I have a reputation when I travel of attracting the attention of venomous snakes and children. This can be both a curse and a blessing when working for WWF on forest conservation.
Luckily, on Natural Habitat’s Great Amazon River Cruise the children were plentiful and the venomous snakes kept to themselves.
The village these children live in is nestled along the headwaters of the Amazon River in Peru. Families here have lived in the region for generations and are experts in making the most of forest resources, including building homes like the one in the above photo.
During our visit, we stopped at one of the family’s gardens whose caretaker explained how her collection treats ailments like itching from insect bites, an upset stomach, and even joint pain. This tradition of cultivating plants for medicinal purposes has an extensive history in northern Peru and has been the subject of numerous anthropological studies that show the cultural significance and benefits of these practices.
In Peru, the greatest experts on medicinal plants and their uses are shamans, known locally as curanderos or “healers,” who often serve as the only regular medical provider in their areas. As the shaman in the photo above explained, she was trained from a very early age by spending countless hours alone or with her teacher in the forest to build her connection with nature and learn the use of hundreds of plants. Unfortunately, her knowledge will likely disappear forever as, despite her efforts to find a young trainee to carry on her legacy, she has found no successor. Younger generations in this part of Peru are typically uninterested in the many difficult years of training or want their lives to take a different path.
The problem of traditional knowledge being lost in the Amazon region is regrettably common. This has implications for not only local communities, but also for the world. While approximately one in four prescription drugs used in Western medicine contain ingredients derived from plants, less than 1 percent of tropical plant species have been screened for potential pharmaceutical applications. Thousands of medicinal species are under threat and experts estimate that we permanently lose at least one potential major drug every two years.
Fortunately, some shamans, including those we met in the above photo, are working to preserve ethnobotanical gardens and record their lore in multiple languages. This meticulous task is critical and will help to ensure the cultural continuity and the health of Amazon communities.
At WWF, I work on a team whose mission it is to conserve the world’s most important forests. While we understandably focus considerable energy on endangered wildlife and the environmental services that forests provide, we are also conserving forests to promote human well-being. I am thankful for the chance to travel with Natural Habitat, reminding myself of the lessons still to be learned from forest communities, and seeing firsthand how saving forests is also about protecting thousands of years of knowledge at imminent risk of extinction.
By Katie Zdilla, Program Officer, Forests, World Wildlife Fund