Honduran Traditional Medicinal Practices often Clash with Western Medical and Agricultural Practices as Taught in Honduran Universities (Not published yet.)
Part 3 of 5
By Wendy Griffin
Comments about clashes between traditional medical beliefs and treatments such as those of the Garifunas, Maya Chorti, the Miskitos, the Tawahkas, and the Pech and Western hospital medicine as practice in Honduras or in the US where thousands of Garifunas and Mayas live are common. Also the issue of patenting traditional plant knowledge as intellectual property rights of US or European drug companies, a topic known as biopiracy in Spanish, is also a very hot topic, and not well protected under Honduran Intellectual Property laws. The destruction of the plants, animals, and for the Garifuna even medicinal fish, used in tropical forest tribe medicines is another hot topic among Honduran native peoples. The intentional destruction of traditional indigenous or Black Hondurans knowledge of traditional plants medicines by Honduran school programs and currently of Evangelical churches, but in the past also by the Catholic Church, is another hot topic in indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities.
I am extremely worried about the new Intercultural Agriculture Program at the National Agricultural University, because if they do at that university what they do in Honduran elementary schools and say they are teaching intercultural education to get funding, and then teach the same old things—use agrochemicals, use imported hybrid seeds or worse Monsanto transgenic seeds, cut all the wild plants down to the ground, I am worried Hondurans will starve, be poisoned and die from the lack of medicinal plants. It is well documented that poor Indian and Ladino small holder farmers produce most of the food in Honduras. The large commercial landholdings in Honduras are almost all for export agriculture—coffee, bananas, African palm, and cattle ranching for exporting deboned frozen meat like the type used for hamburgers.
Interestingly many of the stories collected about the Truxillo Railroad era turned out to be interethnic stories of healing or other medical treatments-rainforest Indians healing Ladino workers of lance de fer (barba amarilla or tamagas in Honduran Spanish, tamagas being the Nahua language name) snake bites because they would have died before getting to the Company hospital by train, Garifuna healers curing the children of rich white English speaking Jews who had tried doctors in the fruit company hospitals and Europe and were not cured, Black English speakers healing Garifunas who were paralyzed and their parents were high up employees of the Truxillo Railroad so could use their hospital but they were not cured there.
One of my favourite stories is of Garifunas being midwives to the current Honduran President Pepe Lobo, whose father used to raise pigs in the Garifuna neighbourhood of Rio Negro in Trujillo, and sold meat to the workers in the Trujillo area. President Lobo has said that his support of projects for the Honduran Indians and Garifunas is directly related to him having been brought into the world by a Garifuna midwife in the Trujillo. Among all Honduran ethnic groups, including the Ladinos, a family like relationship exists between the midwife who cuts the umbilical cord of the baby and the baby. Among Honduran Ladinos and Garifunas in Spanish, the midwife is called the “Comadrona”-the big co-mother of the baby. Many people address their midwife as “abuela” (grandmother) or if they are an English speaker “goddie” (short for godmother).
Doña Juana, the new Pech chief in Moradel and her husband Hernan grew up in traditional Pech communities in Culmi, Olancho and lived for 20 years with their children in Las Marias in the Rio Platano Biosphere in the Mosquitia, so they maintained many elements of Pech culture which the Pech who lived on the Coast near Trujillo had lost. Also her husband’s father Don Amado who lived with them, was one of the last Pech men to perform traditional Pech curing and religious ceremonies, only dying in 1997. Don Amado was trained by other older Pech men and by the Wata, the traditional Pech shaman, of which there has been none since the death of Don Catarino in 1950’s. Her mother and grandmother taught her how to be a midwife.
Doña Juana also took classes in how to do massages for traditional Honduran diseases like “haito”, “empacho”, “aire” and caring for pregnant women from Catholic nuns in the Culmi area. Also she has taken courses in medicinal plants from Miskito healers and Ladinos from Tegucigalpa. These courses were sponsored by MOPAWI (Moskitia Pawisa-the Development of the Mosquitia), a development and environmental agency active in the Rio Platano Biosphere when Dona Juana lived in Las Marias, the Pech village there. The change in the Catholic Church’s stance on traditional medicine came about partly as an issue of social justice, that chemical medicines were out of the economic reach of the poor, and also a willingness to consider traditional plant medicine separate from the issue of witchcraft “brujería”.
“Brujería” is actually a crime punishable by law in Honduras among other places like Guatemala. Although Indians were supposed to free from being persecuted for brujería in the colonial period, there are in fact numerous cases of Indians being legally prosecuted for brujería in both Western and Eastern Honduras. I have heard the Honduran government announce campaigns against “brujería” since I came to Honduras in 1985, and the only effect I could see was the medicinal plant sellers in Tegucigalpa were forced to not sell near Central Park and the National Congress’s building. According to an UNAH study, at least 90 types of medicinal plants were typically sold in Tegucigalpa as herbs, and they were in fact for treating illnesses, not witchcraft.
One of the leading proponents of plant medicines in Honduras is Father Fausto Milla, a retired Honduran Catholic priest born in the town of Guarita, Lempira who has a medicinal plant clinic in Santa Rosa de Copan. This is the same Father Fausto Milla who helped file some of the suits against the new laws to give the 51 rivers, the 250 mines, and other areas as concessions or Model Cities and the suits against President Pepe Lobo and the 126 members of Congress personally for approving the laws for these concessions and model cities as an act of treason. His project to teach about traditional medicine INEHSCO is threatened with losing its corporate charter or legal existence (personaría juridical) and its assets frozen under a law under the new President Juan Orlando Herndandez who took power in January 2014 after a election plagued with thousands of reports of fraud. See for more details see HondurasWeekly.com, the blogicito de la gringa,and especially the video Fraude Electoral en Honduras on Youtube where you can see election table reports --report by report that what was written at the election table as the number of votes was different from what was reported by the computer even according to the Honduran government's own TSE website, and in every case it favoured the nationalist Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez and/or took away votes from the opposition parties like PAC and Libre. Even 10 days after the election the Honduran government had on its official government website if anyone has the reports of the following election tables,please give them to us. The US Ambassador said it was a clean and transparent election, in spite of the over 3,000 allegations of fraud serious enough to present to the Supreme Court often in front of international observers. $10 million dollars from the US and 440 US soldiers from Delta Forces helped make these election results happen.
People who are active with medicinal plants are usually in favor of protecting the environment, because otherwise there will be no useable plants. It’s like the sign in the Maya Chorti’s office in Copan Ruinas says, "If there are no famers, there is no food, it is that simple. "
If we cut down all the forest, put herbicide on all the plants, get rid of varieties of plants that are medicinal for plants that are not, our health and our ability to treat our children will suffer.
Where my sister lives in Florida, they have orange trees, but they can’t sell the leaves to Hispanics who want to make orange leaf tea to calm their nerves and help them sleep, because there are so many pesticides sprayed on the oranges, you would kill yourself making tea with them. Now the orange trees in Florida, Arizona and California are dying, because since they plant them all together, a style known as monoculture, when a disease got in, like “greening” which is affecting them now, they all get sick and die at once, just like bananas did with sigatoka and Panama disease.
Traditional Honduran Indians and Afro-Hondurans did not practice mono-culture, and so if one variety died,or even if one crop failed, they usually had several different varieties and several different types of crops planted. John Solouri’s book Banana Cultures on the Honduran banana industry makes the argument that the whole paradigm that we take the land away from lazy and unproductive Black and Indians to do monoculture or mining and get development was based on theories that turned out to be in long run unsustainable and based on false premises.
Most Catholic priests serving in Honduran churches are foreigners and are forbidden by law as foreigners to participate in “political activities”, and if they do, their residency can be revoked and they can be escorted out of Honduras. In recent time the Catholic priest Father Tamayo who won international awards for his work in favour of the Olancho rainforest was forced to leave Honduras, and his organization the environmental Movement of Olancho is also threatened with losing its personaria juridical corporate charter and having its assets frozen. In the time of the Contra wars, Father Guadelupe Carney, an American who had chosen to have Honduran citizenship, was forced to leave Honduras, and Father Fausto Milla, even though he was Honduran was also forced into exile in Mexico which is where he began studying medicinal plants. Red Comal another organization whose personaria juridical is also threatened supports growing food in healthy ways, selling food to other farmers, like bean farmers selling beans to coffee growers who sell coffee to the bean growers at a fair price, making personal care products with medicinal plants like aloe vera shampoo and soap, nutrition, andnot eating junk food that will make their health worse. They had been supported for a number of years by American Jewish World Service and there is a great video about them just called Red Comal on Vimeo.com.
American Indians are also working in the area of better eating, better agricultural processes that don't poison them or kill the bees or the fish, traditional medicines, and recovering traditional ways of treating illness and especially working with troubled youth who fall into drugs, alcohol or commit suicide. In the US studies showed that native young people who spoke their language were less likely to get involved with drugs and alcohol, perhaps because they are more rooted in their culture at home and learn good values at homes. Having taken Native American kids away from their parents to Boarding Schools at very young ages and under harsh treatment, so that in Canada thousands died, and in the US men in their 60's still cry to think about it, and they were not with their parents and grandparents to learn how to be good parents which they think still affects them a generation or two later. In Canada they also learned that in Western hospitals they sterilized Canadian indigenous women without their knowledge. So not only do they see that they were taught bad values which emphasized being mean to others, and often sexually abusive to others, and they were not taught the good values of their own societies and did not have skills to be successful in either the traditional nor the capitalist economy, the traditional knowledge was left out or purposely made fun of and ridiculed. A visit to the Tulalip Museum north of Seattle in Snohomish County shows that similar experiences existed here. A Cuban doctor published an article recently in Granma called Racism to speak or to be silent. And he said he felt as a man of science that he had to admit that for at least 200 years Western science took an epistemological wrong turn, and chose to support the belief that one race the white race was superior to the other races in the New World, the Indians and the Blacks, and he felt as a man of science he should speak out and say the new research shows people are not inherently less intelligent or less anything by race, but racism does exist and it affects peoples' lives how they experience them still today.
The American Anthropology Association felt it also needed to still state something still now last year in 2013 about Race, and has a whole special program on their website about Race. A new book by Ian Haney Lopez a professor of Law at UC-Berkeley says the main ploy of US politicians over the last 50 years has been to play the race card, what he calls "Dog Whistle Politics". It is being played against Blacks, against Hispanics, and if people are aware that they exist, which they often are not, against Indians in the US, and in Latin America. The interview of this author with Bill Moyers no win 2014 which was on www.latinalista.com and also on www.BillMoyers.com was awesome. Just like in the Cuban newspaper, it is awkward in the US to say, Race still matters, we are still making decisions about education, about what knowledge is heard or not heard, about who has the right to say if these kinds of plants or another kind of plants will grow here, about whether plants or animals have any rights to be here, based on what Dr. Marie Batiste in her book Decolonizing Education "Eurocentric" thinking, education, and research funding and publication and land use policies. And in the US, and in Canada, and in Latin America, there is evidence that this not only hurts the Indians and blacks, but also the white people who are missing the opportunity to learn something from people who have been in these eco-systems a lot longer than we have.