The medicines of ethnic peoples as cultural heritage

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO of the year 2003, recognizes the importance of the knowledge possessed by communities, especially indigenous ones, as part of the cultural diversity of nations and seeks to protect them – safeguard them while preserving their function within society (SeeEl texto de la Convención para la Salvaguardia del Patrimonio Cultural Inmaterial – patrimonio inmaterial – Sector de Cultura – UNESCO).

UNESCO understands by safeguarding “the measures aimed at guaranteeing the viability of the intangible cultural heritage, including the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, valorization, transmission -basically through formal and non-formal education- and revitalization of this heritage in its different aspects” (Article 2, Definitions, Numeral 3., UNESCO 2003).

In addition, the Convention defines that this knowledge, rituals, traditions and oral expressions are considered part of the “intangible cultural heritage”, understood as “…the uses, representations, expressions, knowledge and techniques -together with the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces that are inherent to them – that communities, groups and in some cases individuals recognize as an integral part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, which is transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups based on their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, instilling in them a sense of identity and continuity and thus helping to promote respect of cultural diversity and human creativity”

In this context, the knowledge, knowledge and practices of traditional medicines that have been transmitted for thousands of years within the cultures and life systems of indigenous, Afro-descendant, Romani and other ethnic populations in the Americas, constitute part of the heritage culture of the contemporary States of the region and therefore in an intangible cultural heritage, since they not only account for the identity of these populations, but also show a way of treating symptoms and curing diseases in contexts where biomedicine does not reach or coexist with biomedicine, thus forming a curative pluralism that offers therapeutic alternatives for the populations.

Thus, the states, in a participatory manner with these populations, must advance measures to guarantee the safeguarding of traditional medicines and from the field of health, these must consist, among others, of adopting legal measures, documenting their actions, promoting the realization of studies to understand medical pluralism, its functions and contributions to satisfying health needs and promoting its practice in articulation and complementarity with national health systems. In this way, tradition is kept alive, its transmission is encouraged and its use is achieved, also contributing to keeping the cultural diversity of nations alive.

For this reason, the Ethnicity and Health Policy of the Pan American Health Organization proposes as one of its priority lines of technical cooperation to the Member States for the implementation of actions with an intercultural approach, the “recognition of ancestral knowledge and the traditional and complementary medicine


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