by Faye Sakellaridis
The Matsés peoples of Brazil and Peru are making sure their ancestral knowledge survives beyond them by creating a 500 page encyclopedia of their traditional medicine.
Indigenous cultures across the world are vanishing with no record of their traditions, stories, or knowledge. When the Matsés lost one of their most renowned elder shamans before his knowledge could be passed, they were spurred to create the encyclopedia.
“It is a true shamanic encyclopedia, fully written and edited by indigenous shamans, the first to our knowledge of its kind and scope,” says president and co-founder Christopher Herndon, M.D. of the Acaté Amazon Conservation, who spoke with Mongabay at length about the encyclopedia and the wide range of effects it will have.
Because of their spiritual connection to the environment, Herndon says empowering tribal cultures is an integral part of rainforest conservation:
Mongabay: How do you hope this encyclopedia could help conservation efforts?
Christopher Herndon: We believe that empowering indigenous peoples is the most cost effective and enduring approach for rainforest conservation. It is no coincidence that the remaining tracts of intact rainforest in the Neotropics overlap closely with areas of indigenous habitation. Tribal peoples understand and value the rainforest because they are dependent upon it. This relationship extends beyond a utilitarian reliance; there is a spiritual link to the forest, a sense of interconnectivity that is difficult to comprehend through the compartmentalized Western mindset but real nonetheless.
Many of the serious environmental threats in remote indigenous areas that you hear about in the news—petroleum, timber, mining and the like—are external industries that opportunistically prey on the weakened internal social cohesion of recently contacted indigenous peoples, their limited resources, and increasing dependency on the outside world. The unifying theme of Acaté's three programmatic areas, sustainable economy, traditional medicine, and agroecology is self-sufficiency. Acaté did not predetermine these three conservation priorities; they were set in discussion with the Matsés elders who know that the best way to protect their culture and lands is through a position of strength and independence.
From the global conservation perspective, the Matsés protect over 3 million acres of rainforest in Perú alone. This area includes some of the most intact, biodiverse, and carbon-rich forests in the country. The Matsés communities on the Brazilian side of the Javari and Yaquerana rivers frame the western borders of the Vale do Javari indigenous reserve, a region roughly the size of Austria that contains the largest number of 'uncontacted' tribes in voluntary isolation remaining the world. At the southern margins of the Matsés territory, in the headwaters of the Yaquerana river, lies La Sierra del Divisor, a region of staggering natural beauty, biodiversity, and also uncontacted tribal groups. For these reasons, although the Matsés may only number a little over 3,000 in total population, they are strategically positioned to protect a vast area of rainforest and a number of isolated tribal groups. Empowering them is high-yield conservation.
Read the full interview here.