Whole Earth Review

Botanical Preservation Corps meets Ecuadorian shaman woman

Botanical Preservation Corps meets Ecuadorian shaman woman – Women’s Wisdom

Rob Montgomery

THE BOTANICAL Preservation Corps recently trained forty people in plant collecting and rain-forest ecology. The trainers were anthropologist/ethnobotanist/river guide Bret Blosser, transcultural psychologist Ralph Metzner, ethnopharmacologist Jonathan Ott, and me. The training focused on preservation of ethnopharmacological resources. The Australian, Ecuadorian, Mexican and North American participants in these courses actually created a nursery facility for a medicinal garden at Jatun Sacha Biological Station, a scientific reserve in Amazonian Ecuador.

Communities of indigenous healers are finding it harder and harder to obtain plant medicines as the forests disappear around them. Healers have to spend more of their time searching for medicinal materials, which means fewer people can be treated. Part of our project was aimed at gathering some of the primary forest species that indigenous healers rely on for healing, propagating them, and redistributing them to these communities. Many of these plants have never been cultivated by native people or anyone else; because they have always been gathered wild, nobody knows how to grow them from seeds or cuttings. We plan to help plant healers restore the plants in secondary-forest mixed plantings to create high-density living pharmacies for these communities; there is less development pressure on secondary forests and, as primary forests are cleared, there are a lot more secondary forests available that commercial interests find less desirable. The nursery will serve as a center where the plants can be propagated and as a demonstration project so indigenous healers can learn to set up their own nursery projects. Short-and long-term internships at the nursery can be arranged through BPC. Duplicate plant material is growing in botanical gardens in Hawaii, in order to preserve the species and make biomass available for pharmacological and medical research.

Our group assembled in Quito and chartered a bus for the back country. We made a number of canoe trips in the upper Rio Napo region to collect plants, bringing plant material back to the nursery facility. We also visited a number of Ayahuasceros (folk healers accomplished in plant identification and use, as well as the use of spiritual medicine). The Ayahuasca cult is widespread throughout South America and of unknown antiquity. The Ayahuasca potion, brewed from Banisteriopsis caapi and admixture plants (most commonly, Psychotria viridis), contains potent psychoactive chemicals as well as powerful vermifuges; shamanic use of Ayahuasca includes a rich mixture of medical, spiritual, cultural, and psychological lore, adherence to special dieting and behavioral disciplines, and intensive training processes.

One of the native healers who helped teach our course was a remarkable woman by the name of Mercedes Mamallacta (Mamallacta means “mother earth” in the Quichua language). She is thirty years old, the mother of three, daughter of a long lineage of prominent healers of the Quijos people. In an area and era of cultural disruption, where many of their neighbors are ashamed of their Indian heritage, this family is working to preserve their legends, oral history, songs, dances, theater, ethnobotany, and their forest, which is at the heart of their culture. The Ecuadorian government has granted the Quijos a reserve, operated as a membership cooperative; each tribe member has the opportunity to pay the equivalent of US&50 for permanent access to 150 hectares of primary forest in their traditional homeland. Many tribe members want to log their 150 hectares for quick money. The Mamallacta family is trying to convince as many others as possible to preserve the land. The headwaters of the Rio Pusunu, the critical watershed for the entire reserve, are a particular focus of this effort — the Mamallactas and their allies want to get all the parcels linked together to prevent others from buying, selling, and logging. BPC is channeling $50 donations to help conservation-minded tribal members to buy parcels and keep them out of the hands of those who want to sell out.

The Mamallacta family live on Galeras ridge, an area that had traditionally been avoided by the Quijos tribe because of legends of intense spiritual energy — giant boas, snakes, legendary beasts. At some point in the past, the forebears of the Mamallacta family left that their Ayahuasca mastery had given them the power to deal with these forces and moved into the shunned area generations ago. In that region there is an annual cultural festival in which young people have a contest to test their knowledge of the culture and of plant use. One of the major parts is a kind of Ayahuasca contest that tests mastery of the lore, the plant use, and its history — a mixture of cultural knowledge, psychological and spiritual power, a kind of talent contest. The young women dress in Ayahuasca-derived costumes and are tested by their elders on their knowledge of ethnobotany. Mercedes Mamallacta won the “Ayahuasca Queen” title two years in a row, a rare achievement.

Five of us hiked in to the Galeras ridge with the Mamallacta family, collected plants, and recorded information about their use. It took three days of nonstop marching over extremely rough terrain and obscure trails. We realized that there are many plants found only in that forest. We collected as many of these plants as we could carry and recorded information about them told us by the Mamallactas, then brought them to the nursery for propagation. Our hope is to provide the cultivars to knowledgeable members of other indigenous communities who still know how to use the plants, but find them difficult to obtain.

Mercedes is part of a tribal society of female shamans, something that has not been documented by outsiders; she is one of the preservers and promoters of this heritage. The society includes a body of knowledge of the use of plants in pregnancy and childbirth, women’s relationship to the sacred and spiritual realm through the use of these plants in ways that are different from those of the male shamanistic societies.

When she gave me the Ayahuasca brew, she reminded me of something that Ralph Metzner had taught me: “You must not experience this passively. You must actively question the world to find out what it has to tell you. Even the most unimportant perception might lead to knowledge.” Then she left me alone as the night fell over the jungle and the potion began to take effect.

I kept hearing a mosquito buzzing. It was affecting my concentration, so I decided to ask the mosquito what it had to teach me. The moment I did that, a rainbow-colored substance appeared in mid-air in front of me. It was like a three-dimensional cylinder, like rainbow toothpaste squeezing out of an invisible tube. The ribbon of color started to extrude more rapidly, grew very fine, and began to weave a kind of fabric or pattern in the air in front of me. In no time at all, the pattern wove itself into, of all things, the interior of what looked like a starship, with life support systems and portholes and instruments. And then the mosquito wove itself into a tiny starship-builder that was assembling this sight before my eyes as I watched. It said to me: “This is who I am. This is what I do.”

The Ayahuasceros say that the plant itself is a teacher. It teaches one how to use it, how to use other plants, how to live. I’m not sure yet what that mosquito taught me. But I know what Mercedes meant when she told me to pay attention to the tiniest perceptions.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Point Foundation

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