SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Carefully and employing ancient organic wisdom, Tzeltal and Tzotzil women in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas are making use of medicinal plants to treat respiratory illnesses amid the coronavirus pandemic.
These women, migrants from the indigenous villages in the region and members of the At’el Antsetik (Working Women) collective, have – for a number of years – devoted themselves to preserving ancestral herbal techniques, collecting verbal knowledge about the use of natural remedies from elderly residents of their communities and perfecting them with ongoing technical training.
The garden in which they grow the herbs “is a space that we keep planting and the women bring a lot of experience from the country. They’ve been migrants since they were very young but they also bring that experience, that knowledge from their villages, from their parents and grandparents, and so we’re getting together to continue strengthening the culture,” Lucia Hernandez Vazquez, a Tzotzil tribal member and the coordinator of At’el Antsetik, told EFE on Wednesday.
Applying this ancestral knowledge and once again cultivating and using these various plants has been the focus of these gardeners during the pandemic, helping to prevent and mitigate – they say – the devastating effects of COVID-19, which in Mexico has already taken more than 40,000 lives and infected at least 350,000 people, according to official figures.
“The blessed Mother Earth is so beautiful that we don’t even have force her in sowing the medicinal plants. It’s enough (just to plant them) and they produce their flowers, we water the seed and it grows again,” Antonio Lopez Mendez, a local healer, said proudly as she harvested cilantro and marigold along with other women.
Antonio said that before focusing on producing the medicinal plants native to the Chiapas highlands, they were intent on rescuing their cultural identity.
And amid a huge flow of ideas, the collective managed to establish that stomach and respiratory problems were the most frequent health issues in the region.
Later, they immersed themselves in gathering local memories to record how their grandparents said health problems were alleviated when they were just children.
Although Chiapas is one of the Mexican states with the largest indigenous populations, many of its residents do not trust, or do not know about, the benefits of medicinal plants.
According to the healer, if everyone believed in the curative power of the plants “it would be widely known that cures are right on the patio of their homes and in the fields.”
“There are still many people who don’t know about it, who haven’t experienced it and who doubt its power,” she said.
Antonia said that for five years the group has focused on fostering self-curative techniques to prevent disease, mainly those involving the body’s airways, gastrointestinal problems and muscle pains.
By recovering and preserving the ancient knowledge, the group has collected more than 70 plants that can be used for treating respiratory problems, and although they do not “cure” COVID-19 they do strengthen the immune system against the virus and other diseases, thus preventing it from manifesting itself in more serious form, they said.
As she transplants fennel shoots, Maria Lopez Mesa, a Tzeltal housewife, told EFE that life in the city with her six children is complicated.
The women have been able to make caring for their families’ health easier with plants and foods they grow themselves in their 400-square-meter (4,300-square-foot) plot of land that was provided to them and which in August they must return to the use of the owner.
“I have six kids and thank God so far they haven’t gotten seriously ill, just coughs and the flu but we’re giving them those herbs and we make lemon tea with honey, ginger, garlic and that gets rid of it,” said Mari, as the other ladies affectionately call her.
The situation of the Chiapas indigenous people is difficult. The natives are dealing with the pandemic in silence since the fear of infection is creating discrimination among the villagers.
Being a carrier of the virus can result in a person being expelled from the local community, losing their property and, what is worse, their sense of belonging.
In addition, the fear of – and resistance to – getting medical attention for all sorts of “normal” health problems underlies everything, above all in government clinics, because people are afraid of getting sick with COVID-19 in the hospitals.
That is why in the villages of Chiapas many are resorting to medicinal plants that they know and which their ancestors used to mitigate or cure their health problems.
According to Antonio, several COVID-19 survivors told her that when they first started having the disease’s standard flu-like symptoms they started using herbs, chili peppers, “posh” (corn alcohol) and temascal baths. And they said that often was enough to forestall any more serious effects.
Other peoples in Latin America are engaging in the same kinds of herbal medicine practices.
In Ecuador, for instance, residents in the jungle community of Arajuno mix locally available plants into a tea-like drink as a natural protective beverage.
However, Rodrigo Henriquez, a researcher at the Universidad de las Americas, said in a recent interview with EFE that there is “insufficient evidence” either pro or con regarding the utility of natural remedies in combatting COVID-19.