The dense rainforests of South America are often fabled as the ripest hunting grounds for undiscovered medicinal plants. As more and more trees get cut down in the onslaught of commercial deforestation some scientists have expressed concern that many species of plant life that we know nothing about will be lost forever. Although efforts to curb the destruction of rainforests are gaining momentum, in countries like Paraguay, where it’s estimated as little as 13% of the country’s original primeval forest land remains, it’s feared that the damage is already done.
That said, for centuries Paraguay has been at the centre of South American folk medicine traditions. It’s thought that as many as 600 plants are picked and sold in the country for their supposed medicinal properties, and the industry is booming too. More medicine women than ever now crowd the central market streets of Asunción, selling everything from dried leaves and exotic tuber roots, to distilled vials of multi-coloured liquids touted to cure ailments ranging from minor stomach upsets to full blown diabetes.
Here on the streets of the capital Asuncion it’s easy to see how entwined the ancient traditions of medicinal herbage has become with everyday life. The sun-kissed medicine women are busy from dawn till dusk, shovelling out roots and medicines, while quickly intimating the proper and ancient methods of imbibing to their patients, all with a fervour and zeal that’s befitting of their craft.
There’s no question that the folk medicine tradition of Paraguay is a well-respected area of expertise in the country and studies have shown that even while modern medical facilities increase in quality and prescription here, the use of medicinal plants and traditional healing methods is also on the rise.
Perhaps it is the mark of a nation now wallowing in transition between traditionalism and modernity, or perhaps Paraguay’s GDP-defying life expectancy of 76 years has instilled something of a surety for these ancient methods of medical practice in the national consciousness. In fact, while scientists have noted that the flora of Paraguay remains one of the most unchartered territories of modern botanical study, there is some evidence that the medicinal properties of the rainforest plants here are not simply the stuff of quack-doctors and shamans, but rather the product of lengthy experience and trial and error; something of a jungle scientific method in itself.
Since the first Guriani Indians began experimenting with the plant medicines of the forest, Paraguayan herbalists and growers have moved to refine their craft. Today for example, the ground up bark of the Lapacho tree is used to treat stomach pains and bowel infections, while certain strains of lemongrass are used to calm the nerves. While the former has been found to be intensely toxic by western researchers, the latter has become known for its soothing flavours and scent in many culinary recipes worldwide.
Today, the Swiss Red Cross, along with other globally-present conservationist and scientific organisations have started to pay heed to some of the scientific studies that place genuine weight on of the claims of Paraguayan medicinal flora. A nationwide project – the ‘Etnobotanica Paraguaya’ – has moved to reverse the effects of over-picking, to ensure all of the species of plant currently being used in medicinal folk circles are preserved for generations to come.
Indeed, the Botanical Garden of Asunción now nurses more than 500 different plants, and has even started a project to train local farmers in sustainable picking practices and botany. But, while over-picking is one of the major short-term threats to the medical traditions of Paraguay, the effects of deforestation remain by far the most damaging, and some have estimated that within the century absolutely all of Paraguay’s forests will be gone, along with any remaining medicinal flora habitat.
It’s a truth that looms large for many practitioners and pickers of medicinal plants, and they aren’t alone either. Scientists from American and European research centres have found some evidence that some of the indigenous Paraguayan flora can be effective in treating cancerous cells, while others can be used to treat contagious bacterial infections like malaria – one of the world’s most prolific killers.
As the medical folklore of Paraguay slowly comes under the microscope of western medical research, now is the time that we will discover if any of the remaining deep-rainforest plant species that are so favoured by the locals for their healing properties are scientifically justifiable. But one thing is for certain, this is a tradition that remains very much alive in Paraguay and even with the rise of modern medical care, the medicine women that pepper the shady streets of the Mercado Cuatro will be there for some time to come.