Protecting sacred life with the Matsés

Hillary Ojeda

Matsés leaders and Acaté Amazon Conservation create a 500-page encyclopedia in the tribe’s native tongue, protecting ancestral knowledge.

Protecting sacred life with the Matsés

Cesar, Matsés leader.. (Photo: Acaté Amazon Conservation)

There are 51 indigenous groups in Peru, according to Minority Rights Group International. Of these, about 15 groups are uncontacted tribes. All of them are facing threats to their survival. Languages are being lost at a rapid rate, their land is being opened up to petroleum exploration and they have limited access to educational and health resources, among others.

Since the time of the ‘discovery’ of the New World, nearly 95% of indigenous cultures have disappeared.

Once gone, there is no resurrecting their cultures—including their knowledge of the natural world built up over millennia.

It’s taken almost three years, but the Matsés tribe, who inhabit a region on the Peru–Brazil border, are just months away from having their ancestral knowledge recorded in a 500-page encyclopedia made exclusively for their benefit.

On May 16th this year, a meeting was held in the Matsés community of Puerto Allegre on the Rio Yaquerana, to discuss final steps. The meeting was attended by six shaman leaders and representatives of eleven local communities, as well as members of Acaté Amazon Conservation.

(Fleck with Wilmer, a Matsés shaman. Photo: Acaté Amazon Conservation )

Representing the NGO were co-founders Christopher Herndon and William Park, and Field Coordinator David Fleck.

Acaté Amazon Conservation and five Matsés shamans recently completed a 500-page compendium of all traditional medical and botanical knowledge of plants and ailments known to their tribe, along with treatments for the diseases. It’s an astonishing accomplishment. At a time when one language is lost every 14 days, preserving a language and its culture couldn’t be any more significant.

Experts estimate that by the end of the century, about half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today will disappear. It’s not just the language itself that is lost when a group stops speaking it. But it’s also the history rich in culture and its ancestral knowledge that are also erased with the language. The encyclopedia provides a defense to that.

The Matsés Traditional Medicine Encyclopedia is the first of its kind in history. Never before has an Amazonian tribe created a complete transcription of their medicinal knowledge in their native language. The book is organized by disease names, provides descriptions to recognize the diseases, which plants to use and how to prepare the medicines used to treat the diseases.

Not only that, but it’s written only in their native tongue. No Spanish or English translation will be made, and the book will be printed and distributed for the local community’s benefit alone. This is to protect the community from outsiders and potential exploitation of their resources.

(Herndon with Arturo, a Matsés shaman. Photo: Acaté Amazon Conservation )

“The Encyclopedia is written by and from the worldview of the Matsés shaman; describing how rainforest animals are involved in the natural history of plants and connected with disease,” Herndon told Living in Peru.

In other words, the Encyclopedia was written by the shamans and is therefore written with descriptions as they experience their environment, rather than from the perspective of Acaté Amazon Conservation.

This is central to the way that the organization operates and is their ultimate mission: to provide support to struggling indigenous people of the Peruvian Amazon; and to work with them directly to provide revenue without destroying their land and chosen way of life.

It was within the last 60 years that the Matsés were first contacted, and unfortunately it was not under similar circumstances that they encountered their first outsiders. Missionaries and government officials told them their medicinal knowledge was worthless, breaking the cycle of medical and botanical apprenticeship from old to young.

It is with the knowledge of the elders and its transmission to youth that ancestral ways are carried on. Without this process, the community has no foundation to survive and build upon for the future.

(A Matsés child. Photo: Acaté Amazon Conservation )

“The Encyclopedia is a tangible first step towards bridging an increasingly widening generational gap before it is too late. It renews respect for the wisdom of the elders and returns the rainforest to a repository of healing and a place for learning,” Herndon told Living in Peru.

But the Encyclopedia is not all: the collaboration also aims to restore medical apprenticeships. Matsés youths accompany shamans into the forest where they learn the plants and shadow the elders in patient care. This second phase has already proven successful and they plan to expand the program to other communities.

The program doesn’t stop there; Herndon and his team aim to bring the best of the two worlds together in a way that benefits the Matsés. Acaté Amazon Conservation is working with the Matsés to integrate Western medical practices in a way that best suits their needs.

The effort put in by Acaté Amazon Conservation to protect the Matsés’ needs and ancestral expertise is unique. The conservation team and the community have a profound understanding of the connection between indigenous territories and healthy ecosystems. Coming together with these ideas and initiatives demonstrates that the, “strengthening of indigenous culture [is] one of the most effective ways to protect large areas of rainforest,” said Herndon.

With formatting nearly completed the encyclopedia is scheduled for print before the year’s end.

Visit Acaté Amazon Conservation’s website for updates and more information.

To read the full interview with Christopher Herndon, visit my blog.

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