The road to biocultural ethics Page: 246
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TRAILS AND TRIBULATIONS
[The road to b
As a child, Ricardo Rozzi visited indigenous communities in the high Andes with his grandfather and was enchanted
by their close relationship with the natural world. Later, he and his wife would return to the region to explore the
traditional ecological knowledge of the world's southernmost indigenous people.
WVet-wet, chukao, pttriu-pftriu. I have never forgotten
these words uttered by the lonko, or chief, of the indige-
nous Mapuche community, who live in the forests of the high
Chilean Andes. I was 5 years old when, in 1965, I accompa-
nied my grandfather on one of his medical visits to indigenous
communities in southern Chile. Before sunrise, our old Chevy
truck had reached the end of the dirt road that winds its way -
up the lower slopes of the Lonquimay volcano. We hiked all
day through the dense evergreen rainforests, listening to the
loud bird calls that came from the forest interior, while my
grandfather taught me the names and natural history of the
birds. At sunset, we reached the high Andean zone. The land-
scape opened, and I was amazed by the view of the patches of
50-m-tall monkey-puzzle trees (Araucaria araucana), which
resembled umbrellas in the middle of the lava soils around
Lake Galletue, on the shores of which a community of
Mapuche lived (Figure 1).
My grandfather explained to me that this particular Mapuche
group called themselves Pewenche, "people (che) of the mon-
key-puzzle (pewen) tree", and that their language is called
Mapudungun, the "language (dungun) of the land (mapu)",
which imitates the local sounds of the forest. The monkey-puz-
zle trees were covered by flocks of loud parrots (Enicognathus lep-
thorhynchus). Like the Mapuche, these birds eat the ngilliu, the
large megagametophytes of the pewen cones. At night, huddled
around the fire inside their huts, we ate toasted ngilliu. Some of
the Mapuche drank a cider-like alcoholic drink distilled from
ngilliu. I learned that the pewen cones were a vital food for the
Mapuche, allowing them to survive the rigorous high Andean
winters. While I listened to the conversations with the lonko, I
was fascinated by the musicality of the spoken words and the
remarkable similarity that the names of the birds had with the
calls we had heard while crossing the forests. The affinity that
this community had with the flora and fauna of the surrounding
forest left a deep and lasting impression on me.
Thirty years later, in 1995, my wife - Francisca Massardo,
a plant physiologist who collaborated with the Traditional
Medicine Division of the Chilean Ministry of Health - and
I participated in a scientific panel established by the Chilean
National Commission of the Environment to evaluate the
environmental impact assessment (EIA) of a dam that was
going to be built across the Bio-Bio River (the largest river
in Chile), the headwaters of which originate from Lake
Galletue. The EIA included statements from communities
in the Pewenche territory who demanded that the dam be
built below the pewen forests, because these trees were criti-
cal to the life and health of their people. As part of the EIA
evaluation, Francisca and I analyzed the nutritional value of
the megagametophytes of the pewen cones, and discovered
Figure 1. In southern South America, the monkey-puzzle tree
and the Magellanic woodpecker co-inhabit the land with the
Pewenche and Yahgan communities, respectively.
that they were rich not only in starch but also in two essen-
tial amino acids, methionine and cysteine.
Our finding provided strong scientific support for the tra-
ditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of the Pewenche.
From a medical perspective, the high amounts of methion-
ine and cysteine in the megagametophytes represent a func-
tional explanation for the Pewenche's TEK, because the
pewen trees provide a primary source of essential amino acids
to the fauna that inhabit the volcanic ecosystems of the high
Andes. From a biogeochemical perspective, given that
methionine and cysteine are peculiar amino acids that con-
tain sulfur, our analyses led to a scientific appreciation of the
profound meaning of the names Mapuche and Pewenche:
this culture knows that the mapu (the land, including the
volcanoes) provides the nutrients (eg sulfur) for the trees
and the people (Rozzi et al. 2008).
As an undergraduate student, I lamented that the TEK of
the Mapuche and other Amerindian peoples was not incor-
porated into the ecology programs taught at Chilean univer-
sities. This motivated me to study philosophy, which helped
me to understand "pluriverse" epistemologies and diverse
forms of ecological knowledge, in contrast to the "universal"
approach of science teaching that prevailed within Chilean
academia in the 1980s. Under the dictatorship of General
Augusto Pinochet, the teaching of philosophy - including
the philosophy of science - was completely suppressed
between 1973 and 1981, and was only rudimentarily reintro-
duced in Chilean universities later during the 1980s. For this
reason, when I applied to do graduate work at the University
of Connecticut, I proposed to combine my PhD in ecology
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Rozzi, Ricardo, 1960- & Massardo, Francisca. The road to biocultural ethics, article, May 2011; [Washington, D.C.]. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc130193/m1/1/: accessed February 21, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT College of Arts and Sciences.