This story excerpt was translated from Spanish. To read the original story in full, visit El Espectador. You may also view the original story on the Rainforest Journalism Fund website. Our website is available in English, Spanish, bahasa Indonesia, French, and Portuguese.
The degradation of the Amazon rainforest is endangering several plant species that have been key to traditional Indigenous medicine. Its destruction is also jeopardizing hundreds of years of knowledge.
José Esteban Valencia almost died from an illness he did not understand. His bones ached, his joints ached, he was barely conscious. He never knew what he had, but he interpreted it as poisoning. In his convalescent dreams he traveled through his territory.
"The owner of this territory led me through the sacred places, rivers, cachiveras, jungle, lagoons, the güíos (snakes). […] He took me all over the place, he showed me what those spaces are made up of, it was the path of healing."
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José Esteban, a Makuna who migrated from the distant Apaporis River, lives in the community of Ceima Cachivera, on the outskirts of Mitú, deep in the Amazon. He is what is known in his community as a world healer or masini masut. In his maloca, which is both a home and a ceremonial center that he built himself, he prepares mambe—a mixture of coca leaf and yarumo ash for ritual use—and with the help of other sacred plants such as yopo and ayahuasca, he sits down to spiritually heal his community. As is the case for the traditional doctors of the Amazon, in their hands lies the health of the people, but also of their territory, because for them man and territory are indivisible.
For the Amazonian peoples, access to the Colombian health system is precarious, and the health of thousands of Indigenous people relies on medicinal knowledge that is at risk of extinction. The shamans of these peoples—cornered by the destruction of the rainforest and the alterations to their habitat that climate change could cause—are their last defenders.
"A maloca is a responsibility; to sit, to relate to nature, wisdom, knowledge, spirits, jaguars," says José Esteban as he pours yopo—a plant powder and ash— from a conch shell into the palm of his hand, which he then inhales with a kind of "y" shaped pipe made from tapir bone.