Traditional Medicines of the Americas
The Americas region is characterized by being culturally diverse, with as many ways of knowing, promoting health, providing care and preventing illness as there are cultures. Our many ancestral and traditional ways of knowing, healing and promoting health have been developed by Indigenous, Afro-descendent, Roma and other ethnic groups who have historically inhabited the region.
The World Health Organization and Pan-American Health Organization’s Policy on Ethnicity and Health defines these populations as a “collective that identifies itself, and that is identified by others, in relation to certain common elements, such as language, religion, tribe, nationality or race, or a combination of these elements, and that shares a sentiment of common identity […]”
It includes Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendent peoples, Roma communities among others (specific denominations vary in accordance to considerations and normative aspects of those populations in each country).
Ancestral and Indigenous populations in the Americas structured their own ways of maintaining harmony, preventing imbalance, and recovering health towards achieving well-being through what has been termed Traditional Medicines (or traditional ancestral medicines, ancestral medicines and indigenous medicine, depending on the cultural context of each nation). These traditional and ancestral medicines encompass a complex, systematized and integral body of wisdom, knowledge and practices that span thousands of years and are transmitted inter-generationally within each culture’s ways of life. This vision of health centers on the interaction and inextricable connection between mother nature, the land, the community, the family and the individual, engaging them as a one whole. This perspective establishes a deep and close bond with the land as a source of spiritual, mental, and material life, and the nexus in which culture, community, ancestry and autonomy are preserved.
The World Health Organization (WHO), in its Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023 defines traditional medicine as “the knowledge, skills and practices based on the theories, beliefs and experiences indigenous to different cultures, used in the maintenance of health and in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.” In this way, The World Health Organization (WHO), its regional office for the Americas, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and other international regional organizations such as the Andean Health Angency ORAS-CONHU, have provided recommendations and exhortations to member countries to adopt public health policies that recognize cultural- and health-related diversity in the region, as well as to attend to the unique needs of their ethnic and indigenous populations, and to protect and strengthen traditional medicines, integrating an intercultural lens into health policies and programs across the board.
Indigenous, Afro-descendent, Roma and other ethnic peoples in the region have advanced movements and structures to assert and recover their rights, and in particular their right to health and health services grounded on a holistic and intercultural perspective that integrates not only institutional medical services addressing illness, but also that engages the various environmental, socioeconomic and cultural factors that influence health, and that appreciates and recognizes their cultures and the advancement of their own traditional medical systems as an option that complements standard medical care.
In this way, countries in the Americas region have begun to make visible within their Constitutions and national and local legal frameworks, not only the existence and survival of traditional medicines, but also their recognition as traditional medical systems, inclusive of the wisdom, knowledge, practices and practitioners that compose them; and have begun to recognize the right of indigenous and ethnic populations to the practice, design, implementation and evaluation, in a participatory way, of policies, plans and programs geared towards integration of traditional and allopathic medicine, the implementation of traditional medicines within health systems and the provision of health services within a culturally contextualized frame.
This confluence of inputs has propitiated —both from within institutions and ethnic communities themselves–the creation of technical documents, guides, norms and regulations, as well as actions to safeguard recognition, protection and strengthening of traditional medicines; the design and implementation of models of healthcare delivery that are sovereign, the development of intercultural and sociocultural accommodations within national healthcare delivery institutions, exploration of the health-illness continuum through the lens of cultural diversity and elaboration of epidemiologic intercultural profiles—sociocultural epidemiology–; the systematization and analysis of traditional wisdom, knowledge and good practices, the training and building of human capacity within institutional health sectors and communities themselves; and integration and coordination with other sectors that influence health within the frame of social and other determinants of health.
Within the framework of these advances, the Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Medicine Americas Network, attempts through this section to compile and share with you information related to the conceptualization and description of traditional medicines of Indigenous, Afro-descendent, Roma and other ethnic peoples in the Americas region, in relation to existing wisdom, traditional medicine knowledge, traditional healthcare models, human, physical and technical resources involved, as well products and traditional spaces utilized in the treatment of illness.
You will also find information about advancements in countries of the region to guarantee the incorporation, whether integrated or complementary, of these traditional medicines within their health systems, as well as countries’ recognition, recovery, protection and revitalization of traditional medicines. Within these actions are highlighted the design and implementation of public policies with an intercultural focus, the implementation of changes to integrate intercultural approaches within existing healthcare services, the creation of sociocultural profiles, the inter-relation with other sectors influencing the health of populations, and the transversalization of the intercultural frame throughout health services within national systems.
This section also includes statistical information about ethnic populations in the Americas and their geographic location, as well as national and international frameworks that ground the recognition, appreciation, strengthening, use, regulation and protection of traditional medicines, the organizations related to traditional medicine and health in accordance with unique normative structures of distinct groups within each country, and information related to the sensitization, training and capacity-building of health-related personnel both in national institutions and communities themselves in traditional medicines. We also explore existing ways of analysis and knowledge-sharing of traditional medicines, the exchange of experiences and good practices within the framework of traditional medicines, and the contributions of these medicines in disasters and emergencies (such as during the COVID-19 pandemic).
The content is presented within the context of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Humanitarian Rights, and of intercultural health policies such as the “Traditional Medicine Strategy” (WHO), the “Andean Intercultural Health Policy” (ORAS-CONHU), and the Policy on Ethnicity and Health” (PAHO); their strategies and lines of action are promoted by these international organizations, which also have their space within this section. PAHO’s Traditional, Complementary and Integrative Medicines Virtual Health Library (TCIM-VHL) is a tool for the implementation of actionable priorities in the Policy on Ethnicity and Health, with a focus on a) generation of evidence, b) promotion of action in policy development, c) social engagement and strategic alliances, d) recognition of ancestral knowledge and of traditional and complementary medicine, and e) development of capacity at all levels.
This section is a space of permanent collective collaboration in which are continuously added, wisdom and knowledge in intercultural health from Indigenous, Afro-descendent, Roma and other ethnic groups in the region of the Americas, and inputs on the elements needed across systems for a more comprehensive understanding of the health of these populations, as well as the contributions of traditional medicines to existing models and systems of health.
The wisdom, knowledge and practice of traditional medicines of Indigenous, Afro-descendent, Roma and other ethnic groups in the Americas are part of the global heritage of humanity, and are permeated by social, political, cultural and historical contexts within each country, as well as by their unique and sovereign realities and worldviews. They require, thus, an exploration that is respectful, responsible and comprehensive.
 PAHO/WHO. Policy on Ethnicity and Health. 69th Session of the Regional Committee of WHO for the Americas. Washington, D.C., USA, 25-29 September 2017. Accessible here: ETHNICITY (paho.org)
 WHO. Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023 [internet, pdf]. Geneva, Switzerland; 2013. Accessible here: 9789241506090_eng.pdf (who.int)