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Latin America Shawn Dispatch

Amazon-Aid: Open 24/7 (or until cut down) for Your Medicinal Needs

The fat hummingbird hovers in front of a giant red blossom, lazily drawing nectar with its strawlike beak. Its wings are beating so fast they are imperceptible to the eye. Meanwhile an evening breeze gently pushes its way through the dense jungle foliage lending a moment of relief from the stifling heat. The breeze carries a kaleidoscope of colorful butterflies, dragonflies, beetles and many other unique and wonderful tiny creatures. They gracefully flutter and dart through the moist, hot air as if performing a dance they had rehearsed for a lifetime. This insect ballet is accompanied by the local symphony of birds and crickets chaotically chirping and squawking, but somehow with perfect rhythm and harmony.

Suddenly, the hummingbird darts beneath the branches of a tree. From out of the darkness of the forest canopy a hawk appears. It drops into a spiral dive through the brambles without disturbing a leaf, and with impossible silent grace grabs the tiny hummingbird with its razor talons in mid-air. Without hesitation, the hawk swoops back into the canopy to enjoy its delicious prize--dinner. Asi es la vida en la selva. (Such is life in the jungle.)

Gilmer is a year away from becoming a shaman like his father.
Gilmer, my guide, understands this cycle of life and death. His father, Antonio, is the local shaman, or healer. Gilmer is in his eighth and final year of apprenticeship and next year he too will be a shaman. He will have both the knowledge and responsibility of using the medicinal plants which are abundant in the Amazon Jungle to heal the people who live here of many diseases and ailments which plague their lives.

Another one of the Amazon's many medicinal plants.
The rainforest is a hotbed of biodiversity and evolution. Although rainforests cover less than 10% of the earth's surface, they contain more than 50% of its living species, and many of them are microbacteria and viruses that can be deadly to humans. Fortunately, among the millions of species that inhabit the rainforest, there are thousands of plants that have healing properties. When we witnessed the mortal drama of the hawk and the hummingbird we were standing at the edge of the medicinal garden in which Gilmer and his father cultivate over 180 species of these plants. Gilmer took me on a tour of the garden and enthusiastically explained the uses and methods of preparing many of these plants.

The Minosa Sacha's needles quickly close up for protection when
touched.
Some of these plants are world renowned because of their healing properties. They can be found in pharmacies and health food stores everywhere. As I looked at all the plants, I breathed in a familiar and distinctive smell. This unmistakable smell is Arnica, a very popular herb, which is used to help relieve the pain of muscle aches, and contusions. Also familiar to me was ginger, which is used almost everywhere for cooking, but is also helpful for relieving stomach pain and cramps. Of course, most of the plants there I had never heard of and some were very strange. My favorite was a plant called Mimosa Sacha, which is a short bush with flat needle-like leaves. This plant is used as permanent birth control when women no longer want children. However, its most interesting feature is that it's covered with very fine, delicate hairs and when anything touches them, the needles quickly close up for protection and the branch drops a few inches. After about half an hour they slowly spread themselves out again and get back to work collecting sunlight.

Gilmer assures me there are thousands of medicinal plants in the jungle and he has literally spent years wandering around with his father learning how to identify and prepare them. Some are simple remedies for little problems, such as the sap of the Sangre de grado (dragon's blood) tree which is good for treating cuts and bug bites. Others are more potent and are used to cure serious illnesses, like the leaves and stems of Icoja, which are used to cure hepatitis. I have chronic arthritis in my hands and knees and Gilmer prescribed Giri Sanango. I was very impressed that he knew right where to find it in the confusing maze of the brambles surrounding the garden. I haven't tried it yet because the ground stems must cure in agua diente (a kind of rum) for four days before it is ready, but he tells me that he has rheumatism and it is very effective for him.

The shamanism of the amazon basin combines herbal medicine with deep spirituality. Not only do they prescribe medicines to their patients, but they also use plants during the treatment which they believe help them to manipulate the spiritual world and improve their patients condition. The most famous of these is a concoction called ayahuasca, which is a bitter tonic, made of six different hallucinogenic plants. It allows the shaman to enter a dreamlike state in which they can communicate with plants and spirits to better understand the cause of the problem. Once they have entered this realm they use what they have learned to change the flow of energy and use spirits to help them achieve their goal of curing the patient. Shamans believe plants themselves are always communicating with us in their language. Using ayahuasca is like having subtitles to a movie in a foreign language; suddenly they can understand what the plants are telling them. To the shamans, the dream world is as real as the world that our bodies live in, and by being able to change what happens in the dream world, they can change what happens in this one.

No matter what you believe about spirits and talking plants, there is little doubt about the benefits of using many plants of the Amazon for healing. Pharmaceutical companies are now catching on to what shamans have known and passed down for hundreds of years. In the past few years, almost all the major medicine companies have allocated funds to research these plants for their practical value in creating over-the-counter medicine. Gilmer has talked to researchers from some of these companies who are hungrily searching for cures to diseases such as AIDS and cancer and hope that maybe the answers lie here, deep in the wilds of Amazonia. Although many of them may prove useful, Gilmer does not believe they will be able to get the full benefit of their use because these companies ignore the spirit of the plant and seek only its physical value. As more and more practical discoveries are made here, people are becoming aware of what a sacred place the Amazon is. As it rapidly disappears we are beginning to understand that this precious fountain of life should be preserved not only for its own sake, but for ours as well.

Shawn
 

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