SIERRA DE BAHORUCO, Dominican Republic – Even here in these ancient mountains that mesmerized and paralyzed the Spanish conquistadors, where the myth of extinction is attached to anything indigenous or autochthonous, there he is still: an old-time curandero on the side of the rough mountain road, sitting on his haunches and slightly hidden by the dense forest. When we stopped our grizzled truck, he stood, gruff, craggy face blending to a greeting smile. We identified ourselves and he welcomed us to his mountain ranch. There, a couple of students from Cornell University, part of a much larger contingent from several colleges, listened in as we talked.
His name was Esporminio Felix, and some folks in the high mountain area renowned for its dense, cloud forest cover, as Esporminio himself will tell you, consider him a brujo. He vehemently denies this, of course. “I am a curandero (healer) and a comadron (male midwife),” he shrugged. “My mother was a midwife and my father also cured using the herbs, the trees and even the rocks.”
Esporminio uses many plants; and he is not alone among his Dominican and Haitian neighbors to know and use local plant medicines for physical or even spiritual ailments. But of the various folks we met in several days of trekking and driving on dense trails and nearly impassible mountain roads, he was at once the most forthcoming and the most recalcitrant of people. Immediately, matter-of-factly, he shared his recipe for common colds and other problems, then an exacting, long list of plants and spices that when mixed the proper way, he claims, will cure hepatitis. “You may or may not believe it,” he said. “But people get cured.”
A man standing next to him, machete in hand, nodded. He had stopped by to pick up a medicine from the curandero.
Esporminio went on to relate the uses of a number of plant and spiritual medicines, to answer many questions and ask a few of his own, fascinating the students with the keen sense of natural-world knowledge that resides among the common folks in these Caribbean mountains.
Students, and their mentor from Cornell University, Eloy Rodriguez, had inquired on Taino or Caribbean indigenous contexts still reflected in the mestizo mountain cultures. I asked don Esporminio: “Maestro, when you pick your medicine, do you concentrate, spiritually, do you connect to the plant?”
“You mean, ask permission?” Esporminio’s eyes lit up with energy. “Well, of course. You want her to give you her strength, to know why you would disturb her, even specifically who you intend to help.”
Another telling sign of indigenous legacy: Esporminio, of obvious mestizo extraction, prays using the four directions (los cuatro cardinales), always, and also invokes mother earth (la madre tierra). On the subject of picking medicine plants, he professes to always leave something behind, even a coin (una moneda) for the plant. It is a type of reciprocity with medicines found among many Native cultures. Katsi Cook, Mohawk midwife, also on the interview, exchanged information on treatments for a laboring woman.
The students are fascinated, perhaps having assumed people such as don Esporminio had simply vanished from Dominican Republic, which along with Haiti forms Hispaniola, the second-largest of the Caribbean islands. It has been a full morning, including a long visit at an extremely poor Haitian family homestead – this gave much cause for reflection – and two other family mountain hamlets, all of which use plant medicines daily, from house gardens and from the bush.
At base camp of El Cachote, Rodriguez lifted the leaves of a plant to the small ray of sunshine shooting through the thick, cloudforest canopy. He whispers the scientific name to the student who had brought the recently harvested specimen. Rodriquez is a Cornell professor famous for his work on rainforest and traditional medicines. Next to him, don Fran Usmal, a local elder, and Carlos Pena, a noted Dominican professor, also discussed the uses of the plant. “It’s good for scars and cuts,” said don Fran, the old man of the mountain and well-respected for his knowledge of plants and animals in his environment, “applied as a poultice.” The student noted the information.
In recent years, Rodriguez has taken hundreds of college students, including many North American Indians, into Dominican Republic, Venezuela’s Amazon and the Maya peninsula in Yucatan to work with community folk and in-country scientists, intending to understand most fully the uses and scientific bases of traditional plant medicines. “We directly study diseases, work with patients to understand the nature and conditions and the most effective treatments.” Funded in part by the National Institute of Health, Rodriguez’s program is highly sought after by students who seek experience in the field and “among the regular community people,” said Rodriguez, who was profiled on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in 2002 and is recognized as a founder of the science of zoopharmacognosy (“zoo” for animals, “pharma” for drugs and “cognosy” for recognition).
A Chicano with roots in the California fields, Rodriquez, Ph.D., is the James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies at Cornell University. Rodriguez’s studies with animals in the bush, to determine useful medicinal plants good for parasites and other tropical ailments, is highly respected. His biggest passion, however, is introducing young people to science and to the natural world.
This particular camp of El Cachote, in the high cloud-mountains of Dominican Republic (Quisqueya), provided a few rustic cabins in the high canopy, a meeting room and a kitchen and dining area, although most students slept in tents, sharing latrines and bathing in concrete shower rooms with cold water. El Cachote – as an eco-center with strong community support – sustains rain- and cloud forests of substantial biodiversity, where dozens of medicinal plants and trees, birds and other species are still in the process of identification and study 500 years after Columbus first spotted these mountains. The local community manages and supports a largely volunteer project to protect the mountain’s green canopy and biodiversity and has pursued partnerships in a program of sustainable, academic eco-tourism. Rodriguez’s program, which demands a hands-on approach, has been an important supporter of the community-led effort.
“Scientific training, research methodology, actual plant use: this is very important,” said Rodriguez. “But the most exciting for me is to see some quite privileged students, from across the North American spectrum, come and meet the range of people in remote and economically poor areas like on this mountain. I see how it changes them. This is where I see the compassion and the sharing begin to happen. To see this part of people open up gives these educational tours a real-world dimension.”
The use of natural medicines in combating illness in Native communities of North and South America is a driving force for Rodriguez. His extensive work among Amazonian tribes revealed a plague-like level of malaria among rainforest villages. This is presently a major focus of his attention. The other is the epidemic proportions of the “sugar disease,” diabetes, among Northern indigenous peoples. “We need a major alliance of medicine people, scientists and foundations, to tackle these major diseases which are killing so many Native forest and mountain people.”
One evening as the sun receded and the frogs and insects intoned their nocturnal songs, don Maltiano Moreta, main organizer of the local association of forest protectors, recalled the history of the sierras we were overlooking. The Bahoruco is the mountain chain where the Taino cacique or chief, Enriquillo or Guarocuya (Nighthawk), fought the conquistadors to a standstill from 1519 to 1534. The Enriquillo war resulted in the first treaty of the Americas between an indigenous nation in arms and a European power. “That was a long time ago,” don Maltiano recognized, “but it can be said that Taino fought hard for these mountains.”
Pointing to distant peaks that protruded through a ring of clouds, Rodriguez added, “Perhaps Cacique Enriquillo walks these mountains still.”