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.
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.
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.
The Encyclopedia is written by and from the worldview of the Matsés shaman, describing how rain forest 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.
Tribal peoples understand and value the rain forest because they are dependent upon it. This relationship extends beyond a utilitarian reliance; there is a spiritual link to the forest, a sense of inter connectivity that is difficult to comprehend through the compartmentalized Western mindset but real nonetheless.
The 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 rain forests 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 rain forest 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 rain forest to a repository of healing and a place for learning.
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.
During our Q and A on the Encyclopedia, the son of Alberto, one of the most knowledgeable elders, raised concerns over who was protecting the information on the medicines. Acaté President and physician Christopher Herndon took this opportunity to explain the safeguards Acaté and the Matsés have in place to protect the medicines from bioprospecting from pharmaceutical companies and other parties.
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. This is wrong.
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.