Globalist Analysis

Health in the Andes: The Modern Role of Traditional Medicine (Part I)

How is modern science making use of traditional healing practices?

An indigenous Quechua woman in Ecuador.

Takeaways


  • The Jambi Huasi clinic in Otavalo has developed a highly effective approach to meeting the health needs of the indigenous populations it serves.
  • Curiously, some of the techniques used in traditional medicine in the Andes have come into vogue in the fashionable spas of Europe and the United States.
  • In Ecuador, over 900 different plants are used for medicinal purposes.
  • The core of traditional medicine is the respect for the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, as well as for all living entities.

Traditional practices of both preventive and curative health care have existed for thousands of years, and today they are often used in conjunction with modern medicine.

Of the more than 300 million indigenous people in the world today, an estimated 42 million live in the Americas. They represent thousands of different cultures and ethnic groups whose survival is due, in part, to the efficacy of their traditional health practices.

Indigenous peoples in this region have, over several centuries, developed a complex series pf practices as well as an understanding of the human body.

Equilibrium and harmony with nature is considered the basis for good health. Illness results when that equilibrium is altered, and healing is achieved when harmony is restored between the sick people and their environment. Health also depends on compliance with social norms and moral obligations.

In the South American Andean countries of Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, traditional medicine still plays a prominent role in the health care of indigenous communities, particularly those in remote rural settings beyond the reach of governmental health services. According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, 80% of people living in developing countries depend on traditional healing systems as a primary source of health care.

The Jambi Huasi clinic in Otavalo, a town located 70 miles north of Ecuador’s capital Quito, has developed a highly effective approach to meeting the health needs of the indigenous populations it serves. Jambi Huasi means “house of health” in Quechua, the area’s predominant language.

The clinic provides a blend of both modern and traditional medicine. Among the traditional practitioners are a doctor (yachac), a midwife (mamahua) and a chiropractor (jacudor). Western medical services include internal medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, minor surgery and dentistry. Each service also includes culturally appropriate counseling and health promotion activities.

According to Dr. Myriam Conejo, coordinator of Jambi Huasi, one of the center’s primary objectives is to link traditional and Western medicine while providing health care to the surrounding indigenous community. A second goal is to revive and validate the role of traditional healers, who are also considered community counselors.

Treatments are based on the holistic indigenous concept of health. As Conejo says, “We view the patient not only as an individual but as a biological, psychological, and social being, in relation to the family and the social environment.”

As an advocate of cultural understanding, Dr. Conejo has improved the health and quality of life of indigenous women in Ecuador. In 2006, she was honored by Americans for UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities) with the International Award for the Health and Dignity of Women.

Traditional medicine incorporates diverse remedies and practices such as the use of herbs, amulets, guinea pigs (cuys) and incantations to eliminate disease or cleanse the body. In Ecuador, over 900 different plants are used for medicinal purposes.

The Jambi Huasi center trains community volunteers and provides expertise to help locals create medicinal plant gardens. In addition, a mobile clinic regularly visits the 10 communities in the Otavalo Canton district.

As in traditional Chinese medicine and other ancient medical practices, one diagnostic procedure Ecuadorian healers use is looking at the tongue of the patient. Other practices include examining the urine in a clear container illuminated by candlelight; viewing a fresh egg that has been passed over a patient’s body (a parallel of a rural Laotian practice), and looking at a guinea pig’s innards after the animal has been held over the sick person’s body for signs of the person’s ailment.

If an organ of the animal looks sick, it is believed that the same organ is also sick in the patient. This technique is also used among indigenous communities in Peru and Bolivia.

Luis Guambaña is a traditional healer and president of the Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE). His practice is located in Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city.

In his view, the core of traditional medicine is the respect for the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, as well as for all living entities. This entails a particular world view, cosmovisión, which encompasses humankind and its role in the universe. It manifests itself not only in medical practices but also in the use of organic fertilizers, and respect for the mountains, rivers and natural water sources.

Curiously, some of the techniques used in traditional medicine in the Andes have come into vogue in the fashionable spas of Europe and the United States, and are part of the therapeutic practice of holistic alternative medicine. Examples are aromatherapy, lodotherapy (mudtherapy), and the use of flower extracts and crystals to help restore the patient’s natural balance.

According to Dr. Alberto Quezada R., former Research Institute director at Cuenca University, understanding traditional medicine is a prerequisite for indigenous people’s acceptance of modern approaches. “For example,” says Quezada, “oral rehydration salts for the treatment of diarrhea are much more easily accepted if they are connected with traditional medicine practice.”

Indigenous people in Andean countries believe that diarrhea is brought on by very specific causes, such as emotional states (anger or anxiety); as punishment by Mother Earth for failing to feed the earth shrines, care for animals or to participate properly in community activities; bad wind; fright; excessive cold; or indigestion.

Each one of these causes, furthermore, requires a distinct remedy. Among the remedies that Andean indigenous people use are water from fresh plants, chamomile water, egg and onion soup, dried banana peels, cinnamon, chocolate and coca teas, and bread and cheese.

Editor’s Note: You can read Part II of this series Monday on The Globalist.

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About César Chelala

César Chelala is a global health consultant and contributing editor for The Globalist. [New York, United States]

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