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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Traditional Healers Protect a Rainforest in Belize

Air Date: Week of

Matt Binder reports on Terra Nova, an innovative rainforest reserve in Belize. The government of Belize has entrusted management of the preserve to traditional healers, who tend to the area's medicinal plants as well as the surrounding ecosystem.


CURWOOD: Some of the solutions suggested for the rainforest in Mexico are already being tried in the tiny neighboring country of Belize. Tucked on the Caribbean coast between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize has set up forest preserves to protect plants and wildlife and give local residents ways of making a living. The newest reserve might be thought of as a huge medicine cabinet. Local practitioners of folk medicine are managing a large tract of rainforest that is rich with plants that are known to have healing powers. From Belize, Matt Binder has the story.

(Birdsong, rainforest sounds)

BINDER: Belize is a wondrous, lush, and sparsely populated country with just 200,000 residents. After sugar cane, ecotourism is its second largest industry. Nevertheless, like so many other tropical nations, Belize has been rapidly losing its virgin rainforest to logging, grazing, and agriculture. Only 10% of Belize's original rainforest is left. The new reserve, called Terra Nova, is in part of this pristine 10%, in one of the most inaccessible parts of the country, right next to the Guatemalan border.

(Ferry: moving chains)

BINDER: To get there, you cross a river on a hand-cranked ferry, drive on overgrown logging roads, and finally push your car along some narrow boardwalks through the swamps. Seventy-five miles inland from the cool Caribbean breezes, Terra Nova is stiflingly hot and humid.

("No, it just discourages them from crawling up your pants.")

BINDER: But the bugs are so bad you cover yourself from head to toe in heavy denim, and spray your boots and pants with insecticide.

(Animal calls)

BINDER: But the inconveniences are worth it. This is a place where howler monkeys, tapirs, crocodiles, and jaguars are regularly spotted. And the plant diversity is even more amazing. There are thousands of species of trees, and tens of thousands of species of other plants on this 6,000-acre reserve.

ROMERO: This is the cedar tree. The bark is the one you use for drink, for bruise, blood inside, like when you get an accident or your fell down from a tree...

BINDER: Polo Romero is a grizzled old Creole herbalist who uses medicinal plants from Terra Nova. He began studying jungle medicine 40 years ago. When deep in the rainforest collecting chicle sap for chewing gum, one of his coworkers was bitten by a deadly poisonous snake and some of the older men there rushed to gather herbs for an emergency treatment.

ROMERO: We gave him a purge, you know what is a purge? Like a laxative. So that it gets rid of poison that remains because what you drink is poison. You take poison for kill poison.

BINDER: The man survived the bite and the treatment and Romero decided to become a healer himself. He's now a board member of the Traditional Healers Association, and he helps run the reserve. He says lately the pace of rainforest destruction in Belize is accelerating, and 13 medicinal herbs are now officially endangered.

ROMERO: I never used to go to far to harvest my herbs. But now I have to walk miles and miles into the jungle, get bigger jungle, because the people are just destroying.

(Machetes cutting through high grasses)

BINDER: Tens of thousands of new refugees fleeing the civil war in Guatemala are settling in remote areas of Belize, where they can carry on their slash and burn farming methods in peace. But their methods are destroying the rainforest, and part of the reason Terra Nova was set up was to give refugees an economic alternative.

ARVIGO: The people who live on the fringe of the reserve can either be looked at as uninvited predators, or invited participants. We would like to see them become invited participants.

BINDER: Rosita Arvigo is an herbalist from Chicago who moved to Belize 15 years ago. Now, as the founder of the Belize Association of Traditional Healers, she's the moving force behind Terra Nova.

ARVIGO: We feel that this is a very good way to juxtapose the needs of humanity and the needs of our environment, by making an area that's a reserve for medicinal plants that's going to be user-friendly. We have an opportunity to rescue the plants that are going to be destroyed. There's an opportunity for people to use these medicinal plants for their practices, for their patients, for their families, and an opportunity for people who live on the fringe of the rainforest to find income resources from non-timber products, as they're called.

BINDER: About a dozen refugees are working for the reserve now, as cooks, laborers, and medicinal plant harvesters. And even though there are no government rangers in the area, there's been very little hunting or tree-poaching on reserve property.

(Jungle sounds.)

BINDER: It's hoped that the reserve will also play a part in improving health care in Belize. As a developing country, modern medical clinics are few and far between, so herbal medicine is often the only available or affordable treatment. Nearly everyone here uses medicinal herbs to some extent. Even the eminent American archaeologist, Arlen Chase, who works with a crew of 100 deep in the jungle at the Mayan ruins of Caracol.

CHASE: In terms of anything having to do with the jungle or what one would perceive was a malady coming out of the jungle, I'd much rather trust my men and native medicine than Western medicine. Because they're better prepared to deal with it. One of the experiences I've had is getting extremely ill and not quite knowing what it is. But there's one thing that definitely cures you, and that's mahogany bark tea: guaranteed half hour later you're feeling better because you don't want any more of that mahogany bark tea. And it works every time on the students as well.

BINDER: The government of Belize hopes the Terra Nova reserve will be an income source for the entire nation, with tourists coming to see the natural plant and animal wonders and foreign patients coming to get treated by healers from the Mayan, Creole, Garifuna, Hispanic, Mennonite, and other cultures. Terra Nova is part of a nationwide system of reserves set up by the government but run by local groups. Belize's ambassador to the US, Dean Lindo, says the country needs to get economic value from its forests, and reserves like Terra Nova are a way to do it.

LINDO: Because you can't just, in my view, let the forest be reserved to the extent that it's not utilized at all. I think with scientific approach and scientific management, you can get the benefits of, you know, like any other product, fruit, for example. At the same time protecting the rainforest.

(Bird calls)

BINDER: Lindo says the Traditional Healers Association will have total control over the management of Terra Nova as long as they do a good job. Polo Romero says he's thankful that the government trusts a group of shamans to run a national park. He says the healers will live up to that responsibility.

ROMERO: My personal ambition is that in the future we have the privilege for train young generation, give the youth a privilege to learn how the older people used to survive without a medication doctor.

BINDER: For Living on Earth, I'm Matt Binder in Yalbac, Belize.



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