4 April, 2013

Forests are a source of health and nourishment

The Oxapampa Asháninka – Yánesha Biosphere Reserve is the natural pharmacy and pantry of indigenous peoples.

The Oxapampa Asháninka – Yánesha Biosphere Reserve is the natural pharmacy and pantry of indigenous peoples.

The wealth of the Amazonian forest consists not only of millions of cubic feet of timber, but also includes an impressive list of medicinal and nutritional resources. The Communal Yánesha Reserve, in the province of Oxapampa is an area with valuable resources that may help humanity counter infectious diseases and combat the world’s hunger and malnutrition.

The resin of the copaiba tree is reputed to be a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. For the Yánesha people it has always been their preferred treatment for ailments such as bronchitis. ‘When my grandchildren have a cough, we warm it up and rub it on to their backs. We also administer them a drop dissolved in water. This is how we cure ourselves because out here we have no pharmacies or physicians’ says Carlos Soto, an elder of the San Carlos community.

This balsam has an oily consistency and, in addition to its use as a laxative and diuretic, is employed with success in the treatment of skin conditions such as psoriasis and dermatitis. Soto knows that obtaining the product is not a simple process. It should be extracted only at full moon and in winter, when the tree has absorbed the greatest amount of water possible. ‘You have to know how to bore the hole carefully so as not to waste the liquid. After a year has gone by, you can come back and tap more oil from the same tree without doing it any damage.’ he relates.

In addition to its medicinal features, Soto remembers also how this oily liquid was used by his parents as a fuel, before the availability of kerosene, to light lamps which helped travellers at night. ‘It’s not used any more’, he says. ‘We’re modernizing and these days we use batteries and solar panels.’

In Peru, 30 ml of this oil can cost up to 10 US dollars. The properties of copaiba oil are well known in other countries, and the demand has encouraged the local people to exploit it not only for their own use, but also commercially. Owing to its resistance to damp, copaiba wood is also sought by timber dealers for conversion into items of furniture and for use in building. ‘A lot of people are felling the trees for timber or tapping their sap to the point where the tree dries out’ says Soto, concerned.

‘We’re planting copaiba again because it’s become scarce. You have to go a long way to find it now and if they keep on felling, it’s going to disappear altogether.’ he explains.

With support from CHIRAPAQ Centre for Indigenous Cultures of Peru, in alliance with the Federation of Native Yánesha Communities – FECONAYA, Soto and the families of San Carlos are reforesting their territories with timber trees, medicinal plants and fruit-bearing species in the hope of conserving this natural wonder.

A gift from the forest

‘Its fruit benefits not only human beings, but animals, too’ relates Juan Soto, showing a sack of nuts which his two sons and wife will be eating during the coming three months. ‘Of course, they have to be harvested quickly because the animals are competing with us’, he says jocularly.

As with all dry fruits, these nuts are an excellent source of vitamin A and Omega-3, promote intestinal function and provide generous quantities of calcium as well as antioxidants, thus helping to combat the ageing process.

Soto pointed out that the nuts are available only during a short season. The plant flowers in December and its fruit is ready to be harvested in January. Splitting the hard shell with his machete to expose a delicious, white interior, he explains ‘We boil it, but it can also be eaten raw‘.

The shells are also used in handcrafts which the Yánesha people then take to the city. The bark and roots are used by the women to dye fabrics and clothing, where greyish brown and yellow tones are obtained.

Yet the wood of the nut-tree, as that of other trees, has at some moment commanded a high price in the timber market ‘The timber traffickers came along and cut down everything. There’s now very little timber left. This has been going on for years.’ relates Soto.

In alliance with TEBTEBBA Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy, Research and Education and NORAD, the Norwegian Agency for Development, CHIRAPAQ and FECONAYA expect to contribute to the recovery of a forest which will fulfil the nutrition and medicine requirements of its inhabitants.

Reforestation cannot be considered solely in terms of timber species, but rather in terms of a diversity of species within the woodland. In the face of the loss of the forest, the only means of sustenance of the indigenous inhabitants is in danger of disappearing.