A Healer's Last Journey

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The smell of gasoline floats through open windows as we wind our way through the foothills of the Sibundoy Valley in southwest Colombia. The sound of children chattering in the back seat and the engine straining against the incline interrupt the early-morning quiet, while blue-hued, predawn light falls on giant ferns scraping against the 21-seater bus.

Up front sits a Kamentsa tribal elder called Mama Margarita. Standing no more than five feet tall, she is a tiny powerhouse of traditional knowledge. After 80 years studying the medicinal plants of the páramo — an endangered alpine tundra ecosystem — Mama Margarita says today may be her last time making the eight-hour, round-trip hike into the Andes.

‘Nowadays, I cannot come all the way up the mountain alone,’ she says. ‘I used to come with two dogs to gather the remedies. At three in the afternoon I would leave the páramo, and arrive back at my house at dark.’

Her dogs have since passed away and, as Mama Margarita ages, she makes the trip less and less often.

In Sibundoy, the ancestral territory of the Kamentsa and Inga indigenous people, both the elders and lands that sustain traditional knowledge are disappearing. To keep pace with climate change, globalization and the region’s mining development, local groups are banding together to record this information before it disappears.

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