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Mapuche Culture a Boon to Health and Palate

By Daniela Estrada*

Chilean Indians are opening pharmacies and restaurants as a means to disseminate their view of the world... and to create jobs. Most of Chile's 600,000 Mapuches live in poverty.

SANTIAGO - Medicines and foods of the Mapuches, Chile's largest indigenous group, are finding a place in the market and on dinner tables. Pharmacies and restaurants are turning into a new source of income and window into this indigenous culture.

Marta, 81, uses Pelu, a medication for her otherwise painful arthritis. María Isabel, 60, swears by Uñoperken, prescribed for irritable colon. Erica, 45, has been diagnosed with uterine myoma, and she doesn't hesitate to take Kintral, indicated for cancer.

For the past month, these three Chilean women have been complementing their ''western medicine'' treatments with Mapuche products, made using 47 native plants harvested in the Araucanía region, some 700 km south of the capital and where the Mapuche population is concentrated.

They are clients of Makewelawen, the country's first Mapuche pharmacy, inaugurated two years ago in the Araucanía capital, Temuco. There are now four shops in Chile, with two in Santiago and one in Concepción.

The women do not skimp on their praise for the positive effects of the 45 drops of medicine they take daily. The medicinal plant derivatives, diluted in water and alcohol, are sold in 40 milliliter bottles, with prices ranging from four to five dollars.

''We hold all of the necessary permits required by the Ministry of Health,'' Cecilia Ramírez, the chief pharmacist at one of the Santiago shops, told Tierramérica. Furthermore, the paperwork is being processed for patenting the medicines, which are only counterindicated for women who are pregnant or lactating.

This ''complementary traditional medicine'', as Ramírez defines it, can be used for treating more than 50 pathologies, and has become a veritable phenomenon among Chileans and even foreigners, she says.

In Temuco, a hospital run by a Mapuche community complements Western medical practice with indigenous knowledge through an initiative promoted by a special program of the Health Ministry over the past decade.

In the Mapuche cosmovision, ''diseases'' do not exist. Physical and spiritual pain are the product of imbalances between the body and soul. This means that when a person is not in harmony, he or she is more likely to receive an ''ill'', which should be treated by a 'machi', or healer.

The success of the Mapuche culture's inroads into medicine has expanded to gastronomy.

The first restaurant specializing in Mapuche dishes, Kokaví, opened its doors in Temuco a few weeks ago. Tasty ingredients include quinoa (a cereal rich in protein and cholesterol-free), 'merkén' (a powder made from a type of pepper) and coriander.

Mapuche cooking also focuses heavily on beef, pork, poultry, mutton and even horse, as well as wheat and corn, pine nuts native to Araucanía, potatoes, beans and a wide variety of vegetables.

Even before the inauguration of Kokaví, the traditional dishes had achieved some notoriety as they were included on the menus of some prestigious Chilean hotels and restaurants.

''People want to return to ancestral ways because they are tired of the health problems associated with junk food,'' Eliana Queupumil said in a Tierramérica interview. She is one of the founders of Ad Malen, a group of Mapuche families in Santiago that prepare banquets centered on their traditional diet.

''Mapuche food is more natural because it is made from organic products with high nutritional value,'' like 'multrun' or 'catuto' (soft wheat crackers), 'digüeñes' (edible mushrooms that grow on oak trees), and 'muday', a typical beverage, said Queupumil.

In this new ''niche'' market of Mapuche culture, there is already a concentration of property.

Rosalino Moreno Catrilaf owns the Makewelawen pharmacy, Kokaví restaurant and Mapuche Kimün, a Mapuche-language newspaper that is distributed in Santiago and southern Chile.

''I think that in a globalized world like ours, developing a business is the only way to maintain our relevance, cultivating our conception of the world and disseminating our culture without the prejudices imposed by Westerners,'' Catrilaf told the newspaper Ultimas Noticias, which profiled him as the founder of the first Mapuche consortium.

The businessman says he dreams of a university that teaches its classes in the Mapuche language, known as Mapudungun, and a holistic health center that treats patients using exclusively Mapuche techniques.

The new Mapuche businesses represent the creation of a new source of employment for this indigenous group, most of which continues to struggle in poverty.

The approximately 600,000 Mapuches constitute 87 percent of Chile's indigenous population, and four percent of the total population of 15 million.

''I'm pleased with the boom our products are seeing, but I think it has taken a long time to discover them,'' Francisco Painepán, head of the Mapuche Business Association, said in a Tierramérica interview.

Painepán, owner of the Lautaro hardware store, noted that the concept of development among his people is different from the Western definition. ''We work to live, we don't live to work.''

''Our economic progress runs in direct relation with the preservation of our identity,'' a Mapuche never sacrifices family or personal life to increase wealth, he said.

* Daniela Estrada is an IPS contributor.

Copyright © 2007 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados


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