Transformation of local medicinal knowledge in the Andean Highlands: Case studies from Peru and Bolivia

Mathez-Stiefel, Sarah-Lan (2009). Transformation of local medicinal knowledge in the Andean Highlands: Case studies from Peru and Bolivia (Unpublished). In: V International Congress of Ethnobotany (ICEB). San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. 21.09.-24.09.2009.

In the Andean highlands, indigenous environmental knowledge is currently undergoing major changes as a result of various external and internal factors. As in other parts of the world, an overall process of erosion of local knowledge can be observed. In response to this trend, some initiatives that adopt a biocultural approach aim at actively strengthening local identities and revalorizing indigenous environmental knowledge and practices, assuming that such practices can contribute to more sustainable management of biodiversity. However, these initiatives usually lack a sound research basis, as few studies have focused on the dynamics of indigenous environmental knowledge in the Andes and on its links with biodiversity management. Against this background, the general objective of this research project was to contribute to the understanding of the dynamics of indigenous environmental knowledge in the Andean highlands of Peru and Bolivia by investigating how local medicinal knowledge is socially differentiated within rural communities, how it is transformed, and which external and internal factors influence these transformation processes. The project adopted an actor-oriented perspective and emphasized the concept of knowledge dialogue by analyzing the integration of traditional and formal medicinal systems within family therapeutic strategies. It also aimed at grasping some of the links between the dynamics of medicinal knowledge and the types of land use systems and biodiversity management. Research was conducted in two case study areas of the Andes, both Quechua-speaking and situated in comparable agro-ecological production belts - Pitumarca District, Department of Cusco (Southern Peruvian Highlands) and the Tunari National Park, Department of Cochabamba (Bolivian inner-Andean valleys). In each case study area, the land use systems and strategies of 18 families from two rural communities, their environmental knowledge related to medicine and to the local therapeutic flora, and an appreciation of the dynamics of this knowledge were assessed. Data were collected through a combination of disciplinary and participatory action-research methods. It was mostly analyzed using qualitative methods, though some quantitative ethnobotanical methods were also used. In both case studies, traditional medicine still constitutes the preferred option for the families interviewed, independently of their age, education level, economic status, religion, or migration status. Surprisingly and contrary to general assertions among local NGOs and researchers, results show that there is a revival of Andean medicine within the younger generation, who have greater knowledge of medicinal plants than the previous one, value this knowledge as an important element of their way of life and relationship with “Mother Earth” (Pachamama), and, at least in the Bolivian case, prefer to consult the traditional healer rather than go to the health post. Migration to the urban centres and the Amazon lowlands, commonly thought to be an important factor of local medicinal knowledge loss, only affects people’s knowledge in the case of families who migrate over half of the year or permanently. Migration does not influence the knowledge of medicinal plants or the therapeutic strategies of families who migrate temporarily for shorter periods of time. Finally, economic status influences neither the status of people’s medicinal knowledge, nor families’ therapeutic strategies, even though the financial factor is often mentioned by practitioners and local people as the main reason for not using the formal health system. The influence of the formal health system on traditional medicinal knowledge varies in each case study area. In the Bolivian case, where it was only introduced in the 1990s and access to it is still very limited, the main impact was to give local communities access to contraceptive methods and to vaccination. In the Peruvian case, the formal system had a much greater impact on families’ health practices, due to local and national policies that, for instance, practically prohibit some traditional practices such as home birth. But in both cases, biomedicine is not considered capable of responding to cultural illnesses such as “fear” (susto), “bad air” (malviento), or “anger” (colerina). As a consequence, Andean farmers integrate the traditional medicinal system and the formal one within their multiple therapeutic strategies, reflecting an inter-ontological dialogue between different conceptions of health and illness. These findings reflect a more general trend in the Andes, where indigenous communities are currently actively revalorizing their knowledge and taking up traditional practices, thus strengthening their indigenous collective identities in a process of cultural resistance.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Abstract)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography > NCCR North-South Management Centre [discontinued]
10 Strategic Research Centers > Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)

UniBE Contributor:

Mathez, Sarah-Lan


300 Social sciences, sociology & anthropology > 330 Economics




Factscience Import

Date Deposited:

04 Oct 2013 15:21

Last Modified:

23 May 2017 12:12

URI: (FactScience: 204257)

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