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Project promotes recognition of indigenous medicine in Brazil


Fiocruz Amazônia


The Leônidas & Maria Deane Institute (Fiocruz Amazônia), the Rede Unida Association and Rede Unida Italy are leading a national movement in Brazil to recognize indigenous medicine as a health system that has been serving and healing indigenous peoples for millennia. The different indigenous medicines are still alive and active in different Brazilian territories, without much support from public policies. The proposal of the movement, which involves specialists, indigenous and non-indigenous researchers and social movements, is that indigenous medicines, as part of the knowledge and know-how of traditional indigenous peoples, should be effectively recognized as a medicine and be part of the care network of the Unified Health System (SUS), not only for indigenous peoples but also for “whites” who need care for various types of illnesses.

Different indigenous medicines are still alive and active in different Brazilian territories (photo: Fiocruz Amazônia)

The Sonhação project, as the initiative developed in a partnership between Fiocruz, Rede Unida and other institutions in Brazil and Italy is called, brought a group of shamans to Manaus, known as specialists in indigenous medicine, to participate in the Indigenous Medicine Forum as part of the 6th Rede Unida Northern Regional Meeting, which took place between October 18th and 21st in Manaus. A project group from Italy also participated in the Forum, along with representatives from the states of Amazonas, Pará, Maranhão, Espírito Santo and Rio Grande do Norte. For two days, at the Bahserikowi Center for Indigenous Medicine, located in Downtown Manaus, discussions were held on the methods used in indigenous medicine. There is a dialog with the Ministry of Health's Special Secretariat for Indigenous Health (Sesai) so that indigenous medicines can be part of health practices in the country's indigenous territories.

“We understand indigenous medicine as the art of healing and when we talk about the art of healing, we recognize that all peoples have their own health care and healing practices. What we want is to change the concept. Instead of traditional medicine, alternative medicine or ancient medicine, we have indigenous medicine, because it is a system, it has an educational institution, that makes the specialists go through their own training and learning process, it has its own technologies, so there is no way to say it is not medicine," explains anthropologist João Paulo Lima Barreto, founder of the Tukano ethnic group.

Author of a thesis awarded by Capes in 2022, Paulo observes that, from the experiences of care provided by indigenous specialists in their territories, it is possible to make the connection with Western medicine. The Center for Indigenous Medicine, founded in 2009, has seen more than 12,000 people, most of them non-indigenous, and its flagship is the service provided by the shaman, called Kumu. “The service is immediate and many people come from outside. The appointment is followed by treatment, without distinction of gender or age”, says Potira Sakuena, from the Baré ethnic group.

“On this occasion, we welcome all people who make up the Sonhação project, a cooperation agreement between Brazil and Italy that allows for an exchange between the two countries. We were in Italy to learn about the health system in Italian cities. Now the group, both from Brazil and Italy, has come to Manaus to have this discussion about indigenous medicines”, Potira explains. According to her, indigenous medicines are discussed based on the experiences of each territory and the specialists “who teach us and who are our doctors”, she says. “Over the two days of the event, we worked on different concepts, starting with food, which for us is also part of the health system, it is also health care. We brought in specialists from various places, tikunas from Tabatinga, yanomamis from São Gabriel da Cachoeira and Arautés from Altamira (PA) for the first time, as well as midwives from the Lower Tapajós, for this dialog, so that we could understand what health means in these places”, Potira said.

Collective care

In indigenous medicine, health care is not bound by gender patterns. "Health care for us, indigenous peoples, is collective care, one which considers training and welcoming women and men, with protection, promotion, prevention, cure and treatment. Here, at the Center for Indigenous Medicine, we do not look at gender, we take care of people, we take care of bodies”, said the Baré representative, stressing that the Center for Indigenous Medicine is the consolidation of a dream that has become an action. Potira, along with Fiocruz Amazônia researcher, Júlio César Schweickardt, and João Paulo de Lima Barreto, are participating in a Sesai working group made up of specialists from both academia and indigenous territories to build a technical chamber to deepen the discussion about this welcoming by the SUS.

Júlio César Schweickardt recalls that the central theme of the 6th Rede Unida Northern Meeting was Florestania: Decolonizing, respecting, recognizing and learning from care practices in the Amazon, precisely aimed at proposing spaces for discussion, articulation and shared scientific production around themes such as forest peoples' medicine, health and education policies, participatory projects involving educational institutions, health system and social movements at the local, regional and national level.


“The Indigenous Medicine Meeting, with shamans from various territories, is part of the Sonhação project, and after courses and training, we are entering the stage of living with Tikuna, Yanomami and Uareté shamans. The idea is to listen to how they think about health, how they train and what methodology they use. Listening to how they perform health care in each territory leads us to understand that these various medicines are active, that they are alive, and that they happen in the day-to-day life of the communities, and public policies cannot ignore this or think it does not exist”, stresses Schweickardt, adding that the political movement's fight with SESAI is for indigenous medicine to have a rightful place on the teams. The cause is already being advocated for in the country's 34 Diseis [Special Indigenous Health Districts].

Present at the meeting, Tikuna shaman Oscar Angelo Guilherme, from Upper Solimões, says that this is the first time he has taken part in an event with shamans and midwives. “It is great to see the result of what we want to become a reality. The authorities already know everything and, together with Sesai, they are going to improve working conditions for us. We do not earn anything, we do not have a salary and that is very sad for everyone”, says the shaman.

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