Paraguay's Folk Healing in Transition

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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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