From medicine to medicine men

The deadly Chagas' disease infects more than 20 million people in Latin America.

For the past 40 years, anthropology Professor Joseph Bastien has battled some of Bolivia’s biggest health concerns—AIDS, polio, tetanus, Chagas’ disease—and uncovered secrets behind the 1,000-year history of herbal medicines in the South American country.

His study of ethnobotany and ethnomedicine has examined the role rituals play in Andean society and how different cultures in Bolivia and other Andean nations manage the biology of disease.

Dr. Bastien became interested in Bolivia in 1963 when as a Maryknoll priest he was assigned to La Paz. He returned to the United States in 1969 and, after leaving the priesthood, earned his doctoral degree in anthropology.

During fieldwork in 1972 with the Quechua-speaking Kallawaya of Bolivia, he observed how religious rituals help the people deal with Western diseases. “I began to see how their symbolic belief systems and their stories and legends were tied in with their very livelihood. These farmers and herders live on very steep mountains, which have names and are considered deities.”

From this experience came Mountain of the Condor: Metaphor and Ritual in an Andean Ayllu, an account of the rituals practiced by a small community inhabiting Kaata, a sacred mountain in midwestern Bolivia. The book sold 20,000 copies and is used in more than 15 universities worldwide. Bastien spent the next 10 years studying a neighboring mountain and subsequently wrote Healers of the Andes: Kallawaya Herbalists and Their Medicinal Plants.

“Villages would be filled with herbalists, or medicine men, curing things from diarrhea to birthing maladies,” he said. “I traveled along with these natives and sketched and cataloged the properties of the plants, explaining how you use them, where you use them and their history. My whole theory was that these people had a thousand-year history of curing with medicinal plants. This is a vast wisdom of healing.”

That experience led Bastien to the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth, where he still works as a researcher. With the help of a $1 million grant, and working with botanists and chemotherapists from Texas Christian University and the University of California, he found that many of these Bolivian plants had powers against AIDS, bacterial infections, skin diseases and tuberculosis.

Bastien’s group is still testing the properties of hundreds of plants he brought back from Bolivia. “My research has found that a lot of the plants have combinatory ingredients, that probably when you take them, the animal or human has a way of selecting out the good properties that work with the body. I think that’s a very synergetic, or holistic, medicine.”

In the 1980s, he began doing workshops for Bolivian health workers on disease prevention, sanitation, oral rehydration and the collaboratory benefits of traditional and Western medicine.

“Bolivia is the second poorest country in North and South America, next to Haiti. There is so much suffering, and modern medicine is very unavailable to these mountain people,” he noted. “So we promoted a dialogue by training community health workers, providing mobile health units and getting local doctors to recognize the work of midwives.”

Bastien says these applied health projects account for 1,000 community health promoters in Bolivia today. Since 1990, he has researched Chagas’ disease, the subject of his book The Kiss of Death: Chagas’ Disease in the Americas. The disease, which infects more than 20 million people in Latin America, is caused by a trypanosome deposited in the feces of triatomine bugs.

“In the course of trying to find a cure, we can at least educate people about Chagas and how to prevent it,” Bastien said. “Housing hygiene is the answer.”

Bastien, who in 2002 received La Cruz Andina de Oro, the highest honor awarded by the Bolivian government and ethnic groups of Bolivia, says it’s his determination to relieve suffering and conquer disease that drives him to continue his research. “The theory in nature is that for every sickness, there’s a cure. So I’m on the forefront of this thousand-year tradition. And I am part of these peoples’ family. When I go there, it’s like going home.”

— Susan M. Slupecki