In Ecuador, like many Latin American countries, due to the global inequity of access to vaccines against COVID-19, only 10% of the population has so far received both doses of the vaccine. Indigenous peoples, with minimal access to clinical care, are particularly vulnerable populations that know very well they cannot lower their guard to the virus.
A recent study published by the World Health Organization thanks to a targeted coronavirus testing study done in 2020 by the Universidad of las Americas in Ecuador, in collaboration with the Organización Waorani de Pastaza, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and Amazon Frontlines, found COVID-19 outbreaks in 12 out of 14 communities in the Amazon region. Ancestral medicine thus became essential in rural indigenous communities to suppress the virus.
Indira Vargas, a 30-year-old Kichwa woman who was vice president of the Kichwa community of Union Base in Pastaza, Ecuador, during the height of the pandemic, had the initiative to document the ancestral medicine that women have been using to combat COVID-19. As heir to the ancestral knowledge acquired in her community, and thanks to her academic background, she just published a “Manual of ancestral use of medicinal plants for the mitigation of COVID-19 in Amazonian Kichwa communities,” which she hopes will be of use to other indigenous communities.
“In the beginning, we did not know what this disease was about, and we were really scared with all the information that came from abroad, everything was like in pandemic movies,” Indira said in an interview with Awasqa.
She said it was a bit overwhelming to have to deal with all the cumulative responsibilities in isolated Amazon communities during the emergency. As vice president, she was in charge of managing food aid and began seeing people falling sick everywhere; she quickly realized this wasn’t normal.
“In the community, as a security measure, we closed the roads to limit people’s movements. But the virus was in people. We did not have the greatest shelter, and people went to the city to buy supplies […] Our elders told us about the historical diseases that came through colonization, the conquest itself: yellow fever, measles, smallpox. They already knew about these diseases, and this was a new one that was coming to the communities. They said we had to be prepared. “
As we’ve previously documented at Awasqa, the inaction of the government led people to promote local initiatives, and creativity supported by ancestral knowledge quickly began to bear fruit. Indira emphasized that the leadership of women was key to containing the virus. “Plant management came from women, support came from women, self-organization came from women.”
The women went to the fields, to the jungle, to extract plants like cat’s claw and matico leaves, all necessary elements in the preparation of medicines. “The mothers went to the jungle and created a preparation with tree barks, leaves, wild garlic, guayusa, chrikaspi. This medicine was very effective; it did help us. It helped to lower the fever, decrease joint pain because each plant has its own active ingredients,” said Indira, who also ended up in bed and isolated with COVID-19 but achieved a speedy recovery thanks to the ancestral medicine of her elders.
The idea of making the manual came from her academic training. She has a bachelor’s degree in tourism from the Universidad Estatal Amazónica of Puyo, with a specialization in biomedicine, which helped her expand her scientific knowledge but also learn about herbalism from other regions.
“I met other women from the Andean region there, and I was asking them about plants,” she said. “I have always been close to our ancestors who are knowledgeable about medicine.”
The manual, a work of several months that included the rigorous translation of plants from Kichwa to Spanish, allowed her to document the knowledge that women were putting into practice during the crisis, built from the compilation of some medical authors, her own academic knowledge, and the collaboration of the grandmothers who prepared these recipes. Although the herbal medicine included in the manual is based mostly on Amazonian vegetation, Indira hopes that the Shuar, Achuar, and other nationalities can take this manual, adapt it to their local environment, improve upon it, and translate it into their own languages.
“Having this knowledge in the community is one more part of our lives, which goes hand in hand with the issue of spirituality, which is respect for nature, animals, big trees,” said Indira. “For me, it is very important to have a healthy spiritual side, in connection with the rainforest, which has always been there for our community.”
We are grateful for the generosity of Indira Vargas, of her Kichwa people, and we disseminate the “Manual of ancestral use of medicinal plants,” so that other indigenous peoples have the opportunity to explore its therapeutic uses.