hadn’t ever used a computer before. Even more difficult, the GIS software is in English, so everything has to be learned by rote.

For Felipe, a father of four from Santa Rosa village, the mapping has given him an opportunity to see the most remote parts of Matsés territory - in addition to acquiring new skills. To date, he has spent months on the River Yaquerana upriver from Puerto Alegre, on the River Galvez in Remoyacu, and further up the Galvez beyond Buenas Lomas Antigua. Always travelling with other Matsés, he has helped identify and record the GPS points of old villages and houses, swidden plots, palm swamps, streams, paths, hunting zones, fishing spots, burial sites, mineral licks popular with animals, and even places where the Matsés fought invading mestizos and others.

“Places that are important to the Matsés,” as Felipe puts it.

Felipe Ëpë Bai Una, one of Acaté’s full-time staff. Photograph: David Hill

Segundo has participated in the mapping too, in his own village Buen Perú as well as Puerto Alegre, where he travelled with elder Rómulo Tëca Nacua Chapa and an assistant in early 2016. Like the encyclopaedia, the maps are only written in Matsés.

“All the streams already have Spanish names,” Segundo says. “Now we’re putting Matsés names for them too.”

Upriver from Puerto Alegre, right on the southern boundary of Matsés territory, is as remote as it gets. There are other indigenous people in that region - living in “isolation” - and more wildlife, including jaguars, which have killed at least three Matsés men since the 1970s. Do Felipe or Segundo ever feel scared?

Felipe chuckled. “No. We don’t get scared. We’re there to work very happily and without any fear.”

Park, an Iquitos resident for the last five years, says the GIS training for the staff is a three year endeavour, with the agreement being that Acaté will “train the trainers.” Ultimately, the aim is for the Matsés themselves - not the government, oil companies, conservation organizations or other NGOs - to be able to make their own maps of their territory, thereby enabling them to “better protect their own lands as their forefathers did before them.

“They can now enter, visualize and output the data from the handheld GPS units using GIS software,” Park says. “The objective is that at the end of the three year period they can create their own maps from start to finish, and teach others.”

Acaté’s director Bill Park with Matsés artist Guillermo Nëcca Pëmen Mënquë who, as part of another project with Acaté, has illustrated a 146-page children’s book to improve literacy. Photograph: David Hill

To date, the Matsés have draft-mapped the headwaters of the four main rivers in their territory in Peru: the Chobayacu, Galvez, Lobayacu and Yaquerana. The drafts - featuring more than 1,000 points so far, but set to reach many 1,000s - were revealed at the meetings in May and then reviewed one evening by numerous elders, with Segundo calling out the names of the points (“Cuesbudaid Choed. . . Luis Padon Tied Sheni. . ..” ) and the elders providing feedback. At one point, Arturo got down on his hands and knees to peer at the map of the River Galvez through a magnifying glass, chuckling at himself as he did so.

“It’s important the young people don’t forget the old places,” Felipe told the Guardian. “We don’t know what the elders know. Looking at these maps we can learn, for the future, where the boundaries of the indigenous community are or where the reserves begin.”

The potential power of the maps became immediately obvious at the May meetings when they were pinned up around the walls. They show clearly how Matsés territory extends way beyond the 501,000 hectares legally titled to them and how two oil concessions and two “protected natural areas” - a national park and national reserve - have been superimposed over it. The Matsés have vigorously opposed the concessions since they were created 10 years ago, but the park was established recently in 2015.

Although the then presidents of the Matsés’s elected council effectively agreed to both the national park and reserve, concern and confusion among the Matsés are obvious. The key questions: what exactly do the different laws and management plans permit us to do? Can we enter or not? Can we hunt and take things out, or is it banned? If control posts are built to protect the park and younger Matsés are employed there, might they stop the elders from going in?

Time and time again, Matsés men and women stood up to condemn both the national park and reserve. The most vociferous was Rómulo, the elder from Puerto Alegre who travelled with Segundo to do the mapping. He argued that the land now included in the park was where his uncle and others had cultivated swidden plots. “I’m no slave of the Lima people,” he said - or rather shouted. “We are independent of them. I have a right to go there. It’s our ancestral land. We named the streams before the mestizos. That’s not swidden that belongs to someone from Lima.”

Herndon calls the Matsés maps an “incredibly powerful tool” and a “staggering achievement and effort.” He compares them to those made by Great Plains tribes in the USA in the 1850s after “the government told them where their land was - and it was wrong.”

“It’s one thing to say “That’s our area, we’ve been there before”, but it’s another if it’s objective data and you can overlay it with petroleum extraction points,” Herndon says. “These maps show the full extent of where their territories are. We saw that in the meeting. The Matsés should, ethically and morally, have title to all that land.”

Acaté’s field coordinator David Fleck, an American biologist and linguist born in Lima with dual US-Peru citizenship, feels similarly about the maps. Fleck has written a grammar of the Matsés language, a history, and over 30 scientific articles about them, and until recently was living permanently in Matsés territory with his Matsés wife and their two sons. “These maps are giving them an important tool to fight their battles,” he says.

In Buenas Lomas Nueva village traditional healers, together with Segundo, Felipe and Acaté field coordinator David Fleck, review the draft maps of Matsés territory. Photograph: Acate Amazon Conservation

The Matsés’s newly-acquired GIS skills have proved fundamental to another project with Acaté: sustainable commerce. This is part of a concerted attempt to identify economic alternatives to logging - one of the major sources of Matsés income in recent decades - or other destructive activities such as hunting. Initially focused on harvesting the anti-inflammatory, anti-septic and anti-fungal resin from copaiba trees (genus Copaifera), Acaté is now helping the Matsés to prepare management plans to harvest and sell a whole range of renewable non-timber forest products.

The potential products and commercial uses are numerous: fruits like aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa), huasai (Euterpe precatoria), huito (Genipa americana) and ungurahui (Oenocarpus bataua), seeds such as achiote (Bixa orellana) and huicungo (Astrocaryum murumuru), resins like sangre de grado (Croton lechleri) as well as copaiba, vines like uña de gato (Uncaria tomentosa), and reishi mushrooms (Ganoderma lucidum).

Preparing the management plans involves heading out into the forest, identifying and then GPS-locating each tree or plant to be harvested. The Matsés have now done that across 14 villages, with Felipe and Segundo leading on this too and so far helping to identify more than 10,000 trees and plants. The aim is for each village to have its own plan, with each one later approved by the regional government.

The first to be prepared was in Puerto Alegre, where Segundo worked with Rómulo. “It must be someone who knows the area very well,” Segundo says. “We had to find the right person. So the village chose Rómulo.”

One of the most exciting potential products is huicungo, whose seeds can be made into a cosmetic known internationally as “murumuru butter.” During the meetings in May Park explained to several Matsés how to calculate the yields in a spread-sheet, after his wife, Carla, had previously taken Segundo through the production process and Segundo had held workshops in two villages.

Park thinks the Matsés could develop “their own sustainable murumuru industry”, estimating this might require harvesting up to 13,000 trees. “This is only a proof of concept,” he says. “Then try it out and find a soap-maker in Lima. The ultimate objective would be to export to a socially responsible company that is interested in supporting this kind of work.”

While the harvesting of non-timber forest products remains largely at a preparatory stage, with the exception of copaiba, another component of the sustainable commerce project is already up and running. Since December 2016, Acaté has been buying a wide range of Matsés artefacts, including cotton and chambira palm bracelets, spears, bows, arrows, hammocks, headbands and sling bags, for subsequent sale in a gallery in Cusco, Xapiri, or online on its website. To date, this is estimated to have brought in 25,000 soles (US$7,600) to the Matsés.

Juama Perez Chispi, Segundo’s mother, weaving one of the bracelets. Photograph: Acate Amazon Conservation

The bracelets have been the most popular. Commercialising them was suggested by one woman, Carmen Rodriguez Lopez, during the Matsés’s meetings with Acaté in 2016. The first order was for just 10, all from the same village, but the most recent was for 400, from seven villages.

Segundo has been travelling up and down Matsés territory to collect the bracelets, and sees them as a sustainable source of income that can benefit every village. Herndon thinks similarly, emphasising it is important to start at “micro-scale” and claiming that, in addition to providing a replicable fair trade model, they are an unprecedented opportunity for Matsés women too.

“Each bracelet can be traced to each community,” he says. “And it’s also great because a lot of the work is done by the women. It’s a way they can say, “We too have valuable economic skill sets.””

Enthusiasm among the Matsés for their projects with Acaté is obvious - whether the “healing forests”, encyclopedia, mapping, sustainable agriculture, bracelets or other sustainable commerce options, or now the pilot herpetological inventory. Back in the “healing forest” near Buenas Lomas, one of Arturo’s sons, Eduardo, who had worked as his father’s assistant during the planting, had made this as clear as anyone.

Segundo, Acaté’s president Christopher Herndon and Matsés woman Casilda Jiménez working on the pilot herpetological inventory near Estirón village. Photograph: Acate Amazon Conservation

“Initially, when the planting and apprenticeships started, I didn’t know anything at all about what the plants can be used for,” Eduardo said. “Now, after doing the planting, I’ve learnt a little. So I would like to ask William and Dr. Chris that, in order to learn more, we can continue with this project. Why? Because the elders are growing older and anyone could have an accident and die because there isn’t anyone else who would know how to respond.”

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