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Center preserves forest wisdom

PILCOPATA, Peru - Alejandro Jahuanchi's dream began before its time.

Now, nine years after his death, his children, Ruth and Joel, have built the vision he dreamed of: the Centro Wanamey, a cultural center in the southern Peruvian jungle that seeks to preserve the medicine and craftsmanship of the Huachipaeri and other peoples.

The center is named after the Wanamay Tree, which the Huachipaeri had to climb to save themselves from destruction by a huge fire, according to oral tradition.

The Huachipaeri, like the Machiguenga, the Aramkbut and other peoples of the Peruvian Amazon, only came into large-scale contact with outsiders 60 years ago, but their culture, knowledge and language are already disappearing. Elders describe whole families dying during the smallpox epidemic brought by outsiders, and many Huachipaeri children are growing up without their language.

Alejandro Jahuanchi was a founder and leader of the Huachipaeri community of Queros in the Kosnipata region near the Manu National Park, a healer who worked with ayahuasca and other traditional plant medicines, as well as an elementary school teacher and international lecturer.

For most of his adult life, Ruth remembers, he rejected his Native heritage and passed on very little of it to his children. Then, abruptly, after Jahuanchi spend some silent time alone in the heat of the jungle, there was a change.

''Suddenly he wanted us to learn Huachipaeri; he wanted us to know what he knew,'' Ruth said. ''I'm not going to teach you anything, he told us, but you're going to learn. And that's the way it happened. My brother is an ayahuascero and I have the knowledge of the other plants.''

Jahuanchi worked tirelessly to put his vision of the Centro Wanamey into practice, speaking to nongovernmental organizations and other potential supporters about the importance of preserving the traditional knowledge of fast-disappearing Amazon cultures, about the creation of a center that would also be a place for local healers to exchange knowledge.

Jahuanchi died just before he was to receive funding for the project. The responsibility for the project fell on the shoulders of Juaranchi's then 23-year-old son, Joel.

''It was really hard to follow in my father's footsteps,'' Joel. ''I was too young, I didn't inspire the confidence that he did. We never got the funding.''

But Joel persisted. At one point he asked everyone he knew for a $5 donation to help with construction of the center, raising a grand total of $200. Community members who said they were interested in the project never followed through, even when Joel was able to convince outside consultants to meet with the community.

''They wouldn't show up at meetings because they had to go fishing. The idea of investing time and energy in a long-term project like the center was something new, not part of the traditional way of life.''

Some Huachipaeri said they didn't want to host a gathering of traditional healers from other communities, and disapproved of Jahuanchi's activities.

Joel and Ruth decided to continue the project on their own.

''Despite the hardships, or maybe because of them, I discovered that I could have a mission to my life,'' Joel said.

A family friend, Californian Donna Runnals, supported Joel and Ruth in obtaining construction funding and in organizing meetings between elders from the region who could exchange their information and pass it on to the next generation.

''The important thing is we are sharing,'' said Ruth. ''It used to be that traditional healers and craftsmen were jealous of their knowledge, keeping it to themselves. But now they realize that if they don't share it, it's going to die with them.''

Many of the elders who attended the 2002 meeting have already died, say Huachipaeri community members.

Unlike other Amazon communities, the plant life that has provided medicine in this region near the Manu National Park has not yet been severely affected by logging or oil and gas development, Ruth said, though gas development in the region is being planned by Hunt Oil.

But increasingly, the Huachipaeri have been encouraged to turn to modern medicines for health problems, and they don't always work.

''It used to be you took a plant medicine to cure snakebite, and it went away,'' she said. ''Now, they send you to the health center to take a pill. Maybe you are cured, and maybe you aren't.''

New diseases like cancer, arising from contact with mestizo civilization, have also aggravated the Huachipaeris' health situation, she said.

Native-run cultural preservation projects like the Centro

Wanaymay are rare in this region of Peru, according to local residents.

Though plenty of anthropologists and others have come through the Peruvian Amazon documenting Native plant medicines and other knowledge, very little of their research has been shared with the Native communities themselves, local residents complain.

Despite all the effort the Jahuanchi family has put into the Centro Wanamey, Joel is philosophical about the disappearance of tradition among the Huachipaeri .

''Cultures disappear,'' he said. ''It's part of the human cycle. We need to realize where we are now,'' he said, ''not where we'd like to be. And we need to start with forgiveness.''

Joel is now focused more on running the center as a business then on raising money from NGOs. The center offers week-long courses in traditional plant medicine to international visitors, including ayahuasca sessions. He hopes to be able to finance more encounters between local healers with the profits. He is also branching out into a personal development consulting business, assisting his home community of Queros in developing tourism projects, and seeking to organize a first-time encounter of the Huachipaeri, who now number about 500 and include people living outside of Peru.