The destruction of the tropical rain forests, and the resultant loss of biodiversity, has emerged as perhaps the most significant environmental issue of our times. Each year an area of forest the size of the state of Indiana is laid waste. In pursuit of effective conservation strategies, biologists have over the last decade increasingly emphasized the economic potential of these tropical ecosystems as repositories of natural products, including rubber, oils, fibers, foods and, above all, plant medicines. Ethnobotany, the study of the relationships between people and plants, has emerged as a science of hope, a vehicle by which the forests may be protected and the ancient knowledge of traditional cultures celebrated and preserved for all time. What was once an obscure academic discipline has evolved into a dynamic field of exploration for a vast cadre of students working with indigenous peoples in all parts of the world.
Too frequently, however, ethnobotanists find themselves constrained by time and the rigors of a scientific paradigm which, in the name of objectivity, precludes all instincts for myth, magic, and mysticism, the very forces that mediate much of traditional healing. Richard Evans Schultes, former Director of the Harvard Botanical Museum and the father of modem ethnobotany, spent 13 years engaged in rubber exploration in the Northwest Amazon. During his travels he documented over 2,000 medicinal plants, yet the longest period he ever lived continuously with a specific tribe was the month he stayed among the Kofán in the spring of 1942. His contributions were enormous, but the nature of his commitment to the rubber program kept him on the move and prevented the sort of longitudinal studies anthropologists consider essential. Only by staying with a people for many months and observing the ebb and flow of their lives can one hope to attain a deep understanding of their healing arts.
Rosita Arvigo, an herbalist and doctor of naprapathy, made such a commitment when she and her family returned to Belize in 1983 to establish a practice as natural healers in the small town of San Ignacio. From the forests nearby they carved a homestead, and settled in to stay. They named their farm Ix Chel, after the Mayan goddess of healing. A year later, fate brought Rosita to the door of a famous local curandero, Don Elijio Panti, a man of 87. Slowly over the ensuing months they became friends. For a year Don Elijio observed this astonishing woman who moved easily through the forest, understood the voices of plants, and was not afraid of work. Finally he inquired what she wanted. To be taken on as his student, Arvigo replied, promising only "to work hard and learn well." Thus begins one of the most astonishing relationships in the recent history of ethnobotany. "Little by little, step by step, day by day," the profound knowledge of this remarkable man, one of the last survivi ng healers of his generation, flowed into the imagination of this equally remarkable young woman from Chicago.
Sastun is their story, as told to the writer Nadine Epstein. It is described as an apprenticeship, but it is much more. It is the story, as Michael Balick notes, "of an extraordinary relationship between two people from different cultures who find a common language in their love of traditional healing and plants of the rainforest." Over the course of years Rosita learns to recognize and use hundreds of medicinal plants. Expanding her own knowledge of the healing arts, she becomes a healer and, if somewhat reluctantly, takes on patients. Through Don Elijio's teachings she reaches beyond the material world, acquiring her own divining stone, or sastun, and eventually learning the esoteric practices inherited from the ancient Maya. In time, she herself becomes a H'men, "one who knows," one who has mastered the ritual practices that lie at the heart of Don Elijio Panti's medical repertoire.
In the meantime, she and her family endure tremendous hardships. A fire envelops her home, destroying months of work and investment. Other fires, on a far larger scale, rise out of the dry season, threatening and consuming thousands of acres of rainforest. Like an obsidian wind, evangelical missionaries arrive and for a moment undermine the local network of belief and confidence that has sustained Don Elijio as a healer. In the end, the patients return, embarrassed by their folly.
There has been in recent years a slew of books built around the theme of a Western traveler seeking knowledge from a traditional healer. The word "apprenticeship" has been used in so many titles and subtitles that it has lost all meaning. What distinguishes Sastun is the fact that Rosita Arvigo is no mail order mystic, and her story is true. In April, 1987, three years after she began her work with Don Elijio, she sent a letter to Michael Balick, founder and now director of the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden. One of the foremost tropical botanists in the country, Balick had just received a five-year contract from the National Cancer Institute to collect plants for testing in the NCI AIDS and cancer screens. Within a month Balick was in Belize, and Arvigo had found both a new friend and colleague, as well as a label -- ethnobotany -- to place on the work she had been doing for so many years.
Balick recruited Rosita and her husband Greg Shropshire to hire local assistants and begin a lengthy inventory of the many hundreds of plants employed by Don Elijio. Then, expanding the network to include 15 other traditional healers, they focused on salvaging the medicinal plants from sections of forest destined for clearing. Bulk specimens were sent to New York for analysis. Living material was planted when possible at the farm at Ix Chel. As the work expanded, the team founded the Ix Chel Tropical Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization conceived with the idea of bringing together visiting botanists and curanderos. It was this initiative more than any other that fulfilled Arvigo's dream of creating a bridge between science and the traditional healing arts.
The book, Rainforest Remedies, 100 Healing Herbs of Blize, is one of the products of this remarkable collaboration (See HerbalGram #21, p. 69). An essential companion volume to Sastun, it is a straightforward compilation of a hundred of the more important medicinal plants that have been identified by the work at Ix Chel. Both of these books are highly recommended for those interested not only in ethnobotany, but in the greater struggle to preserve the tropical rainforests of the world. It is fair to say that the work at Ix Chel -- ten years now and counting -- is unprecedented. I can think of no other ethnobotanical project which brings together in such a manner traditional healers and the most rigorous proponents of botanical science. Their dialogue, mediated by an exceptional woman who finds herself increasingly comfortable in both worlds, has already given rise to significant scientific discoveries and a host of innovative projects. Of these the crowning jewel is a 6,000-acre medicinal plant reserve, signed into law by Deputy Prime Minister Florecio Marin in June 1993. The first of its kind in the world, the Terra Nova Medicinal Plant Reserve will preserve in perpetuity the rainforest plants upon which Don Elijio based his healing practice. As for his teachings, they are held in trust in the dreams and knowledge of Rosita Arvigo, who even today is passing them on to the children of Belize.
Article copyright American Botanical Council.
By Wade Davis