Curanderos at el Chacote

Eloy Rodriguez and the cloud forest

Dr. Jose Barriero

Eloy Rodriguez and the cloud forest

SIERRA DE BAHORUCO, Dominican Republic - Even here in these ancient
mountains that mesmerized and paralyzed the Spanish conquistadors, where the
myth of
extinction is attached to anything indigenous or autochthonous, there he is
still: an old-time curandero on the side of the rough mountain road, sitting
on his haunches and slightly hidden by the dense forest. When we stopped our
grizzled truck, he stood, gruff, craggy face blending to a greeting smile. We
identified ourselves and he welcomed us to his mountain ranch. There, a couple
of students from Cornell University, part of a much larger contingent from
several colleges, listened in as we talked.

His name was Esporminio Felix, and some folks in the high mountain area
renowned for its dense, cloud forest cover, as Esporminio himself will tell you,
consider him a brujo. He vehemently denies this, of course. ''I am a curandero
(healer) and a comadron (male midwife),'' he shrugged. ''My mother was a
midwife and my father also cured using the herbs, the trees and even the

Esporminio uses many plants; and he is not alone among his Dominican and
Haitian neighbors to know and use local plant medicines for physical or even
spiritual ailments. But of the various folks we met in several days of trekking
and driving on dense trails and nearly impassible mountain roads, he was at
once the most forthcoming and the most recalcitrant of people. Immediately,
matter-of-factly, he shared his recipe for common colds and other problems, then
an exacting, long list of plants and spices that when mixed the proper way,
he claims, will cure hepatitis. ''You may or may not believe it,'' he said.
''But people get cured.''

A man standing next to him, machete in hand, nodded. He had stopped by to
pick up a medicine from the curandero.

Esporminio went on to relate the uses of a number of plant and spiritual
medicines, to answer many questions and ask a few of his own, fascinating the
students with the keen sense of natural-world knowledge that resides among the
common folks in these Caribbean mountains.

Students, and their mentor from Cornell University, Eloy Rodriguez, had
inquired on Taino or Caribbean indigenous contexts still reflected in the
mountain cultures. I asked don Esporminio: ''Maestro, when you pick your
medicine, do you concentrate, spiritually, do you connect to the plant?''

''You mean, ask permission?'' Esporminio's eyes lit up with energy. ''Well,
of course. You want her to give you her strength, to know why you would
disturb her, even specifically who you intend to help.''

Another telling sign of indigenous legacy: Esporminio, of obvious mestizo
extraction, prays using the four directions (los cuatro cardinales), always, and
also invokes mother earth (la madre tierra). On the subject of picking
medicine plants, he professes to always leave something behind, even a coin
moneda) for the plant. It is a type of reciprocity with medicines found among
many Native cultures. Katsi Cook, Mohawk midwife, also on the interview,
exchanged information on treatments for a laboring woman.

The students are fascinated, perhaps having assumed people such as don
Esporminio had simply vanished from Dominican Republic, which along with Haiti
forms Hispaniola, the second-largest of the Caribbean islands. It has been a
full morning, including a long visit at an extremely poor Haitian family
homestead - this gave much cause for reflection - and two other family mountain
hamlets, all of which use plant medicines daily, from house gardens and from the

At base camp of El Cachote, Rodriguez lifted the leaves of a plant to the
small ray of sunshine shooting through the thick, cloudforest canopy. He
whispers the scientific name to the student who had brought the recently
specimen. Rodriquez is a Cornell professor famous for his work on rainforest
and traditional medicines. Next to him, don Fran Usmal, a local elder, and
Carlos Pena, a noted Dominican professor, also discussed the uses of the plant.
''It's good for scars and cuts,'' said don Fran, the old man of the mountain
and well-respected for his knowledge of plants and animals in his
environment, ''applied as a poultice.'' The student noted the information.

In recent years, Rodriguez has taken hundreds of college students, including
many North American Indians, into Dominican Republic, Venezuela's Amazon and
the Maya peninsula in Yucatan to work with community folk and in-country
scientists, intending to understand most fully the uses and scientific bases of
traditional plant medicines. ''We directly study diseases, work with patients
to understand the nature and conditions and the most effective treatments.''
Funded in part by the National Institute of Health, Rodriguez's program is
highly sought after by students who seek experience in the field and ''among
the regular community people,'' said Rodriguez, who was profiled on the cover
of The New York Times Magazine in 2002 and is recognized as a founder of the
science of zoopharmacognosy (''zoo'' for animals, ''pharma'' for drugs and
''cognosy'' for recognition).

A Chicano with roots in the California fields, Rodriquez, Ph.D., is the
James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies at Cornell University.
Rodriguez's studies with animals in the bush, to determine useful medicinal
good for parasites and other tropical ailments, is highly respected. His
biggest passion, however, is introducing young people to science and to the
natural world.

This particular camp of El Cachote, in the high cloud-mountains of Dominican
Republic (Quisqueya), provided a few rustic cabins in the high canopy, a
meeting room and a kitchen and dining area, although most students slept in
tents, sharing latrines and bathing in concrete shower rooms with cold water. El
Cachote - as an eco-center with strong community support - sustains rain- and
cloud forests of substantial biodiversity, where dozens of medicinal plants
and trees, birds and other species are still in the process of identification
and study 500 years after Columbus first spotted these mountains. The local
community manages and supports a largely volunteer project to protect the
mountain's green canopy and biodiversity and has pursued partnerships in a
program of sustainable, academic eco-tourism. Rodriguez's program, which demands
hands-on approach, has been an important supporter of the community-led

''Scientific training, research methodology, actual plant use: this is very
important,'' said Rodriguez. ''But the most exciting for me is to see some
quite privileged students, from across the North American spectrum, come and
meet the range of people in remote and economically poor areas like on this
mountain. I see how it changes them. This is where I see the compassion and the
sharing begin to happen. To see this part of people open up gives these
educational tours a real-world dimension.''

The use of natural medicines in combating illness in Native communities of
North and South America is a driving force for Rodriguez. His extensive work
among Amazonian tribes revealed a plague-like level of malaria among rainforest
villages. This is presently a major focus of his attention. The other is the
epidemic proportions of the ''sugar disease,'' diabetes, among Northern
indigenous peoples. ''We need a major alliance of medicine people, scientists
and foundations, to tackle these major diseases which are killing so many Native
forest and mountain people.''

One evening as the sun receded and the frogs and insects intoned their
nocturnal songs, don Maltiano Moreta, main organizer of the local association of
forest protectors, recalled the history of the sierras we were overlooking. The
Bahoruco is the mountain chain where the Taino cacique or chief, Enriquillo
or Guarocuya (Nighthawk), fought the conquistadors to a standstill from 1519
to 1534. The Enriquillo war resulted in the first treaty of the Americas
between an indigenous nation in arms and a European power. ''That was a long
ago,'' don Maltiano recognized, ''but it can be said that Taino fought hard
for these mountains.''

Pointing to distant peaks that protruded through a ring of clouds, Rodriguez
added, ''Perhaps Cacique Enriquillo walks these mountains still.''

Sobar : Cuban Indian woman using ancient healing technique- Caridad de los Indios
Agua Dulce: Dominican Indian woman uses water as a healing source- San Jose de Ocoa
Reina: Tabaco ceremony by Taino woman from Caridad de los Indios
Stone worship: Taino woman from Maguana Arriba- San Juan de La Maguana
Old medicine man from Maguana Arriba- San Juan de La Maguana- Photo by Martha Ellen Davis
Healer from San Jose de Ocoa- Dominican Republic