Conversation recorded by ImportantCool associate Christian Tym with José Tendetza in June 2014 as part of research on medicinal plant usage in Shuar communities. Only the opening of this interview is provided, out of respect for the concerns of Shuar and other Amazonian nationalities regarding theft of medicinal plant knowledge and the patenting of medicinal plants by pharmaceutical companies and foreign researchers.
Translated transcript of the interview in Spanish:
Christian Tym – So this is recording, because, of course, I’m travelling to so many places and speaking with so many people.
José Tendetza – Yes.
CT – I need to have it afterwards to be able to revise, and have it all…
JT – All the information.
CT – All the information. So the idea is to collect from all of the people I have met in all of the communities I have visited, to collect their testimonies regarding their preferences on medicine.
JT – OK.
CT – Preferences, let’s say between the clinic here in Tundayme [the nearest town], and the hospital in Yantzaza [the largest city in the province] – I think the Yantzaza hospital is the nearest, right?
JT – Yes.
CT – And between medicinal plants, herbalists and shamans. All of the forms of healing that you can find here.
JT – Yes.
CT – And so, I want to know what you prefer to use here, because your culture is supposed to be supported, according to what the Constitution [of 2008] says.
JT – Here, my comrade Christian, according to my criteria, the most important thing with our medicinal plants is to go with these plants to the waterfalls; say prayers there as our ancestors did; take our young people who don’t know anything and who are losing the culture of our grandparents and ancestors. We have to make these things live again and strengthen them.
But the Ecuadorian state isn’t taking us into account, no institution. For this reason, for us here, there is no support from the state and its resources, we don’t see it. For this reason we won’t allow our medicinal plants to be taken by the Chinese [mining] company, because, it’s the water that we most have to protect, because our ancestors–well, the forest, everything, the water–because our ancestors controlled it all. They didn’t cut down the forest.
Look, Christian, further up [the valley], some two hundred, almost three hundred hectares have been cut down: the palms, the roosting spots for the birds, the whole nursery for the animals, it’s all cut down like this football pitch here.
CT – It’s cut down where exactly? Where the camp is?
JT – Yes, everything behind the camp. If you’d like, maybe if we had more time, we could–you know, contraband-like–we could go in so that you could film it, you could record some information and report to the Ministry of Public Health.
CT – Is the question cattle-raising or just mining?
JT – It’s mining. For mining they’ve now got rid of the forest, all of the palms, the roosting spots. This is what our grandparents always prevented. Now, whenever anyone tries to protest, we are always obstructed by the government.
For this reason, we’re now going to rise up with the voice of the people against the government. The government doesn’t just put itself there; the government is put there by the people. If the people say that it has to be removed, then some other leader has to govern.
For this reason we don’t want to lose our cultural patrimony, our traditional plants, our artisanal practices. We don’t want to lose these things.
CT – Speaking of the mine, was there a Shuar centre [communally-titled indigenous land] there before the mine?
JT – Before? Of course, in San Marcos. Even the bones of our ancestors have been taken away.
CT – In San Marcos, there were Shuar living?
JT – Of course, for thousands of years.
CT – Yes, of course, I mean I understand that all of this land is Shuar. But in legal terms, were there settlements there, like this one, before the mine?
JT – There were. That’s why, Christian, you can see plants sown there: palms, achu, chonta [both native palms sown for their fruit]. It’s not as though these were planted by the multinational [corporations] or the recently-arrived immigrants [mestizo Ecuadorians], the ones who invaded our territories. We want to reclaim this. The Ecuadorian state says that it allows us to reclaim ancestral land but it is not happening here. It hasn’t shown itself to be true, what the Ecuadorian state says. They just use us. We won’t allow this. Now, as the Shuar people we have to rise up with our own voice.
Our grandparents had their own hands, their own laws, and we are the children of it. Now we are like professionals. As well as laws we have our own knowledge. So now, Christian, we have the constitutional law [of 2008] and we are moving forward, we are going to make the law, and say “Enough!” to all of this corruption so that they don’t put in danger our forests, our waters, our animals. Our grandparents lived with the animals; they had customs of fishing, chicha [a traditional food/alcoholic beverage], medicinal plants, they lived off these things and now we are losing them. They almost don’t exist any longer. They are cutting down the forests, the campesinos [rural, mestizo Ecuadorians]. They take advantage of us. They say that the Shuar are lazy and that’s why they are poor, and by contrast the campesinos works, fells the forest, sells timber. But the Shuar have always known how to protect and conserve the forest. Why did they protect the forest? So that the animals didn’t leave. So that the water was not damaged. For the birds.
CT – No, the campesinos is not into this.
JT – The campesinos only thinks of money. The Shuar is happy with a little: maybe two hundred, three hundred, or two thousand dollars, this is enough. By contrast, the campesino just keeps going. He puts it in the bank and he keeps going, in the bank and keeps going, hoping that he’ll end up with twenty sacks of money. This isn’t the Shuar. If he gets a little, that’s enough. The Shuar knows a lot about protecting the forest.
And now look, look comrade Christian, now there are three hundred and something hectares cut down. Where are the boars going to live, the monkeys, the curassows, the jaguars? They say that they protect the animals, but where are they going to live?
Imagine that you cut down all the forest just to sow your crops? Where will you cultivate after that? It will all be contaminated, right?
CT – Yes.
JT – And all to earn some $200, or $180. It’s very little.
CT – And then the banks will steal it!
JT – Of course they will! But this money, it’s valuable in Australia too, in the currency of…the bank, over there.
CT – Yes, changing the notes.
So, you were saying that you’re preferring medicinal plants.
JT – Yes, we are always demanding this from the Ecuadorian state, even from Ecuacorriente [the mining company], so that we don’t lose it. We are losing everything and then how will we live? This is why we don’t want mining within our country; we want the Chinese company to go back to their own country and pollute over there in their own lands. Here in Ecuador we have never had large-scale mining.
CT – So, with the knowledge of medicinal plants that you have, have you seen people come here to try to find information about these plants and take samples?
JT – This is where development is! From some development institute for strengthening medicinal plants, so that we can move forward. Here, seeing as the state doesn’t help us at all, we can’t move forward. Christian, like I was telling you this morning, one can know the plants well, but who is helping us with something to sustain our families? If there were, we could have a small project here, with two workshops, maybe five, technifying things, we could collaborate with people from outside who need information about plants. For us, with the state, no institution ever helps us. With our own strength, we’ve cultivated these plants, the achu, the chonta, with our own hands.
Just last month, the Ministry of the Environment came here, sent from the government, wanting to confirm these achu palms. I told him it was a criminal threat.
CT – Confirm? I don’t understand.
JT – In other words, to say that the Shuar are protecting them. But this was our sacrifice. When has the government ever offered us funds? If they had, they could come and take whatever photos they liked. But this is our sacrifice. They never helped us. So I told them to leave.
CT – They wanted to take a photo to show…
JT –That they were protecting the achu, the trees, everything. Well if they had done that and supported us with some funds, then fine, we would give them their space to take their pictures. If they had helped us, and we had been able to use the money to buy machetes, or whatever other necessities. But all of this has nothing to do with them; not even enough money to buy nails or a pair of shoes to wear to work. This is all just our work and our science. It’s with the intelligence with which our parents taught us. It has nothing to do with the Ministry of Environment, nor with the agronomist, nor the engineer, none of that. It’s our science, our intelligence. This is why I say, “I’m a technical engineer. Don’t bother telling me that you’re from the Ministry of such and such of the state. Señor, let’s have some respect. I know more than you do. I know all of the edible and medicinal plants of the forest, and you, well, maybe you know about potatoes, about pigs, about fish, about fertilizer, about guinea pigs, your cattle, but as for me, of the edible plants of the forests I know much more.”
What is this for, the pip of an achu? Well it serves for artisanry, for oil, for making chicha. All the palms are like that. The pambil is for making thatched rooves, arrows, spears, and from the grubs that grow in it one can nourish oneself. And he would know nothing. He, from the Ministry of Environment, maybe the agronomist would know about sowing cacao, plantains, many things, no? But us, by contrast, we know the medicinal plants. How many medicinal plants are there in the countryside, from which the animals and the birds nourish themselves? This is why we have to regulate these things so we do not lose them The paca, how many medicinal plants does he make use of? The cock-of-the-rock knows where its saltlicks are. They live in a clean environment. If now we start cutting down the forest, the animal would have to flee to somewhere where the forest isn’t cut down. It’s like you, this morning, saying that the music was very loud: they are the same. They don’t like that their environment is disturbed with chainsaws, machinery and tractors, so they have to flee, as much as they may like their saltlicks here, they have to go and find food elsewhere. They have to relocate.
So, what they say, those from the Ministry of the Environment and the company, they say they are protecting the forest. But if they were protecting it, they wouldn’t cut down the forest. That’s how it is, comrade Christian. This is what we say. If they were really protecting the animals they wouldn’t cut down the forest? Why would they cut down the forest? Why would they make noise with so much machinery? Why would they dump gasoline and polymers into the river?
CT – The $10 billion worth of copper.
JT – That’s it. The $10 billion worth of copper. The state says that we are ignorant and that we are blocking development. This isn’t development, comrade Christian. For development they have to help the indigenous with our claims for some funds to help us with things. Instead of helping they are offer us threats. This is why our comrades are already off on the march, and by 8 July  they will arrive at Quito, and here we have to take action as well.
How are we going to travel to our waterfalls if we lose the water?
CT – On this topic of medicine, perhaps you could give me some examples of times when you have gone out to find medicinal plants to treat your children, or your friends here in the community?
JT – Uhuh. …