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One of the most deeply rooted customs in Paraguay is the use of medicinal herbs, which are called by their name in Guarani, pohã ñana. This legacy of the native peoples of the region is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it is not sufficiently cared for. There is a lack of scientific research and clinical studies that validate the popular knowledge about therapeutic plants, transmitted from generation to generation for centuries. They also need to be produced and distributed in a sustainable way, reversing economically in the country.
In Paraguay there are hundreds of species of medicinal plants. They have fewer side effects and are cheaper than drugs, which is why the majority of the population consumes them regularly, but few have been studied. “Traditional medicine has a great impact on health and is not valued enough. We are in diapers in recognizing toxic properties, benefits or situations, ”explains Derlis Ibarrola, head of the Pharmacology Department of the Faculty of Chemical Sciences of the National University of Asunción (FCQ-UNA) in his office. For more than 30 years, the biotechnologist and pharmacist doctor has been studying the country’s medicinal plants. In 2022, he received the National Science Award for research on the antihypertensive and diuretic effect of the root of one of the country’s medicinal plants: ñuati pytã (Solanum sisymbriifolium), from the Solanaceae family, like tomatoes.
“We have a very thoughtless society, important traditions are lost. For example, doctors discredit the use of plants in an unanalytical way”, thinks Ibarrola. Next to his office at the university is the laboratory where his team develops preclinical tests with animals. The room is completely silent while María del Carmen Hellión-Ibarrola, a specialist in behavioral neurosciences, analyzes the behavior of thirty white mice that have been given medicinal plants.
“We work with animals always following established protocols and that the ethics committee has to approve,” explains Ana Velázquez, 35, a doctor in biomedicine and another of the team’s researchers. She has published a study on a plant that is industrialized in Paraguay, jaguareté ka’a (jaguar tea), also known as carqueja. “It is popularly consumed as a digestive, my research was to find out why. When there is indigestion, the intestine is paralyzed, and the test with mice showed that by ingesting jaguar ka’a, it works faster and transit is restored, ”she explains. The supposed hepatoprotective properties of the plant prompted her to study it. “A quarter of the population has fatty liver, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It is a silent disease that affects many people. It is important to investigate medicinal plants because they can be helpful and have fewer adverse effects than drugs ”, she concludes.
Herbs sold in bunches in the market. Paula López Barba
Ibarrola explains how difficult it is to carry out the research projects of the department he directs: “For 20 years we have worked almost without State support. The one we received was from Japan, which donated equipment and chemical reagents to us.” He acknowledges that the situation has improved since 2015, when they began to receive funds from the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT), but believes that institutional attention to pohã ñana is still insufficient. “There is a lot of bureaucracy, they are not agile processes. And there should be interest because it is also a business that can work and have a good socioeconomic impact, but it is not given the importance it should be. For example, agronomic management is very deficient”, he adds.
One of the biggest concerns of researchers is that there is no sustainable production of medicinal plants. “Few species are cultivated, most are wild and some are in danger of extinction. It is important that they are studied before they are lost,” says Olga Heinichen, a pharmacist specializing in gastrointestinal medicine and also a member of the University’s Department of Pharmacology.
The walk of the weeds of the Market 4
Claudia is one of those thousands of people who make a living in Paraguay thanks to the pohã ñana. It’s 4 in the morning and she just folded up the mattress in a plastic bag that she slept on on the sidewalk today. She is 44 years old and although she lives in Itá, a municipality close to Asunción, she spends many nights in the “paseo de los yuyos” in Mercado 4, the main municipal market. Yuyos is what the herbs are called. “I collect them in the fields, we wash and tie them at home, I come by bus in the afternoon to sleep here and I sell them at dawn,” she explains. It is still night and the streetlights illuminate the fresh plants piled on the ground. They are sold by the dozen until six in the morning. “You have to come at dawn, then it’s retail,” says Zuni Ferreira, a 55-year-old woman carrying three bags in which she carries what she has bought to sell in Villa Elisa, a neighborhood about 20 minutes from here.
On August 1, the Paseo de los yuyos is especially crowded. It is the national day of the pohã ñana and this is its epicenter. Before six in the morning, all the tables are already set up, lined up along Silvio Pettirossi Avenue. They wait for the hundreds of drivers who will pass by and will be able to buy from their windows without getting out of the car. Today they sell special products for the celebration, such as the traditional carrulim, a cane drink -aguardiente-, rue and lemon, of which they say you have to drink seven drinks to scare away the ills of the month of August, a winter month that, for the Guarani, takes the lean cows and the elderly.
Two women sell herbs and fruit at Mercado 4 in Asunción.Paula López Barba
Patricia, 37, has stayed up all night to find a good place. “I arrived yesterday at seven in the evening,” she says from behind the table that she has lovingly decorated. She shows the “Mix supermate” bags, which she has prepared to add to the mate. They contain a mix of orange peel, chamomile, siempre viva, saffron, lemon verbena, py, burrito and boldo. In a while her nieces and her 11-year-old daughter will arrive, who will help her sell today. Most of those who sell medicinal and refreshing plants on the street are women and are known as yuyeras. “I started selling herbs on this street with my mom 55 years ago, we were pioneers here,” says Simona, a 73-year-old woman full of energy to face the day. She trusts natural medicine: “When I feel the flu, I cook a handful of agrial -begonia cucullata- with a lot of lemon, add honey and drink it hot.” If necessary, she takes an anti-inflammatory pill from the pharmacy. “But only one,” she stresses.
“Synthetic medicine cures one thing, but it spoils three,” reflects Eva, 65, the daughter of farmers from Piribebuy. Her store Los Pequeños de ella is in front of Simona’s stall. She has managed to ride it after spending years on this street. “It is a struggle, we live from day to day. The rent is 2.5 million guaraníes (about 300 euros). If necessary, we stop eating to pay, ”she says, while she drinks her mate with natural remedies for bronchial tubes. “I had bipulmonary pneumonia ten years ago, then I prepared this bronchial compound that I take every day and I didn’t have any problems again,” she explains, sitting in front of her shop on Calle República Francesa. Leticia and Verónica, under 30 years old, are in the next stall and are among the youngest on the street. They help their mother and want to continue the business. “It’s nice when a person comes in pain and you can help them,” they say with a smile.
The culture of the Paraguayan tereré
Two streets away is the Literary Tereré, a cultural space to spread the culture of the powder and drink tereré, the traditional Paraguayan drink of mate with crushed medicinal herbs and ice to overcome the high temperatures. It was assembled six years ago by Javier Torres, who was chairman of the Yuyos Promenade Vendors and Producers Commission. “The foreigner who comes to Paraguay is invited to tereré. Tereré is about sharing, exchanging, community,” he says exuberantly. He just met with Santiago Peña, president of Paraguay. “Coming directly from the president’s house, we have talked about strengthening the cultural sector and shared carrulim and tereré of the seven herbs, which is drunk on August 1 to purify the blood and ward off bad energies,” he tells on the terrace filled with vegetation that has mounted in front of his premises. “Plants give oxygen and improve temperature,” says her niece Kenya, 7, who today celebrates medicine day wearing a red, white and blue skirt, the colors of the Paraguayan flag.
Torres is the third generation of a family that has been selling herbs for decades: “About 50 families work with weeds in Mercado 4. Thanks to that I studied Law,” he says. She believes that the trade in pohã ñana should be a social project. “Through the sale of weeds, poverty can be combated in our country, which is rich in medicinal plants. We want permits to export more. We have to work together with the State, with the ministries of agriculture, industry and commerce”, says Torres. He is setting up a new branch in one of the abundant shopping centers in Asunción, to introduce the tereré culture in spaces where it is not yet present, and he also plans to develop projects abroad.
Traditional dance and music in the Paseo de los Yuyos.Paula López Barba
The lawyer in front of the Literary Tereré was one of the people who actively fought for UNESCO to protect the pohã ñana, and in 2020 the Traditional Practices and Knowledge of the Tereré in the Pohã ñana Culture were included in the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. What is missing is investment in more research and protection of the rich Guarani legacy.
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