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Reviving our wisdom: An interview with healer Alberto Manqueriapa

PILCOPATA, Peru - Alberto Manqueriapa, Huachipaeri/Machiguenga/Quechua, is a healer and ayahuascero who works with the nongovernmental organization Puma Peru to help Andean and Amazonian people revive their traditional ecological wisdom.

Indian Country Today: Can you describe the current situation of the Native peoples of the southern Peruvian Amazon?

Alberto Manqueriapa: When the church and the large landowners arrived, what happened is that Native people forgot their customs, and their use of medicinal plants. They entered into bad habits, like alcoholism and television.

Some no longer want to speak their language, wear their clothes, dance their dances or sing their songs.

We have begun to treat ourselves more with modern medicine, but modern medicine treats us badly. If we don't have any money, they don't treat us. There is neglect and there have been deaths.

Our ancestors knew all about plants, about how to be healthy on the Earth, with nature, with everything that surrounds us on our planet. All this is what we have lost.

The Quechuan settlers come here and cut down trees, kill animals and then they blame us. But all of us, between the settlers and the Native people, we have exterminated our wealth. We haven't been living sustainably.

For example, here in Kosnipata there was once a lot of wood, plenty of trees, enormous trees: and now there are just these tiny trees. Our fauna, our monkeys, our birds, our medicinal plants - they have disappeared.

This is being done by individuals and logging companies, and the asendados, the big landowners. None of it has been reforested, nothing. We are leaving a huge necessity for our children in the future.

The Native people now are disconnected from the forest. Before, Native people knew how to conserve. They knew when to log a tree; when to hunt, what kind of animal. But commercialism has affected Native people; now we are also in a situation of imbalance. The logging companies or the Quechuan settlers arrive, there is nothing to eat, so we destroy our own forests.

When another Native person teaches, explains, we can understand that it is important to reforest for the future; that we need to plant something for ourselves and something for our children.

I travel all over Peru, speaking to indigenous people, speaking about identity and how important it is not to lose it. I speak as a Huachipaeri, about what my grandfathers taught me, how we are connected to the four energies of the world.

If we ourselves don't value our culture, we're lost.

Just as we want to be respected, we have to respect nature. Taking care of the forest, creating work through tourism, that's how you can help do something. But cutting your trees, your yucca, you're going to end up with nothing.

ICT: What are the effects of the oil and gas companies on Amazon communities?

Manqueriapa: In all of the indigenous communities that I have visited in Quillabamba and Madre de Dios, the effect of oil companies has been harmful to the people. First, the mistreatment of the forest, of the earth, of the wildlife, and the water. Second, Native people become badly oriented, with money, with the destruction of the family, with the girls turning to prostitution. They lose their identity as Native people. And the animals flee, they go far away.

We ourselves have to prepare for what is to come. Now, for example, they are looking at exploiting Lot 66 in this area. This will have a tremendous effect, tremendous, on the Native communities. My fear is they will fall into bad ways.

This hurts me, it preoccupies me, not just for one tribe in Peru, but for all of the jungle.

We need to develop a strategy to say, ''Listen, brother, you are wrong, you are going down the wrong path.''

The NGOs can help. We're going to need organizations that can help maintain living indigenous cultures.

ICT: What effect do churches and religions have on Native communities at this time?

Manqueriapa: I am not against churches. The church is a teaching. But only when the person who directs it takes it on a good road. What bothers me at times are the people in charge of the churches.

When the Catholic Church arrived in the indigenous communities, the first thing they did was to prohibit us from speaking our language, using medicinal plants, doing ''magical'' healings, doing ceremony for Pacha Mama, the Earth. So we all learned Spanish, and our teachers (who had been created by the church) never came back to their communities.

Now different sects have appeared that criticize our life, our use of medicinal plants, our taking of ayahuasca. These sects are making the indigenous communities uncomfortable. They are entering into indigenous communities and teaching the word of God to separate families.

Your person itself needs to teach, not your church. The evangelists, the sects, they are destroying homes, telling us not to drink alcohol, not to use medicinal plants, not to eat meat.

A while ago they came to our community but we wouldn't let them in. Because they told our chiefs that they had to be baptized or they would burn in hell. But I know where I'm walking; it's not easy to convince me. That's why I've been able in my community to have us respect the Catholic Church but also to have them respect and value us.

ICT: What projects do you see for yourself in the future?

Manqueriapa: A lot of people are asking that I speak with schoolchildren. I'm going to start doing this. I'm going to keep flowering and learning. It has cost me my life to learn what I have learned. But God has been good to me, and Nature has given me a lot of love and connection. I have to learn piece by piece, but learn well, and take each step on the earth as I live it. The road itself is teaching me to keep discovering on a daily basis.