Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”


Ina Vandebroek – Leiden Ethnosystems and Development Programme (LEAD)


Bolivia is a mosaic of biogeographical regions, landscapes and cultural groups. Historically, these ethnic communities have developed different economic strategies and particular structures of organisation that are most appropriate for exploitation of the natural resources of their living environment. This situation is different for the Andes as compared to the Amazon. Literature study shows that although several traditions among which particular tillage practices have been lost, original (prehispanic) systems related to the use of biodiversity are still present in contemporary Andean practices. For instance, in prehispanic Andean societies, there existed a vertical control of ecological units. In mountainous areas, the use of different ecological zones along a vertical gradient is considered a strategy to maximise harvesting of wild and cultivated plant resources and hence to improve livelihood. During my ethnobotanical research on medicinal plants, traditional healers of a Quechua peasant community situated in the valleys-prepuna region of the Cochabamba department denoted ecological units for medicinal plant species as belonging to ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ zones, with the village as a reference. Although the vertical control over ecological units today is clearly at a smaller scale as compared to the past, it still remains significant to Andean daily life.

In comparison with the situation in the Andes, societies and resource use systems in the Bolivian Amazon were, and still are, more diverse. One generalisation that can be made, is that between more agrocentric tribes from Arawak origin and predominantly hunter-gatherers. Amazonian ethnic groups are characterised by a high level of spatial mobility, a low demographic density and predominant non-hierarchical social organisations. Nowadays, lowland communities are increasingly confronted with external pressures, such as encroachment of their territory by outsiders and declining abundances of natural resources for subsistence. These pressures are also provoking changes in their mobility and social organisation.

It has been hypothesised that medicinal plant use in the Andes is indispensable to cope with a harsh environment characterised by hypoxia, hypothermia, malnutrition and epidemics, while Amazonian tribes with low levels of acculturation have been viewed as ‘healthy hunter-gatherers’. My own research findings will be discussed in light of these viewpoints.