Bolivia: Traditional healers and climate change

As elsewhere in the indigenous Americas, there is a very significant distrust of formal mainstream medicine among Bolivia’s largely indigenous population and a particularly strong preference for traditional medicine. National surveys by the Ministry of Health indicate that 60 per cent of Bolivians turn to natural prescriptions before going to a modern physician. This occurs even in zones with some access to formal health services, such as southern Cochabamba, where over 55 per cent of the population continues to prefer to use traditional medicine.

During 2012, efforts continued to integrate the practices of modern health professionals with those of traditional healers. There are three main categories of traditional healers: Hechiceros, yatiris and curanderos. Hechiceros and yatiris deal primarily with mental disease and the environmental, psychological, social and cultural causes of disease. The hechiceros cure by joining the patients in a special ritual with members of their family and their community. Curanderos are the medical practitioners who deal with physical disease and specialize in herbal curing.

Of all traditional health care providers, the most renowned are kola-waya (‘he who carries medicines in his shoulders’). These travelling healers are more commonly known as Kallawayas and they journey extensively on foot all over Bolivia as well as throughout Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru, reaching as far north as Panama during the canal-building era of the early 1900s.
Villagers across the Andean area have a deep respect for their knowledge and skills. These are usually passed down through successive generations using a special esoteric language called Machai Juyai, known only to Kallawayas, which is thought to date from the Inca era.

Like other traditional healers from Andean region countries such as Ecuador and Peru, the Bolivian Kallawayas share a common worldview which is based on respect for Mother Earth (Pachamama) and the need for humans to live in harmony with their environment.

Another manifestation of the overall Andean cosmovision, and one of the main tenets of the Kallawaya practice, is the ethic of ‘reciprocity’ or mutual exchange. This is considered to be equally applicable to people, communities and the environment as a whole. Preventative measures and health maintenance are therefore based on the idea that humanity must remain in balance with the environment.

Consequently, Kallawayas use various medicines and rituals to restore equilibrium to the person and their environment, and thereby ensure harmony between the two.

Bolivia’s Kallawayas traditionally live in the province of Bautista Saavedra, north-east of the world’s highest lake – Lake Titicaca. This region has a unique ecosystem situated at the interface between the high peaks of the Cordillera Apolobamba and the lowland semi-tropical climate of the Yungas.

The villages of the Cordillera Apolobamba constitute the heartland and home base of the centuries-old Kallawaya healing tradition and the distinctive geography plays an important role in this.

The mountains are considered to be the home of spirits that protect those living near them. The communities are often located on the steep sides of the mountains and are usually divided into three altitudes, each one growing certain crops using terrace-style agriculture.

While the communities depend on the various agricultural zones for food and medicine, they also symbolize the structure of the human body. The higher levels are thought to represent the head of the human body, with the central and low levels representing the trunk and legs respectively. This division governs daily life in the communities and also underscores the complex interconnection between the land, the communities and the people that live there – including the Kallawayas.

Climate change

However, ongoing changes in climate are now threatening the survival of traditional indigenous communities throughout the Andean region, and by extension the continuation of the art of Kallawaya healing.

Many of the glaciers in the high Andes are now rapidly melting, and many of these are located in this Bautista Saavedra region. The changes are causing great concern to Kallawaya healers both from a practical physical as well as metaphysical perspective. The melting high glaciers – once considered a permanent part of the landscape – have great symbolic meaning as well as practical consequences for the lower-lying communities that make up the three levels of the human/ cosmic body.
Since Kallawaya healers see people as inherently linked to the land, the rapid disappearance of the glaciers (located at the head) does not bode well for the future of the body.

Return and revitalization

Although the Kallawaya healers are known to visit places as far distant as Panama, they regard the villages around the Cordillera Apolobamba as their physical as well as spiritual home base. After their extensive travels it is important for them to return to Bautista Saavedra in order to maintain their farms and to ‘recharge their spiritual batteries’.
However, the changes in climate are unprecedented in the thousand-year experience and legacy of the Kallawaya tradition. They claim the dry season is now longer and dryer, which makes the wet season much shorter. The river that runs past the villages is now almost dry.

For Kallawaya healers, who depend on agricultural and herding activities, the driedout river and the seasonal changes are especially threatening, both in terms of physical survival and of spiritual sustenance. In accordance with the integrated nature of the Kallawaya cosmovision, the decline of the environment is directly linked to a weakening of the physical and spiritual well-being of the communities that live there, including the crops they grow. They claim that the unpredictable and shorter seasons directly affect the quality of local agricultural products, which in turn has an impact on the art of healing since balance is central to sustaining overall spiritual and physical health and wellbeing.

Local healers point out that in recent years the all-important potato harvests have been coming in earlier, and other crops are also being affected. Moreover, while the food may look and taste the same to those unconnected with the healing tradition, Kallawayas are concerned that the environmental imbalance is causing a loss of key vital forces, thereby diminishing the spiritual content of the food itself. These vital forces they hold to be important in maintaining the spiritual energy of their communities and, by extension, their own personal spiritual vitality.

There are other social factors that Kallawaya view as being detrimental to the overall equation. The crop cycle changes and overall environmental degradation have added to the contemporary lure of urbanization that is causing many young people to abandon the hillside communities to seek education and work in the cities. Houses are left to crumble and the thousand-year-old mountain terraces in the high Andes left untended, further diminishing the chances of cultural continuity.

The overall reduction of human and environmental energy on which the Kallawayas depend for the effectiveness of their healing rituals and ceremonies means the ability to carry on their work is also at risk. This is threatening the legacy of healing knowledge and practices as well as the ancient and vital art of Kallawaya healing itself – which in 2008 was included by UNESCO as a Representative of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Such a disappearance would mark the loss not only of a very important and cherished cultural tradition but also the curtailment of a highly regarded source of health care for thousands of indigenous people all across the countries of the Andean region who continue to depend on the travelling Kallawaya healers for their physical and spiritual health and well-being.

Case study taken from the Americas chapter of MRG’s State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 report – focus on health

Photo: Group of Kallawaya healers

Credit: Nacion Kallawaya

No Associated files

Date: 24/09/2013




State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013
Culture and Tradition
Indigenous Peoples
Climate Change
Natural resources

Press Contact Information

Name: Emma Eastwood

Telephone: +44 (0)207 4224205

This website has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union.
The contents of this website are the sole responsibility of Minority Rights Group International and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union