In Dispatches,News and Views

Pandemic Perspectives: The Peruvian Shipibo-Konibo People’s Response

August 05, 2020
During a pandemic, Indigenous communities tend to be among the most vulnerable, given their often-limited access to water, food supplies, adequate healthcare, and other factors. In this special “Pandemic Perspectives” series of our Dispatches, we’re sharing stories from around the world to shed some light on the obstacles Indigenous Peoples face in light of COVID-19 lockdowns—along with the ingenuity and unity with which they’re facing them.
This is an excerpt from a longer essay co-authored by Chonon Bensho—a Shipibo-Konibo artist from Peru and a descendant of the Onanya (traditional medical sages) and of women who have preserved elaborate artistic legacies—and Pedro Favaron, a Peruvian-Argentinian academic researcher, poet, writer, audiovisual artist, and social communicator. Chonon and Pedro are members of the Indigenous Community of Santa Clara de Yarinacocha of the Shipibo-Konibo people. Excerpted and translated from the original Spanish with the authors’ permission by Luisa Maffi, co-founder and director of Terralingua. 

My name is Chonon Bensho, which means “swallow from the medicine orchards.” I am a legitimate heir to the knowledge of my ancestors, the ancient Meraya sages of the Shipibo-Konibo people in Peru. I write this testimonial along with my husband Pedro Favaron. My voice as a Shipibo woman is my own, but we complement each other, as it should always be when husband and wife think in a healthy way and act according to the ancient teachings.

Chonon Bensho and Pedro Favaron, members of Peru's Shipibo-Konibo people.

Chonon Bensho and Pedro Favaron in their community in Peru. Photo: Ininabe, 2017

We write from within Shipibo culture and from the perspective of an inescapable engagement with a network of emotional and community relationships that stem from my ancestors—a network that ultimately connects all living beings to the same spiritual source, to the same life matrix that sustains everything. We write from home, in the town of San José de Yarinacocha, in the Ucayali Department of Amazonian Peru. We live in the Shipibo people’s ancestral territory, immersed in an intimate dialogue with it that flows from the very state of being.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected our land and our people. Almost all of us have had, or are having, the symptoms of this disease. Some of our relatives have fallen seriously ill or have died. Initially, the Regional Government said that there were no cases in Ucayali, but we had the feeling that the authorities were lying and were not taking adequate measures to address the emergency. We are used to government inaction, corruption, and incompetence. In Ucayali, the population is by and large abandoned to its own destiny. It is only through our networks of kin and community that we can help one another, outside of any state intervention.

When a total lockdown was declared in March 2020, people in our region initially didn’t understand what that law meant. Yet over time, fear and tension became more and more palpable. We decided to isolate ourselves, even more so that we’re already accustomed to solitude and silence. We have plenty of space at home, with trees and medicinal plants. Soon we began to hear ever more news of people being infected and dying in Pucallpa, our regional capital; of hospitals overflowing and unable to adequately assist patients; of pharmacies running out of supplies; of overpriced medications; of more and more Shipibo people becoming ill in the city. Some of our relatives began to present acute symptoms.

The history of Indigenous nations cut down by diseases brought in by strangers repeats itself from Patagonia all the way to Canada. Perhaps that’s why disease awakens in us a sort of genetic memory of fear, transmitted from generation to generation.

Our Shipibo-Konibo ancestors, too, suffered from deadly plagues, following their encounter with strangers. The ancient Shipibos murdered the first missionaries who came to the Ucayali region, fearing the diseases they brought in. That’s why we were often described as violent and dangerous—but in reality, our ancestors’ aggressiveness was nothing other than an attempt to protect their way of life, their cherished freedom, and the health of their families. Their bellicosity was the expression of their refusal to submit to foreign powers that sought to force them to live in a way that felt alien to them and deprived them of freedom—until one day, tired of eliminating the priests, the ancients decided to let them in without harming them. And that’s when diseases decimated the population.

The history of Indigenous nations cut down by diseases brought in by strangers repeats itself from Patagonia all the way to Canada. Perhaps that’s why disease awakens in us a sort of genetic memory of fear, transmitted from generation to generation. What’s certain is that those deaths were the inevitable consequence of European imperialism and its violent intrusion into our territory. The vast majority of survivors were those who fled into the forest to isolate themselves. We are the descendants of those who chose to flee.

Many of our ancient sages died from the diseases carried by foreigners in the name of religion and progress. That was not only a source of grief for their families, but also an insurmountable loss of ancestral wisdom for the following generations. Elders are not unproductive and disposable beings; they are the very heart of our culture, as they are the keepers of our language and knowledge. When the Elders die, we ourselves begin to die. For us, then, there are multiple physical, psychological, emotional, cultural, and spiritual consequences of the current coronavirus pandemic, which put at risk our very continuity as a people.

When the epidemic came to our region, many of the Indigenous communities declared they would close their borders so that nobody could come in. The reality was, however, that community members themselves would leave again and again to go to the city. The fact is that most communities, even the remote ones, have become more and more dependent on products from the city—from processed foods to pharmaceuticals. People are less and less interested in cultivating chacras (small farms), and many families are leaving behind our ancestral medicines.

Chonon Bensho

Chonon Bensho, “Rao Nete: The Medicine World,” 2018. Painting, oil on canvas, 120 × 90 cm. The Medicine World is a spiritual dimension with which the Onanya healer comes into contact in order to cure a patient. From this world emanates a spiritual healing force that is capable of regenerating a human being and bringing him or her back to health. The woman in the top portion of the painting is a medicinal spirit of vast healing wisdom. Artwork: Chonon Bensho. Photo: 2018

We believe that this disease might offer an opportunity for Indigenous communities to think of achieving a degree of food sovereignty. We should use our communal lands to go back to making chacras and engage in other production projects, such as fish farms. If our people can improve their nutrition, their bodies will be better prepared to withstand diseases. Many families and traditional healers have started using medicinal plants to treat themselves and their patients, especially in communities farther away from the cities. The humblest people have no other option than to put their faith in the Great Spirit and the natural world. Perhaps that’s why our grandfather Ranin Bima, a Meraya healer of great wisdom, taught us that the Spirit’s compassion and the virtue of our medicines are meant only for people with a sincere heart and no arrogance.

As for us, although our academic and artistic endeavors prevent us from fully devoting ourselves to the chacra, we do work the land we inherited from my mother and grandfather. We reforest, plant fruit trees, and take care of our ethnobotanical garden, in which we grow a variety of medicinal plants. Since the beginning of quarantine, we have made sure that we fed ourselves with natural products and took traditional medicines, such as syrups made with tree bark and wild honey, to boost our immune system. As soon as we felt the first symptoms of the coronavirus, we began using our plants and the knowledge we inherited. Be it because of our immunological condition, or a low viral load, or the medicines we used from the start, we didn’t develop a fever, nor did we lose our appetite. We believe that this virus can have long-term effects, and therefore we’ll continue to use our plants.

If our people can improve their nutrition, their bodies will be better prepared to withstand diseases. Many families and traditional healers have started using medicinal plants to treat themselves and their patients, especially in communities farther away from the cities.

We trust herbal medicine for prevention, for the treatment of the first symptoms, and to reduce the long-term effects. We also understand, however, that in more complicated cases plants may no longer be so effective, and in some instances they may even be counterproductive. In our view, it is neither appropriate to adopt a positivistic attitude, which questions the properties and potential of traditional medicine, nor to retrench in an ethnocentric position, which denies the advances of modern medicine. As we see it, it is preferable to take an intercultural stance that allows for a respectful dialogue between scientific knowledge and ancestral knowledge, recognizing the virtues of both traditions, what each can contribute to the other, and which knowledge to apply at each stage of the disease.

We don’t know what the future consequences of this lockdown will be, but in our dreams we were given prognostications of dark times. The economic needs of poor families in Peru, who are unable to provide for their daily needs, might become extreme. We believe this health crisis is far from over, although if people use medicinal plants and boost their immune systems, the mortality index won’t be as high.

Personally, we prefer to stay as far away as possible from power structures and artificial, consumeristic ways of life. Our greatest wealth lies in the knowledge we inherited from our ancestors and in our strong faith in the Spirit. We will not abandon humility and simplicity, nor will we abandon the trees and plants of our ancestral territory.

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Read the entire text in the original Spanish online on the website of HAWANSUYO: Poeticas indigenas y originarias.

Read more by these authors. In “Ainbon Jakon Joi: The Good Word of an Indigenous Woman,” Chonon Bensho and Pedro Favaron write of Chonon’s ancestral wisdoms and her initiation into the Medicine World, as well as her teachings in modern sciences.

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Have a Pandemic Perspectives story to share from your Indigenous community? We’d love to share it with the world! Send us your idea!