A Walk with a Shaman - Amazon Conservation Team

Today could not have started in a better way. Frits van Troon, the legendary Maroon botanist (fabled to know every plant in the Surinamese Rainforest in Trio, Sarantonga as well as the Latin names) came to collect us for a trip into the forest with a local 'eipa' or healer. Earlier he had received a message from the morning's radio contact, that Mark Plotkin, one of the inspirations behind our journey to Kwamala, has been following our progress and likes our work. He sent a message to say that he had seen pictures of the Granman on our web-site. Apparently when the Granman heard that Mark Plotkin had seen him on the internet from his home in America he laughed long and loud with delight. It is a wonderful feeling to experience our new project developing - the idea of linking the remote corners of the earth to the 'super-highway' and involving people with far more local expertise, experience and knowledge than ourselves, n whatever way they feel they can participate.

Mark Plotkin and Frits van Troon work together with the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), taking a very grass-roots approach in the Trio communities of Kwamalasamutu and Tepu as well as in the Maroon village of Kayan on the Gran Rio (Upper Suriname River). Also Frits has a project on Tonka Island in Brokopondo lake which we will be visiting at the end of our stay here in Suriname. They started working here about 20 years ago when, through contact with missionaries, a lot of the old ways were dying out. When they started working to try to preserve the Trio's ancient knowledge they met with resistance from the Granman at first. You can understand the confusion the Trio must have felt. One set of outsiders arrived, bringing steel machetes and other modern tools that improved the Trio's life, and condemned their old ways as the work of the devil. Then later a second group of outsiders appeared, probably equally exotically equipped, telling them that the most important thing was to preserve their old ways. Which way to turn? Plotkin's work was to document and record the medicinal knowledge of tribal groups living in rainforest areas. To paraphrase his teacher's words; 'Every time a Shaman dies a library dies with him". In fact it was not until a few Shaman did die that the Granman here realised the wisdom of Mark Plotkin and Frits van Troon's approach.

The work of the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is therefore focussed on recruiting young men to become the 'eipa'(healers) of the future, training them and passing down the old knowledge of the rainforest. It is worth noting that this knowledge has been gathered over the millennia during which the Trio have been living undisturbed in the forest. As Fritz pointed out there must have been a lot of trial an error: 'They eat it, if they die they know its no good... If they get better they know its good'(if you go to diary entry # 11 you will see how modern science screens plants for medicinal use).

As we saw on the map yesterday different plants and specific Liana creepers are found in far flung corners of the territory that the Trio claim. From what Frits was saying one of ACT's programmes is to transplant healing plants from distant locations, in and around the village so that they are easier to come by. The work of ACT goes beyond the preservation of indigenous knowledge and their ethno-botanical work. They are also involved in the establishment of a hospital here where traditional and modern medicine can both be housed under one roof.... About as complimentary as you could hope to get.

Enough back-story.... Today we had the rare privilege of going into the forest with Frits van Troon and Nahtahlah, a local healer, expert in the uses of plants from the forest. I was transfixed as I watched him walking through the low forest. To me it was a mass of green, all the plants looking more or less the same. Within minutes Nata had showed us a cure for ovarian cancer, a plant to induce childbirth, another to reduce high blood-pressure, one for cold-sores, two for Malaria, one for the common cold, one for skin fungus and another for stomach ache. Nata might as well have been a expert chemist, walking through a pharmacy with hundreds of bottles clearly labelled for use - to us, just a tangle of weeds and regular looking trees. It was also interesting to watch Fritz, a Maroon with a special place in the Trio's hearts on account of the amount of work he has done for them. As he talked with Nata, I found myself marvelling at an African Herbsman working alongside an Amerindian healer. A rare and fascinating sight that you could only find in Suriname.

The village of Kwamalasamutu is slowly getting deep under my skin. It is a beautiful and peaceful haven, full of gentle people. As the golden dusk leaves the top fronds of the palm trees and day turns into a twilight with the brightest full-moon I can remember, small groups gather chatting and laughing softly, a subtle and intelligent banter. I find myself regretting the end of the day and wishing it would begin all over again.

Washing in the creek at dawn, spending the whole day outside talking with people and learning about their lives, eating wild pig and fish from the river, and swinging lazily from my hammock chatting to curious Trio gathered around ... I just know I've come to a special place...



Nata - Medicine Man

Nata, Frits van Troon and Runningman

Musican playing Pipes and Turtle Sell

LINKS - Amazon Conservation Team
LINKS - Report on Trio Bioprospecting Agreement
(Requires Internet Connection)