From Fixing to Healing: A Traditional Medicine approach to Climate Change

By: Fronika de Witt

“A daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene. This will require appropriate human behaviour at all scales, and may well involve internationally accepted, large-scale geo-engineering projects, for instance to “optimize ” climate.”

Paul Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind”, 2002

“Being an Onanya is not only about healing: it is about treating well our territory, love for our family, for the forest, plants and biodiversity.”

First Shipibo Konibo, Xetebo’ Traditional Medicine Convention, 2018

The citations above highlight tensions in dealing with current planetary challenges, such as climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss. The first epigraph comes from a highly cited article in the scientific journal Nature by the Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen, who coined the term ‘the Anthropocene’: our current geological epoch with significant human impact on the environment.

The second epigraph are words from a Shipibo shaman, an indigenous people that lives alongside the Ucayali river in the Peruvian Amazon. In 2018, I spent three months in the Peruvian department of Ucayali to conduct fieldwork for my doctoral research on Amazon climate governance and indigenous knowledge. In general, my fieldwork was a very enriching experience, but the “cherry on the pie”, in terms of indigenous perspectives on climate change, was an invitation for the first “‘Shipibo Konibo, Xetebo’ Traditional Medicine Convention”, where I heard the above words.

In this post, I depict some of the Convention’s main insights. However, first I elaborate more on the tension between the two epigraphs, or, as the Colombian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar puts it: the tension between modernist and ontological politics.

The First Shipibo Konibo Xetebo Traditional Medicine Convention in August 2018. Source: Author’s personal archive

Ontological politics and the emerging field of Political Ontology, are linked to the so-called Ontological Turn in the social sciences: a turn from a world where only neoliberal development counts (the One-World World), to a world where many different worlds fit. In this ‘multiplicity of worlds’- also known as the Pluriverse – there is a platform for antisystemic alternatives and radically different worldviews and practices that are aiming for a socially just world. Examples of these ontological or pluriversal politics can be found all around the world: the African Ubuntu philosophy, Japan’s Kyosei, the South American Buen Vivir, the European degrowth movement, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. Mexico’s Zapatista movement, to name a few.

What these transformative initiatives have in common is their struggle against reformist solutions that universalize the earth into an ontology of dualisms: subjects and objects; nature and culture; mind and body; human and nonhuman. According to researchers in the field of Political Ontology, such as Mario Blaser and Marisol de la Cadena, this dualist ontology makes us believe that we humans dominate nature; Nature is conceived as a ‘resource’ instead of a living entity.

UNIA, Peru’s first intercultural university located in Yarinacocha, Peru. Source: Author’s personal archive.

Let us now go back to the Peruvian Amazon, to the small district of Yarinacocha, to be precise. On August 18 and 19, 2018, in the auditorium of the Intercultural University of the Amazon (UNIA), the Council of Shipibo Conibo Xetebo Peoples of the Peruvian Amazon (COSHICOX) organized the first Traditional Medicine Convention: an event that can be seen as an example of pluriversal politics in practice. The Convention’s objectives are twofold: 1) To generate a space for dialogue and reflections on the global interest of Shipibo culture; and 2) to analyze the advantages and opportunities of shamanic knowledge and Shipibo spirituality in current contexts.

The Shipibos are witnessing an increasing interest in their culture – especially in their Ayahuasca (a South American entheogenic brew) cerimonies – in the form of “shamanistic tourism” and the organization of the 2019 World Ayahuasca Conference in Spain. They fear for the misappropriation of their ancestral medicine and traditional knowledge: “Just as they took our natural resources, now they might take our knowledge” as COSHICOX leader Ronald Suarez points out. Suarez emphasizes the need to strengthen the process of self-determination of indigenous peoples and their struggle towards Shipibo autonomy: the creation of the self-government of their ancient territory (Autogobierno Shipibo).

The Convention’s participants also discuss the use of traditional medicine for current challenges like climate change. They criticize the way ayahuasca ceremonies are portrayed by the western world: “Shamanism is not a show”. Ayahuasca, which is part of Peru’s Cultural Heritage, is used to diagnose, not to treat: in a later stage, various plants are used to help make the patient learn about love for nature, for the territory, for the family. A fundamental component of Shipibo’s traditional medicine is its spiritual dimension: health is not just about the physical, but mainly spiritual. Also, according to Shipibo cosmology, traditional medicine helps us see the world through the perspective of the non-human.

The Shipibo’s divide their ‘traditional doctors’ into two types: the Onanyas, who have the ability to get close to animals, and the Merayas, who can become an animal. They prefer to use these words in their own Shipibo language over the word ‘Shaman’, which actually comes from Russian and means something like a witch or voodoo-doctor.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) recognizes the need to respect how “indigenous knowledge, cultures and traditional practices contribute to sustainable and equitable development and proper management of the environment”. The Anthropocene’s focus on human agency and human capacity to “fix the climate” are very Western conceptualizations, and, as pointed out by the French philosopher Bruno Latour, in need of a shift towards forms of non-human agency. Examples like the organization of the first Traditional Medicine Convention and the Shipibo’s ontological struggle towards autonomy and self-governance are a first step towards this shift. A shift from fixing to healing, from universalist to pluriverse.


Fronika de Wit fez a sua graduação em geografia humana e mestrado em estudos de desenvolvimento, ambos na Universidade de Utrecht, na Holanda. Ela viveu por seis anos na Amazônia Brasileira, onde trabalhou em projetos locais e internacionais socioambientais. Atualmente esta no último ano do seu doutoramento em Alterações Climáticas com uma investigação sobre Governança Climática Policêntrica na Amazônia, com estudos de caso no Brasil e Peru.
fronikadewit@gmail.com

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