As we mark World Health Day, today’s blog comes from the tropical forests of Peru’s Madre de Dios region, where traditional medicines are attracting tourists and providing an income to an indigenous community. The forests are thick with birds, mammals and an incredible variety of foliage and medicinal plants, but the communities who call them home struggle to align their economic needs with their desire to protect their ancestral lands from mining and deforestation.
The community of Infierno, home to the Ese’eja people, is pursuing a traditional way of life with an eye toward the conservation of the 23,000 acres (9,300 hectares) under their management.
One of the major sources of revenues for Infierno’s 200 families is a community-owned ecotourism business. The business is proving lucrative, but the community continues to struggle with a number of environmental challenges, including the sustainable disposal of waste created by visiting tourists.
Recently, they came up with a smart solution: by using green technology, they can turn that waste into fertiliser and nourish the medicinal plants that have made the community a destination for travellers from around the world.
“The biggest challenge for us is creating community projects that raise funds through tourism, agriculture and other things that are good for the community,” says Federico Duran Torres, a community member who works on ecotourism initiatives.
One of the major attractions for tourists in Infierno is the Centro Medicinal Ñape, where visitors can learn about (and help prepare) traditional Ese’eja medicine. Here, Honorato Mishaja Shajao—the local medicine man—and his assistants harvest herbs from the centre’s ethnobotanical garden. The garden has been yielding treatments for patients since 1986.
The centre’s ecotourism component, in operation since 2001, has provided the community with a much-needed source of income, but as its appeal has grown, its impact on nature has grown as well. “Nature has a lot of value to me,” Honorato says. “We must protect it so that it also protects us.”
To better safeguard Infierno’s resources, the Centro Medicinal Ñape plans to purchase and install both improved sanitary systems and biodigesters. By organically breaking down waste, the centre can create nutrients that will help its ethnobotanical garden flourish and attract more visitors.