The Shaman Is In

A tiny Amazonian village mixes traditional healing and modern medicine

| Utne Reader September / October 2007

At an intertribal gathering of shamans held last spring deep in Amazonia's northern fringe, a stout elder from Brazil's Waura tribe offered an impassioned plea. 'Please,' he urged fellow healers from Colombia and Suriname, 'don't let the medicine die.'

His appeal did not fall on deaf ears. In Kwamalasamutu, Suriname, where the shamans convened, an innovative model is leading the effort to preserve centuries of indigenous medicine by integrating traditional and Western practices into a thriving community health care system.

The cooperative nature of the effort is evident across the soccer field from where the shamans gathered. In a concrete building, a former missionary organization provides free primary health care, while next door, in a thatched-roof clinic, shamans wield medicines brewed from leaves, vines, and tree barks.

Five mornings a week, villagers trickle into the traditional clinic seeking remedies for a range of common complaints, from yeast infections to diarrhea. The shamans might look at the tendons of patients' fingers or peer into their eyes before turning to the bottled elixirs they keep in a solar-powered freezer. Or the shamans might refer them to their neighbors for treatment.

So far, three other rural villages in southern Suriname have built similar clinics, replicating a cost-effective model for indigenous health care that's been hailed by UNESCO and the World Bank and was one of 10 finalists this year for the prestigious Seed Award for innovation in local sustainable development.

The project was conceived by the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), a Virginia-based organization that partners with tribes in Suriname, Colombia, and Brazil to preserve traditional rainforest culture as a means of saving the rainforest itself. In ACT's view, those fates are intrinsically linked: If the value indigenous cultures place on their ancestral land, culture, and resources erodes, so too might their will to steward the forest.