Biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest in unrivalled and with over 150,000 plant species calling the jungle home there are still many secrets left unturned. The Matsés have 100’s of natural medicine and plant mixtures used for various purposes.
Over the past few years, 1 hectare plots of ‘Healing Forests’ have been planted and maintained by 10 different Matsés villages. These Healing Forests can contain 100’s of species, the aim is so safeguard all of the Matsés ancestral medicinal knowledge and ensure there is a method for this knowledge to be passed down to the younger generations.
The Healing Forests are a continuation of 5 years of work between Acaté Amazon Conservation and the Matsés where they famously produced the first of its kind medicinal plant encyclopedia. This now 1000 page volume was groundbreaking work compiled by various Matsés elders and younger apprentices who have now continued this work into the Healing Forests. The encyclopedia is now finished and under Matsés ownership, meaning all future generations will have access and control to this important archive.
The Matsés elders can know 1000’s of species due to their proximity and understanding of the rainforest, having learned from their fathers as their fathers did with theirs.
ADAPTIVE MATSES AGROFORESTRY
'Healing Forest medicinal plant gardens are based on adaptive Matsés agroforestry. Many of the medicinal vines and fungi that the Matsés use for healing will not grow in sun-exposed gardens outside their homes and require rainforest ecosystems for their propagation. Successfully transplanting and establishing rainforest plants in situ requires a master understanding of these complex ecosystems.
To an outsider, a Healing Forest forest might look like an unremarkable stretch of rainforest along a footpath to their farms, about a 10 to 15 minute walk away from their village. In the presence of a master Matsés shaman pointing out the medicinal plants, you realize in a moment that you are, in fact, surrounded by a constellation of medicinal plants cultivated by the Matsés healers for use in the treatment of a diverse range of ailments. The placement of the healing forest 10 to 15 minutes away from their villages is characteristic Matsés efficiency. If you have a sick child, you don’t want to have to travel 4 hours to find the remedy.'
Dr. Christopher Herndon, President and Co-Founder of Acaté Amazon Conservation
A MATSÉS CONCEPT
The idea for the healing forests is not an outside concept, it is elaborated from similar traditional Matsés practices from when they first became settled after initial contact with the outside world in the 1970’s.
‘Before we were semi-nomadic so we would just go into the forest to collect plants. In the 80’s we began to stay in one village so my father started to manage a garden where the plants were all put together. Now this idea is being done with other villages, with apprentices learning the plant knowledge, this is great as now all the plants are in one place and being learnt.'
Antonio Manquid, Matsés Elder
Antonio is now passing on his father's knowledge and is an influential teacher to the younger Matsés in the healing forest project. Antonio offers his advice to many Matsés apprentices who are interesting in learning the traditional medicinal knowledge not only in his village but in neighbouring communities too.
'Before Acaté’s initiatives, none of the remaining elder Matsés shamans had apprentices to pass on their ancestral knowledge of the rainforest accumulated over uncounted generations. Their entire ancestral healing knowledge was inarguably on the precipice of being lost forever. Now five years later, the Matsés have created the historic first indigenous medicinal encyclopedia to worldwide acclaim, completed a second volume last year, and have now restored Healing Forests in over half of their villages.
We are seeing young Matsés men and women, who constantly face racism and discrimination in their interactions with the outside world, emerge as leaders with a renewed pride in their culture and determination to carry on the proud legacy of their people.'
Dr. Christopher Herndon, President and Co-Founder of Acaté Amazon Conservation
Nënë is the Matsés word for tobacco and was traditionally used in powdered form most days but now not so frequently. Like other cultural practices, since outside contact in the 1970's, traditional plants and medicines are used less and less.
Nënë has various uses, from supplying energy in the jungle or as a tool to open conversation, tell stories and pass on oral knowledge. In a tobacco snuff form, it was also used for transferring an elder man's energy, courage and marksmanship to a younger man using a tube fashioned from a small species of bamboo.
Uesnid canite is the Matsés name for the curassow bone which they use to make a pipe and inhale the nënë. The pipe is made by joining two leg bones of the curassow bird together at a 45 degree angle. Chambira fibre is used to tightly tie the bones together before beeswax is added on top for a strong moulded hold and seal.
Jorge Shabac, chief of Buen Peru village and master 'uesnid canite' maker.
'The nënë has to be taken up both nostrils in order to keep a balance.'
Jorge Shabac, Matsés chief.
Daniel is one of many Matsés elders who still produce and use nënë but like many other ancestral practices it is rare for the younger generation to be engaged in nënë tradition.
We documented the whole process with Daniel, first going to his chakra to collect the tobacco leaves which he harvests 4 times a year, giving sufficient time for the plants to replenish.
On route back to the village he collects bark from a species of wild cacao tree (called senad dëbiate in Matsés, cacahuillo in local Spanish; Latin Theobroma subincanum), which will later be burnt, with the ashes added to the tobacco snuff. The ash has no physiological effect alone, but functions to release the alkaloids from the tobacco, making its effects quicker and more intense.
The central veins are removed from the leaves before being placed on a readily made frame above an open fire. The carahullio bark is also added on top to dry alongside the tobacco leaves.
The leaves are now crumbled and mixed by hand with the ashes of the cacauillo bark. Finally the powder is put in a bamboo mortar before being smashed repeatedly with a wooden pestle until the powder is in a fine form. The final step is to sift the snuff to remove any large particles.
‘Acaté' is the name of the NGO (Acaté Amazon Conservation) who we and the Matsés work with but the organization was named for the word in the Matsés language for a large and poisonous tree frog found throughout the northern Amazon. The acate frog (Latin name: Phyllomedusa bicolor) plays a key role in Matsés culture, through hunting ceremonies and also its history in Matsés mythology, showing how they learnt to hunt, below is an elder’s account of the legend.
'Before the rubber boom, the Matsés made peaceful contact with a tribe named Camumbos (meaning ‘The Jaguar People’). The Camumbos taught the Matses to make and use bows and arrows. Before that the Matses used blowguns for hunting. The Camumbos also taught the Matses to use the poison from the acate frog, which was part of their hunting culture. The frog venom was applied to give hunters better marksmanship and make them more energetic. The Camumbos are also the ones from whom the Matses copied their facial tattoos and the men’s facial ornaments.'
Daniel Bai - Matsés elder.
Acate which is also known as sapo or kambo has been traditionally used by the Matsés for generations. This jungle tradition is generally practised by Matsés men in order to improve their hunting prowess and strength. The acate is generally taken on rainy days as the energy and marksmanship is expected to be long-lasting so the benefits of acate are for future hunts when the weather is dry, and also for having energy for other types of work. Acate also has a role in knowledge or skill transmission, for example, if a hunter is down on his luck for a period of time on bringing back game, he will ask one of the best hunters to apply acate venom to him.
HOW IT WORKS?
The frog which is easy to find due to its distinctive voice is tied and stretched out onto a quickly made rectangle frame. After some minutes of aggravating and disturbing the frog with small sticks, the frog in defence produces a sticky secretion through the skin, which is collected and stored on a carved stick for future ritual use. The frog is then released back to jungle, unharmed.
The secretion of the frog is most commonly applied to superficial burns on the arm or chests. The effects are strong, the poison enters the body and a short-lived but intense heightened heart rate struggle and intense feeling of discomfort follows, often inducing strong vomiting. Thereafter the short-term effect is weakness, and the Matsés generally rest in a hammock to recover for a few hours. If it stops raining, they might go do some work in the afternoon. It is on the following days that they expect to have the stamina and focus for hunting.
A handful of regional Panoan Amazonian ethnic groups including the Amahuaca, Katukina, Kaxinawá, Kulina, Yawanawá, and Marubo also use this frog species for similar practices in their cultures. It should be noted that in recent years the use of the monkey frog venom (known as sapo or kambo) outside of indigenous cultures has risen tremendously in correlation with the wider use of all rainforest medicines in places as far as off as Miami and London.
For the Matsés, the use of acaté outside of their culture has caused internal conflicts due to the unregulated sale and also the general Matsés view that part of their culture is being taken with little recognition coming back to its origins. Additionally, peptides have been patented from the frog secretions, without Matsés permission or acceptance.
‘I do not agree with Acate leaving our lands, the outside people are misappropriating our traditional practices’ -
Antonio Manquid , Matsés Elder.