Image Depicting Silhouettes of Matsés People in River
Photos by Tui Anandi and Mike Van Kruchten

Encyclopedia of the Amazon

Matsés land covers 3,800 square miles of the Amazon. That's over a trillion sq ft of jungle and more than 1,000 medicinal plants they live in relationship with. And now, the knowledge of the land is documented in an encyclopedia.

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The Matsés preserve an extraordinary amount of ecological knowledge, given the size of their population. There are approximately 2,500 Matsés in the Peruvian Amazon, and 1,300 across the Javari River in Brazil, but their territory is more than 3,800 square miles. Like many Indigenous communities throughout the jungle, their very existence—not to mention their elders’ wisdom of more than 1,000 plants in their territories and their medical value—has been at risk of getting lost for decades as they’ve assimilated into Peruvian culture amid limited economic opportunity in their territory. But slowly, surely, this is beginning to change. 

In 2015, the Matsés, along with the help of the nonprofit Acate Amazon Conservation, became the first Indigenous Amazonian group to create a medical encyclopedia of all the healing plants in their territories. There are now two volumes created by ten Matsés healers which, together, span more than 1,000 pages. The encyclopedia—a political statement of sorts, in addition to being a tool for preservation—is only available in the Matsés language to protect against the theft of Indigenous botanical knowledge from outsiders, something that, unfortunately, has historical precedent.

Image Depicting Matsés Brothers with One Painting the Face of Another

With Acate’s help, Matsés youth have also learned how to use computers so that in collaboration with the community’s elders, for the first time, they’re creating maps of their own territories. Until now, the maps of this biodiverse ecosystem were primarily created for and by national governments and corporations—which only included the largest rivers in their Spanish names, not Matsés, and dots for the politically-recognized settlements. Everything else was blank. 

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All of these initiatives are part of a larger effort on the part of the Matsés—and the nonprofits supporting them—to create a culture of “ancestral transmission” between Matsés youth and elders, where knowledge of this precious land—which plays a vital role in our global ecosystem—is passed from one generation to another. The creation of sustainable economic opportunities is at the heart of these efforts.

In addition to Acate’s mapping and encyclopedia initiatives, another nonprofit called Xapiri— which works with more than six Indigenous groups in the Peruvian Amazon—has opened a gallery in Cusco, Peru, and started an online marketplace to sell nënë (the tobacco snuff made by the Matsés and used for balance), uitsun (the friendship bracelets made by Matsés women), baskets, pottery, and other traditional artworks. “I do not know how to make a uitsun bracelet but now that I know we can sell, I will start to learn,” Melisa, one Matsés youth said in a village meeting, not long after the launch of Xapiri’s marketplace in partnership with Acate and the Matsés. 

Image Depicting Small Architectural Structure in Jungle

Xapiri’s efforts serve two purposes: to create a network of economic opportunity for the Matsés, and to incentivize Matsés youth to want to, once again, learn from their elders. But really, they go hand-in-hand, says Dr. Christopher Herndon, president and co-founder of Acaté Amazon Conservation. “The project has brought renewed interest and economic opportunities for the Matsés and over the past two years has expanded to many handicrafts including chonta wood spears crafted by Matsés elders and warriors to beautiful ceramics created by the last remaining artisans who hold knowledge of the art.”

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Here’s our photo essay in celebration of the Matsés and their beautiful culture. If you feel called to support them, consider buying something from Xapiri’s marketplace at xapiri.com.

Image Depicting Close Up Shot of Matsés Woman

“Before the rubber boom, the Matsés made peaceful contact with a tribe named Camumbos (meaning ‘The Jaguar People’). The Camumbos taught the Matsés to make and use bows and arrows. Before that the Matsés used blowguns for hunting. The Camumbos also taught the Matsés to use the poison from the acate frog, which was part of their hunting culture.

The frog venom was applied to give hunters better marksmanship and make them more energetic. The Camumbos are also the ones from whom the Matsés copied their facial tattoos and the men’s facial ornaments.”

– Antonio Manquid, Matsés Elder

Image Depicting Matsés Elder Man with Smoke and Leaves

“The nënë has to be taken up both nostrils in order to keep a balance.”

– Jorge Shabac, Matsés Chief

Image Depicting Live Frog with Hands and Legs Tied

In recent years, the Matsés have felt violated by the growing popularity of kambo, or what they call, acate, in urban plant medicine communities around the globe. Matsés men traditionally burn this medicine—which is scraped from the exterior of the Phyllomedusa bicolor frog in the early mornings—into the skin to help with strength and prowess before hunting. In non-indigenous communities who also drink ayahuasca, snuff rapeh, and use other traditional psychoactives from the Amazon, however, facilitators are administering it for everything from depression to autoimmune conditions.

“I do not agree with Acate leaving our lands,” says Matsés Elder Antonio Manquid. “The outside people [involved in the commercial trade of frog secretions] are misappropriating our traditional practices.”

Photo Depicting Matsés Man Working Inside

“Before, we were semi-nomadic, so we would just go into the forest to collect plants. In the Eighties we began to stay in one village so my father started to manage a garden where the plants were all put together. Now this idea is being done with other villages, with apprentices learning the plant knowledge, this is great as now all the plants are in one place and being learnt.”

– Daniel Bai, Matsés Elder

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