Paraguay's Folk Healing in Transition

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.

Continued on Next Page >>




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