The craft of healing with plants: An association of herbalists in Quito, Ecuador, works to keep the teachings of Andean medicine alive | Society

It’s an early morning in October, but it could be any other day. This family has been experiencing these early mornings for more than four decades. Evelyn Luguana, 27, a third-generation herbalist from Nayon, a small town northeast of Quito, Ecuador, prepares for another day of picking wild medicinal plants with her mother, Norma Huynh. At 63, Juina has been a herbalist for 40 years. Today, they have to consider the complications caused by climate change and real estate development. “It used to be easier, you could just go to the ravines and pick anything…” says Huina. “Today, everything is privatized, even the tracks are being closed; it’s not fair, because medicinal herbs are lost in this way.”

The truck they rent for the occasion arrives around 4:00 a.m. Previously, they prepared tonga, that is, food that will give them energy during walks in the hills, forests and ravines on the outskirts of the city. They carry potatoes, beans, roasted corn, machica (barley flour with brown sugar) and sometimes roasted chicken in their backpacks. They have cloves of garlic and sprigs of rue in their pockets. These last items “are [taken] out of respect for the hills, to avoid bad air. Sometimes the fog can roll in and take us off course. They are like a charm,” says Evelyn Luguana, who is clearly enthusiastic about her job.

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Evelyn and Norma will travel an hour or two, sometimes more, to reach the entrance to the Amazon. There, the ecosystem becomes damp, and in the ravines they can harvest horsetail, a plant used to treat kidney and bladder infections. In his most frequent trips through the Sierra, with sickle in hand, the brothers chilka, eucalyptus, nachag and “angel grass” (a plant from the daisy family). “Everything is picked up along the way,” explains Evelyn. “You have to leave the car far away and walk inland.” Then you must quickly make bundles of herbs and leave, because there are people who might think we are going there to steal cattle. This is how he will spend the morning, and then return home around 3 pm. They will unload the plants, clean them and cut them to 65 centimeters so that they are uniform in size and look good. Then they will place the plants upright in tubs of water or place them on the floor on a mat; if they were left lying in a heap, the plants would drown. It will be 10pm when they finish. If there is a fair the next day, they will be on their feet again at midnight to pack their “suitcases,” as they call the large bundles full of plants tied with pieces of burlap.

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Today, Friday, is the fair. It’s 4 am, but the herbalists have already been working since 1 am. “pl”, as the city’s largest medicinal plant market is known, looks busy. Across the road – the great avenue that connects the city’s hubs – is the San Roque market, which symbolizes this area of ​​the historic city center. This area is known for merchants, artisans and criminals.

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The platform exudes the sweet scent of lemon verbena and lavender, and rock music is played discreetly from the speakers. There are about 30 stalls selling potatoes and vegetables, as well as several popular food kiosks. But the most activity happens at the stands with 50 medicinal plants. Herb sellers come from ancestral communities and rural parishes of Kita. They offer the fruits of their pickings, plants harvested from their own gardens and what they have bought or traded from other producers to add more variety. These are bulk hours. Middlemen come to buy items at cheap prices that they will later resell at their stalls in other markets in Quito. Here, for example, a bunch of sweet herbs costs 75 cents. Later, they will charge double that price in another market.

Herbs: Poppy (red) regulates menstruation.  Pansy (violet) is used for heart problems and blood clots, stress and nerves.  Nagcha (yellow) is used for bile.
Herbs: Poppy (red) regulates menstruation. Pansy (violet) is used for heart problems and blood clots, stress and nerves. Nagcha (yellow) is used for bile.Ana Maria Buitron

Brisk trading will continue until 6am, when many vendors will take a break for breakfast. Retail customers, including those seeking herbal remedies, will arrive by noon. Indigestion needs oregano, marshmallow and dill. For urinary tract problems, take mashua, casamarucha and plantain. To help blood circulation, drink some nettle. Norma Juina knows how to recommend the right thing; she believes in her gift: “God gives every man a [different type of] wisdom. He gave us knowledge about medicinal herbs. To know how to use them, to know how to mix them to treat diseases; it’s a gift.”

The Primero de Mayo platform is a conquered country. “Before, everything was dirt and mud… The first leaders organized us into mingas (collective work groups) to clean everything up.” Everything was done through ours [own] Efforts.” Rosa Mila, 67, is one of the oldest herbalists in this area and remembers the beginnings of the fair. Her story is the story of a generation of women who wanted to transfer the knowledge that their elders passed on privately to the public sphere.

For years they settled on the sidewalks around the San Roque market, spending a few hours here, a few hours there, tying and untying the bundles they carried on their backs, until the municipal police came to evict them, usually with contempt. They could not continue like this, so some of those sellers, both men and women, went to talk to the director of the Central Technical School. At that time, the school was located in that part of the city, and in the background it had neglected land. They asked the director to allow them to occupy that land so that they could lay the foundations of the market. On January 15, 1975, they formed the Association of Small Merchants Central Primero de Maio (Asociacion de Pequenos Comerciantes Central Primero de Maio). From there, they performed the tasks – some of which they did on their own, while others they received help from the local authorities – that they had to complete in order to be able to work. The struggle of herbalists to have a dignified space has been going on for almost five decades. Just a year ago, the municipal government of Quito installed roof structures that cover some of the stalls. Until then, merchants had to set up tents themselves.

Marija Petrona Conlago is putting together a package for sale.
Marija Petrona Conlago is putting together a package for sale.Ana Maria Buitron

The market also became a space for collective expression and organization. Over the years, herbalists have been involved in neighborhood mingas (collective work groups), security brigades and community development workshops. During the first two decades of the market, they actively mobilized with labor and political groups, such as the United Workers’ Front and the People’s Democratic Movement, to realize social demands. Moreover, they created a dynamic of economic solidarity among women; by defending the health wisdom of the Andes, they managed to maintain their collective heritage. As was the case with peasant agricultural production, the Covid-19 health crisis has forced people to think differently; it sparked the interest of many in the benefits of plants and encouraged them to recognize the work of herbalists. “The disease brought people back to their roots, to our natural medicine,” says Evelyn Luguana. For Covid-19, she recommended a powerful mixture of two matico leaves, chukiraga flower, a little verbena, three aromatic eucalyptus leaves, borage flowers, a little linden, a pinch of lemon verbena, a piece of ginger, grated turmeric, juice of three lemons, and honey.

Photo of Evelyn Luguana with Spikenards plant, used to treat stress and nerves.
Photo of Evelyn Luguana with Spikenards plant, used to treat stress and nerves.Ana Maria Buitron

At the end of 2021, the association of herbalists received the Eugenio Espejo Award, an award given by the municipality of Quito to individuals or organizations that have made a significant contribution to the health of the city. Until then, this honor was awarded only to doctors and scientists. However, the restrictions that had to be introduced at the beginning of the pandemic, including the closure of markets,

inevitably caused consequences that herbalists still feel today: of the 300 active members of the association, only about half of them now regularly visit the market. The loss of clients after months of quarantine has forced many herbalists to decide not to go out, although some continue to grow plants to supply their colleagues. In addition, they face various threats to their craft: real estate development, which even includes protected ecological regions in the suburbs of Quito; phenomena related to climate change and environmental pollution; uncertainty regarding the transfer of trade to the next generation; and the expansion of supermarket chains, which monopolize customers at the expense of popular markets.

Marija Sandra Vinocunga keeps pansy (purple) for heart problems and blood clots, as well as stress and nerves, and nagcha (yellow) for bile.
Marija Sandra Vinocunga keeps pansy (purple) for heart problems and blood clots, as well as stress and nerves, and nagcha (yellow) for bile. Ana Maria Buitron

In August, the Museo de la Ciudad (Museum of the City), in collaboration with the platform Primero de Maio, staged the exhibition Territorios que sanan: al encuentro de las hierbateras. The exhibition is an extension of the initiative that the cultural institutions started in 2013, when the city authorities proposed to remove the San Roque Market from the Historic Center of the city. The proposal sparked an important debate about control processes and popular trade organizations. “The exhibition is a continuation of these processes,” explains Alejandro Cevallos, coordinator of the Museo de la Ciudad, “but with the added element of having just emerged from [pandemic]. We wondered about the importance of recognizing the jobs that are taken care of [people]. Herbalists maintained a… popular approach [health]nursing.”

Through solid documentation that provides important educational materials, the exhibition highlights the importance of Quito herbalists as custodians of Andean health, ecosystems and knowledge. Among the collaborations of artists and researchers working on this topic, the efforts of the Campaign to Remember Women Persecuted for Witchcraft stand out. The organization is an Ecuadorian collective connected to an international network that documents and analyzes the experiences of women accused of witchcraft throughout history, as well as how that persecution has had repercussions to this day.

The municipal regulation on the control of folk trade, which is currently in force, punishes the practice of so-called witchcraft in markets. With this official stigma attached to herbalists, one wonders how the rest of society views their work. “On the one hand, there is a popular sector that considers plants a [good] preventive health strategy,” explains Cevallos. “It has not been documented or legitimized, but there are repeated testimonies that plants have helped to contain the Covid-19 crisis. However, Andean-based natural medicine also faces a very Eurocentric, whitewashed bias. The middle class tends to believe that natural medicine is useful up to a point, and that the rest is superstition. For example, in recent years, there has been an increase in schemes to prosecute and criminalize saleswomen who walk through the Historic Center to complete the sale of bundles of plants. This shows how contradictory their situation is. On the one hand, they enjoy prestige, and on the other hand, they are persecuted on the street.”

Porters help customers carry several sacks of medicinal herbs
Porters help customers carry several sacks of medicinal herbs
Ana Maria Buitron

Other sellers have had better luck. When not everything is sold at the end of the day, some take the plants home. The plants are cut into small pieces, put out to dry, ideally in a greenhouse, and then sold in dried bouquets or in pretty potpourri bags. Evelyn Luguana offers sachets of herbs used in anti-stress baths; the blend has 20 ingredients, including chamomile, sweet basil, lavender, lemon verbena and roses. By the time she’s done selling, she’ll wish her customers a “great and blessed day.”


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