Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo September 18, 2023

Caring for the Rainforest, a Pantry of Medicinal Plants (Spanish)


a house on the amazon at night

Indigenous medicinal practices in the Amazon may hold the clues to overcoming an epidemic of...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors

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 EnglishSpanishbahasa IndonesiaFrench, 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."

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund journalism covering underreported issues around the world. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!

José Esteban Valencia, payé or traditional knowledgeable person of the Makuna ethnic group of Pirá-Paraná; Horacio Manuel Ramos, traditional Tikuna doctor from the community of Arara; and Celestino Ramos Manuel, traditional Tikuna doctor from the community of Nazaret, Leticia. Image by Miguel Winograd/El Espectador. Colombia, 2023.

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.

In the image on the left, Reinel Ortega Marulanda, payé or traditional makuna knower from Pirá Paraná. In the center image, the preparation of mambe can be seen. And in the image on the right, Reinel Ortega shows his necklace with wild boar teeth. Image by Miguel Winograd/El Espectador. Colombia, 2023.

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.

Video by Pedro Samper. Colombia, 2023.


yellow halftone illustration of an elephant


Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
a yellow halftone illustration of a truck holding logs





yellow halftone illustration of a logging truck holding logs


Rainforest Reporting

Rainforest Reporting

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues