Traditional healers are preserving their knowledge, and with it, the biodiversity of Brazil’s savanna

By | March 14, 2021

Sarah Sax writes:

Since Lucely Pio was a little girl, she has been collecting medicinal plants in the Cerrado, Brazil’s tropical savanna. At 5, she walked through the grasslands and forests of the Cerrado with her grandmother, a midwife and healer, who taught her about where to find and how to harvest the thousands of different plants that only existed there. When picking leaves and flowers, they would arise in the dark hours of the morning, before the sun came up. To harvest bark and roots, they would leave later, collecting them in the brightest hours of the day, but only during the waning moon. Some plants they harvested only once a year.

Several decades later, Pio, now a traditional healer, or raizeira in Portuguese, still relies on her grandmother’s wisdom when she goes out to collect plants.

“We call the Cerrado a living pharmacy,” she tells Mongabay in an interview. “If you walk over an area, you will find at least 10 medicinal species there alongside all the fruits.” She continues to document and experiment, carrying her knowledge forward to the next generation. “As I continue to study I’ve learned to make my own formulas,” she says. “They are the medicines I use today. It is science, but science based on the knowledge of my grandmother.”

Scholars increasingly see this kind of traditional knowledge as crucial to conserving and sustainably using landscapes, including the Cerrado, one of the oldest biomes in the world and now one of the most threatened. As large-scale agriculture destroys native Cerrado vegetation for soybeans, sugarcane and cattle ranching, it isn’t just biodiversity and carbon storage that are at risk: traditional knowledge systems, including traditional medicine and the vast amount of information they hold about the plants of the Cerrado, are also threatened.

“All knowledge about Cerrado plants is still very limited,” says José Antônio Ribeiro Neto, a biotechnology researcher who works with the Federal University of São João Del Rei and the State University of Minas Gerais studying the pharmacological properties of Cerrado plants. “In general, the widely studied plant species make up less than 3% of the flora known worldwide and this is especially true for the Cerrado as the Brazilian biome that suffered the most from human expansion.”

The Pacari Network, a group of traditional healers, has become a valuable resource for documenting and researching this immense biodiversity. These raizeiras and raizeiros (“root healers” in Portuguese) cultivate and harvest medicinal plants and provide vital health care to thousands of people every month. Their healing practices stem from a mixture of Afro-Brazilian, Indigenous, and mestizo cultural backgrounds. By organizing themselves around the conservation of medicinal plants and following standards to ensure their knowledge is passed down effectively, they are on the front lines of generating and preserving this kind of traditional knowledge. [Continue reading…]

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