Despite pushback from western medicine, indigenous remedies regain favor in Ecuador

Oct 13, 2022 | 0 comments

By Ana Cristina Alvarado

Just as many westerners have turned to alternative remedies to seek cures for whatever ails them, Ecuadorians, too, have begun to reconsider ancestral medicine in light of changing attitudes.

Indigenous caregivers and midwifes are coming out of hiding in Ecuador thanks to a new legal system that supports the changing attitudes toward ancestral medicine. A new constitution adopted in 2008 recognizes the validity and importance of ancestral treatments not only for indigenous communities, but for the population at large.

A tourist undergoing a shamanic cleansing ritual.

A tourist undergoing a shamanic cleansing ritual.

The Spanish conquest in the 16th century began a process of suppression of traditional remedies and eliminated significant amounts of indigenous knowledge in Ecuador, including much of the traditional, ancestral, medical practices.

“There was a medicine-man persecution”, says Fernando Ortega, medical doctor and professor in cultural anthropology and public health at the San Francisco University in Quito. “We have lost more than 500 years, thousands of ancestral doctors, and a lot of knowledge, such as medicinal plant knowledge,”” he says.

Though much has disappeared, not all ancestral knowledge was buried with the Spanish conquest. Ancestral medicine has managed to survive through the centuries thanks to a strong oral tradition, says Miriam Guaillaguaman, Executive Director of the National Direction of the Intercultural Health Department, an arm of the National Health Department created to ensure compliance with Ecuador’s constitution.

A reflection of changing attitudes, the constitutional protections for ancestral medicine must still combat ignorance and opportunists who have discredited the traditions, she says.

Outside of the controversy, native plant remedies have continued to be used in Ecuador for centuries. Today, many of the country’s indigenous mercados sell a wide variety of medicinal plant remedies. In Cuenca’s 10 de Agosto mercado on Calle Large, an entire aisle is set aside for the raw ingredients of such remedies.

Rafael Quispe, an indigenous, medicine man from the central Andean town of Salcedo, who now lives in Quito, says ignorance always has been the main cause contributing to the poor view taken upon ancestral medicine doctors. He asks for, “respect for ancestral medicine.”

Ortega adds, “If there are scientists opposing [traditional knowledge] it is because they do not know about this medicine.””

Plants are harvested for medicinal use in the Ecuadorian jungle.

Often impeding the acceptance of ancestral medicine is the economic extortion exercised by phony medicinal healers, discrediting the field, according to Quispe. He says continuing education and government involvement are necessary to counter negative attitudes toward ancestral practices.

But Gustavo Fierro, an internal medicine physician who once worked in rural regions of Ecuador and encountered ancestral medical beliefs says, “the only worthwhile practice [within ancestral medicine] is medicinal plants,” which he says have only a minimal effect upon human health. He discounts other shamanistic practices. Fierro thinks that ancestral medicine cannot seriously complement western medicine.

“People with serious health problems go to the ‘shaman’ or medicine man because they think it is going to be quick and easy,” says Fierro. What worries him the most is the fact that for serious ailments, precious time needed for conventional treatments can be lost if patients do not first seek western doctors. “To educate the patients is important so they know, if they have a serious health problem, they have to go to the western doctor,”” he said.

On the other hand, Fernando Calderón, homeopathic M.D. and former National Director of the Intercultural Health Department, insists that “allopathic, or western, medicine must allow room for ancestral practices and remedies. Much of it, he says, is very effective in medical treatment.

In 1999 Ecuador’s National Health Department began a process to identify and certify medicine caregivers. The program’’s goal was to legitimize ancestral doctors and to insert them in the national health system. As of last year, 2,224 medicine men and women had been identified in Ecuador.

An entire aisle of the 10 the Agosto market in Cuenca is devoted to medicinal plants.

Andrea Bravo, the Cosmo Vision Department Coordinator at the National Department of Intercultural Health, is in charge of collecting information about the worldviews and healing practices of each ethnic group in Ecuador to better understand their dynamics and avoid conflicts with western approaches. “”We cannot take them (medicinal doctors) out of their roles because inside their own communities is where they are known and respected, and their work is key,”” she said.

She added, ““When medicine people live in an urban area it is easier for them to get involved in a health unit, but the great majority of care givers live in rural areas.””

The Intercultural Health Department works through 24 Provincial Coordination offices to strengthen the practice of ancestral medicine. Each Provincial Coordination has its own agenda regarding meetings, conventions, educational programs, according to their local reality, in order to strengthen ancestral medicine,” said Bravo. ““And our work is to support and guide to a certain point because each ethnicity has its own concept of ‘sumak kawsay’ or good standards of living.””

The National Department of Intercultural Health is credited with creating a medicinal plants garden program to help practitioners create their own tools within their homes and a midwife program for ethnic communities.

Additionally, the department is planning to publish the biographies of recognized medicine people with the objective of using these histories to reach people who do not know about ancestral medicine.

But Guaillaguaman argued that a different approach to integrating ancestral medicine into the national medical scene is needed. “Trying to legitimize ancestral medicine from the western point of view of national institutions is not the correct thing to do,” she said. “”So what we are doing now is accompanying the communities in their own legitimizing process.””

For example, she said that an elder’s council within some communities is in charge of determining the genuine medicine practitioners, a position supported by the Health Department.

And Guaillaguaman explained perhaps the greatest differences between ancestral and western medicine. “Allopathic medicine is based on medication, while indigenous ancestral medicine is about equilibrium.”

Tamia Maldonado, 21, of Quito, affirmed that a balanced lifestyle is the basis for human health according to indigenous world views. Maldonado was born to an indigenous father and a mestizo mother in Quito. “I feel and believe in the power of ancestral medicine,”” she said. “In the Andean and in the indigenous world one gets sick because the lack of something or because one is going through tough circumstances.”

She explained, “For example, when I have menstrual pain I’d rather drink a lemongrass infusion than take a pill. Besides, the faith that one puts on each element gives them the power of healing.”

Though Maldonado accepts western medicine she prefers traditional practices whenever possible. “If I can avoid sickness through the use of medicinal plants and spiritual cleanings I don’t go to the western doctor.”

In Cuenca, some of the city’s estimated 10,000 foreign residents, most of them from the U.S., have turned to traditional medicine. “Until I moved here, I didn’t pay much attention to it and thought it was mostly quackery,” said retired cardiologist Ray Reynolds. “But I’ve made several trips to the jungle to study plant remedies and to talk to the native healers and now believe that much of it valid. I’ve used it for respiratory and muscle problems and have had excellent results.”

Reynolds cautions, however, that you use due diligence before engaging the services of a healer or using native remedies. “There’s still some quackery out there,” he says.


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