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WHO first global summit on ancestral medicine

Towards the recognition of Ancestral Medicine and popular knowledge

Gandhinagar, Gujarat, India, was the setting for the first global summit on ancestral medicine organized by WHO and the Indian government in August 2023. Although it came as a surprise to some media, to others, it is a further step in the recognition of traditional ancestral knowledge. The WHO summit was preceded by the creation of the World Center for Traditional Medicine in India in 2022.

For years, the creation of the thematic circle of ancestral and popular knowledge has been making headway in the PHM, which, in May 2023, held its first meeting to exchange experiences of Indigenous Peoples' organizations, social movements, popular organizations, community networks and academic and state institutions from Chile, Paraguay, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Mexico, Brazil, Dominican Republic and El Salvador. These organizations defend, care for and promote the Good Living of the Peoples through diverse actions and proposals, by means of the recognition, defense and promotion of ancestral and popular knowledge and practices.

In this context we had an interview with Vivian Camacho, medical surgeon, specialist in interculturality and health, traditional midwife of the Quechua culture, General Director of Traditional Medicine of the Ministry of Health of Bolivia, who is also part of the PHM and of the process of constitution of the circle of ancestral and popular knowledge in Latin America.

PHM: How did the first traditional medicine summit organized by the WHO come about?

Vivian Camacho: "We need to point out that although it was unknown to many, the World Health Organization has had traditional medicine offices for several years, in fact, even the Pan American Health Organization, with its headquarters in Washington, also has its traditional medicine offices. Therefore, these bodies have been working on these issues for years. The 1978 Declaration of Alma Ata itself, in its article seven, already proclaims that we need to coordinate with traditional physicians and share in an intercultural, intersectoral work, to address the issue of health in a comprehensive manner."

PHM: In that sense, what has been the scope of that discussion?

VC: "In Asia they are great powers of traditional medicine. China's Ministry of Traditional Medicine is a giant ministry, as is Ayurveda's ministry in India. Ayurveda is the ancestral, millenary science that India has for healing. There it is a ministry and it is recognized. That is why the World Health Organization opened a headquarters for traditional medicine in Gandhinagar, and precisely to move forward with this, because it has been demonstrated in the world, for example, that in the first moment of covid, we know, all of us who have gone through this terrible stage, first that the health systems were collapsed and it was demonstrated, and the evidence was horrifying, how only those who had money could have access to health care, or sometimes not even those who had money, but in spite of this we have seen, and from the front line, especially from traditional ancestral medicine, how our communities have organized themselves and have gone house to house to cure and heal. So we have seen in the territory the high efficacy, the high effectiveness and the very low cost of traditional medicine.

This World Summit on traditional medicine promoted by the World Health Organization is an important step forward because it puts the subject not only in the center of the debate, but also opens a broader discussion of the subject, because conventional, academic, hegemonic medicine, which we recognize as official in several countries, still ignores ancestral knowledge, belittles ancestral knowledge or there are racist attacks against our ancestral knowledge. But having had this world summit on traditional medicine is a great support for those of us who have been working for this recognition for several years, since we have in our region in the Americas, North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, important advances, in countries that have also taken from national policies together with social movements and communities the advance for the recognition of ancestral knowledge in health, the integrative medicines that are said here to be the ancestral medicines of China and India".

PHM: What stands out among the topics that were addressed during the summit?

VC: "There is a very interesting discussion group in different continents, there were North Americans, Europeans, who are always with scientific data, they have very interesting studies on evidence-based medicine with important data on how they have been advancing with other integrative and complementary health approaches. So, we are entering a moment of inter-scientific dialogue, of dialogue between modern, western, dominant science and the science of our ancestral knowledge and traditions, so we need to position ancestral knowledge as part of the health systems, to achieve a transversalization of interculturality, but also to develop our own health systems, as these countries have done where there are their own systems of knowledge, of transmission of knowledge. Ancestral traditional medicine in some places is confused a little bit with natural medicine or phytotherapy and it is not about having your little plant and changing the pill for the little plant, it is not about that look at the plant, again you are looking at the plant as a mechanized object with its active metabolite, and it is not about that, it is about this plant being a sacred creature within the whole ecosystem, within this environment that produces it. So, it is about this little plant if you are going to use it instead of the pill, it has to do with your lifestyle, it has to do with being a community, it has to do again with how we live and coexist in the territory. We also talk about the cultural value, the value of the sense of community, that this plant coexists in a territory, with water sources, with sacred places, with the mountains, with the animals and that we are part of this ecosystem, we are part of this system of life that has produced this medicine, because the traditional ancestral medicine, in its integrality, takes care of human health, animal health, plant health, sacred places, with the mountains, with the animals, and that we are part of this ecosystem, we are part of this system of life that has produced this medicine, because the traditional ancestral medicine, in its integrality, takes care of human health, animal health, plant health, sacred places, protects water sources, so we are talking about the integral care of life in the territory that is closely and directly related to the ancestral spirituality of our territories, that is why we make ceremonies for the sacred places, for the sun, for the moon, for the ceremonies of sowing, harvesting, that is why we talk about food as medicine; so we denounce agribusiness, agrotechnology that is rather sowing hunger, sowing poison, on the other hand we are of the culture of life for the care of the fabric of life. "

PHM: How has this discussion taken place in the PHM and especially in Latin America?

VC: "In Latin America, since the second Assembly for the Health of the Peoples held in Cuenca, Ecuador, in 2005, ancestral knowledge has been part of the discussion. I met the PHM at the International Health University held in Havana, Cuba, in 2010, where we talked about the social determination of health, where we took this proposal of interculturality, of respect for ancestral knowledge, then in 2011 I was invited to Guatemala to participate in another version of the UISP, Then in 2012, from the PHM we arrived at the World Summit on Social Determinants organized by the World Health Organization in Rio and we took our proposal from the perspective of social justice, from the perspective of respect for other knowledge, from the struggles that we do as PHM, so we arrived at the World Assembly of the PHM of South Africa, in Cape Town, and many other events, so this is not a new discussion, we see how traditional medicine is alive, we have a great relationship with our comrades from Asia and Africa, our brothers and sisters from Latin America come from indigenous, native, peasant communities, they come from these territories where life is protected, so it is really an honor, a pride, a great joy to be part of our Movement together with this Latin American work table, so we promote the circle of ancestral knowledge for the integral care of life, health and life of the territories, we hope to arrive with a strengthened work to present it at the World Assembly for the health of the peoples that will take place in April 2024 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. "

PHM: Thank you very much for having this conversation and sharing this experience

VC: "For all of you, as we say in Quechua: "until life finds us again, have strength, resist, take care of yourselves." When we hold hands with another, we hold our hearts and that is the strength of the community, to be reciprocal, with a reciprocal, communitarian, solidary strength, which is the collective love that we share, the love for this life, for this Mother Earth, for this world, that in spite of everything deserves it, we deserve a dignified, free, solidary, loving and beautiful world, thank you."