Melding medical traditions: Western surgery, rainforest plants

Walking through the rainforest that covers their territory in eastern Ecuador, most adult members of the indigenous Sápara nation could collect tree oil that clears skin, bark to relieve muscle pain and leaves to cure cataracts. They could pick out anything from the endless greenery of the Amazon Basin and find a use for it.

But sometimes the traditional medicines of the forest have their limits.

When Rosario Ishauna Ushigua Santi was 8 years old, a snake bit her father in the head. The Sápara have a long list of herbs for treating snake bites — the rabbit-eared plant in the jungle that tells a pregnant woman the sex of her baby can also counteract venom. But as their chief succumbed to the bite, she remembers, the elders knew herbs were not enough. They called an emergency plane, the only vehicle that could reach past the trees. It would be the first time a Sápara from Llanchamacocha went to a hospital.

“I thought he wasn’t going to make it,” Rosario Ushigua, now 37, said. “But they healed him.”

This incident in 1988 marked the beginning of a compromise between modern Western medicine and the Sápara people, whose knowledge had passed through millennia.

Manari Ushigua plucks Amazonian leaves used to make cups.

After healing the chief, some doctors from Puyo — the last town in eastern Ecuador before the vast, impenetrable expanse of the Amazon rainforest — flew in to try to vaccinate children, who would run and hide into the woods.

“They still run into the mountains,” Marco Montaguano, Rosario Ushigua’s husband and a schoolteacher for the Sápara, said.

But now, parents get their babies vaccinated.

Alcides Zacarias, 34, a Kichwa man who lives among the Sápara, was vaccinated after he cut himself. Most Llanchamacocha men bear scars — Zacarias got his when a machete sliced from the webbing of his thumb halfway up his knuckle. He was flown to the hospital in Puyo, 50 miles away.

Although the Sápara continue to use herbs, some have begun to accept aspects of modern medicine. Hilario Gualinga took extra precautions when his wife gave birth to their fourth child in May 2017. “We were afraid the cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck,” he said. So they called in the plane, which takes 20 to 30 minutes to arrive, then sent her on the half-hour flight to the hospital. The emergency plane can take as long as an hour to reach other territories, such as the neighboring Achuars’.

The next step in their collaboration with Western medicine, Montaguano said, is establishing a medicinal research center where scientists could study the rainforest plants the Sápara know so well.

These include a plant whose leaves they rub into a cleansing foam. Scientists could examine it, Montaguano said, and then the Sápara could use it to make their own soap bars.

The community is looking for biologists and university researchers who could support the initiative and are interested in exploring the Amazonian flora, Montaguano said. They are hoping to receive support from Centro Mundial de la Felicidad, which has helped them find volunteer teachers to educate the Sápara children.

The idea is one of many in the Naku Experience, a project Manari Ushigua, Rosario Ushigua’s older brother and the Sápara’s leader, launched in 2013, with the help of the Pachamama Alliance, a foundation, to protect their territory from oil drilling. Naku means “jungle” in Sápara, a language now spoken by only five people in the world. In 2013, the Ecuadorian government auctioned off exploration rights on Sápara land. The winning bidder was Andes Petroleum, a subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporationthe second-largest oil company worldwide. To date, exploration is on hold.

Naku is “one project to create more projects,” Mauricio Rodas, a Kichwa newcomer to Llanchamacocha, said. The research center and similar creative plans would, the Sápara hope, enable them to use the rainforest’s natural resources and bar outsiders from compromising the environment.

They hope to market newfound medicine and help make their economy self-sustaining, Rodas said.

Carlos Larrea Maldonado, a political science and environmental sciences professor at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, said he knows of only one similar case that worked, a small project in the city of Puyo on the rainforest’s edge.

“It’s very exceptional,” Larrea said in conversation with JWW

Two years ago, Larrea said, he visited an indigenous man who had returned to Puyo with a Ph.D in biology. The man worked with a team to create byproducts of medicinal plants, such as concentrated oils. The group is now trying to manufacture them on a small scale, in order to sell them in Ecuadorean pharmacies, which rely mostly on private drug providers from abroad.

“It is a good initiative,” Larrea concluded.

The group spokesperson, Gabriela Aguilar, did not respond to several attempts to reach out.

As far as the Sáparas’ plans for a research center, Larrea was guardedly optimistic. “They have their own plan,” he said. “They have an alternative way of life that they are working on.”

The Sápara, along with other indigenous nations, want to show the world that there are alternatives to increased deforestation.

After all, it is often said that the cure to cancer may be found in the Amazon rainforest, if only the world would stop destroying it for lumber and oil. As far as Manari Ushigua is concerned, that is no exaggeration.

While performing a morning dream-reading ritual, Ushigua took a pause. A breeze from the north was passing through the trees. A spirit was lost, he said. “We are going to shout to help them find their way.”

Spirituality is part of the Sápara traditions that Ushigua hopes to preserve. Reliance on Western medicine has taken hold in the younger generations — in the Sáparas’ neighbors, the Achuar and the Kichwa — although the elders in those nationalities hold fast to traditional practices.

“We are very wise,” Elvia Dagua said firmly. “We are scientists.”

Dagua, who is the leader of the Kichwa people of Pastaza province, which also includes the Sápara territory, told JWW that her aunt and her daughter had had cancer. Doctors gave her sister two years to live and recommended chemotherapy. Her aunt had uterine cancer, too, and also received a six-month prognosis. Both women dumped the medicine the doctors prescribed and returned to the jungle, where they received herbal remedies, Dagua said.

It has been more than a decade since their diagnoses. They’re fine, she said.

“We have traditional medicine that can cure us,” Dagua said. “But I know that if I go do chemotherapy, I’m going to be saving one organ and killing a bunch of others. So why would I have to take that?”

Domingo Peas, leader of the Achuar of Ecuador, took a similar approach when his wife got cancer two years ago, eschewing chemotherapy and returning to traditional remedies. She had a hysterectomy. “She’s fine now,” he said.

Many older indigenous people accept surgery but then prefer to continue treatment with traditional medicines, Dagua and Peas said.

But the younger generation relies on Western medicine for more, despite the fact that they sometimes face discrimination in public hospitals and medical centers.

“When the doctors see you’re an indigenous person, they don’t care,” Dagua said. “They don’t treat you well. They don’t give you the same treatment they would give a white person.” When her daughter broke a knee and needed surgery, she recalled, the doctor said he had no anesthesia. When Dagua threatened to move her daughter someplace else, the anesthesia appeared.

Despite these complications, the Sápara still desire to forge a compromise between Western and traditional medicine via the research center, which is in the outreach phase.

“It was a community decision,” Zacarias said. “Which means it’s a good thing.”

Editor’s note: All interviews were conducted through a translator.