26.02.2018 change 26.02.2018

Polish researchers investigate medicinal plants in the Peruvian Amazon

Researchers from Poland document medicinal plants used in the Peruvian Amazon. The project may allow to discover plants that will be new to science, says Dr. Monika Kujawska from the Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Lodz.

Dr. Joanna Sosnowska and Dr. Monika Kujawska, in cooperation with the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, conduct medical ethnobotany and complementary medicine research among the Asháninka people from the Tambo river in the Peruvian Amazon.

Dr Kujawska has been working in South America for 10 years. She specialises in ethnobotanics. Earlier, she worked among the people of mixed European and American Indian descent and descendants of European emigrants, including those with Polish roots.

The researcher admits that before starting the project, together with Dr. Sosnowska, they had to obtain a number of permits from the ministries of forestry and agriculture to carry out research and collect plant specimens. They also had to negotiate terms of cooperation with the indigenous communities.

The research is carried out on the Tambo River, a tributary of Ukajala, in the Selva Central region of the Peruvian Amazon. Each of the 14 villages called Comunidades Autónomas on the river manages approx. 20,000 hectares of the Amazon forest.

"After we arrive in the village, a meeting of comuneros, all representatives of the community, is called. We present the project that we are coming with, explain what we want to do with them, and they decide whether we can stay in the village. If they agree, they actually look after us" - says Dr. Kujawska.

As part of the research, the researchers accompanied by a group of indigenous people go on several-hour walks in the forest. "During the walk, we stop at every plant that interests them and that they use for medicinal purposes. They tell us what they use it for, which parts they use, how they prepare a given plant. Then we document it photographically and, if it is in flower or in fruit, we collect it for the herbarium in Lima, where we mark it botanically" - she reports.

Polish researchers also inventory home gardens of the villagers. The Asháninka grow medicinal plants in their gardens. Some are replanted from the forest, some are typical crops.

The researchers also conduct interviews with the Asháninka etnomedicine experts, including midwives (some of them certified), bone adjusters who often combine this specialization with massaging skills, vaporadoras (women who do prepare mini-saunas using specific plants) and shamans.

Dr Kujawska admits that shamans are the least cooperative group and there are only few of them left on the Tambo River.

"Young people are not willing to become shamans, because it requires a diet and sexual abstinence, so, in a sense, sacrifice. The shamans also distance themselves from others, for historical reasons I think, because they have always been the most persecuted group (for example by missionaries), as the main depositaries of knowledge and the entire Indian cosmic vision" - the researcher explains.

The Asháninka use various parts of plants - bark, roots and leaves. "Sometimes they prepare preventive medicines, especially from the bark or roots; they make macerates based on cane vodka, which they buy in the city. They drink it to maintain health, I have been offered this drink on many occasions" - says Dr. Kujawska.

Peruvian Indians from the Tambo river often use plants to heal wounds caused by mechanical body injuries, for example with a machete, which they use every day. They also use plants to treat bites, diarrhoea, headache, weakness of the body.

They use a variety of methods: they apply plants externally, directly onto the skin, drop juices from leaves into the eye, and use plants in mini-saunas. "But they do not drink infusions or herbal teas very often" - the researcher describes.

Women grow various Cyperus species in their home gardens. These plants look identical to the researchers, but the Indians have several dozen different names for them. "Perhaps someday genetic research will help determine whether the tubers of these plants indeed have different properties" - the expert wonders.

An interesting fact is that, for example, women use Cyperus tubers as contraceptives. "Women use tubers on a certain day in the cycle to avoid getting pregnant. And then, to be able to get pregnant again, they use very similar plants that probably grow nearby" - says Dr. Kujawska.

The project of Polish researchers is financed with a Sonata 10 grant of the National Science Centre. It is basic research with a purely cognitive goal. "We want to learn, document, analyse and disseminate the results in the form of scientific articles. The indigenous people also want us to help them prepare materials for a book on the medicinal plants used by the Asháninka" - notes the researcher.

Dr Kujawska admits that there are still many undiscovered plants in the Amazon, as well as many unknown uses of known plants.

"All this makes this project attractive and we think we will find a place to join the international debate on this subject. The project might even allow to find plants that will be new to science" - concludes Dr. Monika Kujawska.

PAP - Science in Poland

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