Paraguay's Folk Healing in Transition

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Channel
June 26, 2003
Before dawn, Nidia Ferreira opens her small shop, Pepe, and organizes a
shipment of medicinal plants delivered to her doorstep.

Pepe is on J. A. Flores Street in Mercado Cuatro, the main marketplace in Asuncion, Paraguay. Down the block are more than 100 other sellers known as medicine women—folk healers practicing ancient arts. The street tables and baskets brim with plants and herbs from all over Paraguay.

"Hundreds of different types of medicine plants are sold here every day," Ferreira says. "Sellers often come here by bus for a few days, then go back to their homes in the countryside."

Business is good. But folk healing is in transition in Paraguay.

Medicinal plants are in vogue—so much so that some plants are facing near-extinction because of the demand. At the same time, Paraguayans are converting to modern medicine.

In Paraguay's Yvytyrusu National Reserve, a walkabout with Sunilda, the medicine woman, leads to a plant called Cola de Raton (rat's tail), useful for fever.

Sunilda is the main provider for her family. But, partly because of competition from other medicine women, she faces a scarcity of the plants that she has picked for a lifetime.

"Every day I have to search farther from my house than before just to find the plants I'm after," Sunilda says. "The deeper into the forest I go, the more poisonous snakes there are, too."

Nurseries of Medicinal Plants

The plants suffer from the demand, says Gesine Hansel, a German-born researcher in Yvytyrusu for Alter Vida, a Paraguayan conservation organization. Hansel wrote a master's thesis at Gottingen University on the marketing of Paraguay's medicinal plants.

"If too many women pick the plants just to be sold in markets, the plants will go extinct in this area," Hansel says. "A more plant-friendly approach must be taken if the medicine women want to have an income from these plants in five years."

Curaei Vendramini, a medicine woman in northern Paraguay, understands the problem and may have a solution.

Rather than picking plants in the forest, she has succeeded at growing many of them in her garden—creating a nursery. Now she bottles plant extracts for her patients and for the market.

"Nurseries will be the future for many medicine women —especially if all the plants in the forest get picked too much," Vendramini says.

Flovio Burizuelo, a respected holistic doctor in the Mercado Cuatro, applauds the nursery idea but worries about a larger issue.

"Shamans and medicine women are increasingly trying and favoring modern medicine, such as antibiotics," Burizuelo says. "This could have serious consequences for traditional and natural healing methods—and for the medicine-woman culture as a whole."

In an isolated village in Paraguay's Chaco, near Brazil's Patanal, Ana de Jesus Benitez, A medicine women from the indigenous tribe of Enxet, explains why perspectives are changing.

Plants vs. Pills

"Last week the village chief's seven-year-old daughter died from a fever, Benitez says. "We gave her medicinal plants but they weren't strong enough to save her. We needed modern medicines and a doctor."

Only 20 years ago doctors and what people called, "strange painted tablets" were looked down upon. Now few Paraguayans want to be without them.

"I first tried the 'head-ache' pills (aspirin) 10 years ago," says Ida (who would not give her surname), an elderly medicine women living alone with her son in the Mbaracayu Biosphere Reserve. "They work much better for my arthritis than the mandi'okau cook with my tea."

Ida's neighbor, Fernanda Ayala, also a medicine woman, defends the tradition.

Ayala and her husband, Gervasio Noceda, a shaman who contributed to the Spanish book "The Medicine Plants of the Guarani Community of Tekoha Ryapu," are skeptical of doctors and modern medicines.

"We want to stay open to changes in techniques for healing," says Ayala, who learned about medicinal plants from her mother and grandmother. "But the only real medicines that can be trusted are natural ones that grow and can be picked."

Ayala may be swayed soon, though. Her son, one of the few educated people in the vicinity, is the administrator of Tekoha Ryapu, and he advocates the use of modern medicine.

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