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Brazil: The rainforest is our pharmacy

Afforestation in the rainforest Medicinal plants such as Brunfelsia grandiflora (sapling in the picture) play an important role in the traditional medicine of the indigenous peoples in the Amazon region. (© Magnus Arrevad)

Plant-based remedies from the rainforest are key to the health of indigenous peoples. But this centuries-old knowledge, which has only been passed down orally, is in danger of being lost. A systematic study is working to document the knowledge of the shamans for the benefit of indigenous people and humanity as a whole.

“The loss of traditional knowledge is making us dependent on the state health system, which is expensive and not very good,” explains Álvaro Tukano.

Álvaro is the chief of the 260,000-hectare Balaio reserve of the indigenous Tukano people on the Rio Negro in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. The 67-year-old has been defending the rights of indigenous peoples, their territories and traditions for decades.

Over centuries, the shamans in the Amazon rainforest have acquired invaluable knowledge about the healing powers of plants. They know the effects of hundreds of plants and natural remedies made from them in order to fight diseases and strengthen the human immune system.

But the Western way of life that is increasingly gaining ground in the villages and rainforest areas – as well as the politics of the Brazilian government – are undermining the indigenous communities.

The elders, shamans and curandeiros are dying out and their influence is dwindling. And with it, their traditional knowledge and natural medicine are being replaced by western medicine. This is making indigenous people dependent on government authorities, public programs and business interests.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the complete inadequacy of the state health facilities in the rainforest. Policymakers abandoned the inhabitants of the forest, leaving hundreds of thousands to contract the virus and thousands to die.

“They died because they did not believe in our traditional healing methods and remedies and because our traditional wisdom was not available,” explains Alvaro Tukano. “The majority of the indigenous people who contracted the coronavirus survived in my Tukano area. They escaped death with the help of shamanism and medicinal plants from the rainforest.”

Álvaro Tukano wants to document and preserve the knowledge of the plant healers – for the indigenous people in the rainforest and humanity as a whole. In the project, he will:

  • Establish a plot of land on which medicinal plants are grown, harvested and prepared for treatment.

  • Document the plants, their cultivation, their processing and application in words and pictures and describe them for further studies and publications.

  • Impart the traditional knowledge to young indigenous people and thus train a new generation of natural healers.

  • Work with the scientific community to isolate the active substances and to market them fairly. In this way, the indigenous communities will have a sustainable long-term income and no longer be dependent on handouts.

The funds we are raising will cover the project’s transportation costs, work materials, communications and financial support for the learners.

The project was launched in February 2021 and will run for at least three years.

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