Transmission and Commoditisation of Medicinal Plant Knowledge in the Marketplaces of Oruro, Bolivia

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Wilkin, Peter John (2014)
  • Subject: RV | QK

This thesis analyses how Andean people’s knowledge of medicinal plants and the relationship between environment and health is represented, transmitted and commoditised in the marketplaces of the department of Oruro, Bolivia. Considering the increase in urban population and their dependence on marketplaces for medicinal plant remedies, this thesis examines the role of marketplaces and the importance of specialist stallholders in the transmission of knowledge. The central research site of Oruro is a multi-cultural city located on the Andean plateau in southwest Bolivia, a population of Spanish, Quechua and Aymara speakers with a pluralistic medical system. Fieldwork was carried out over 18 months with market stallholders in Oruro combining quantitative and qualitative methods with ethnographic documentation of knowledge transmission events.\ud This thesis found that medicinal plant marketplaces in Oruro are highly regulated social systems that incorporate Andean socio-economic mechanisms, including ritual performance for the transmission of cultural knowledge, and the regulation of resource distribution and use. The development of a ‘chemical landscape’ model demonstrated that social exchange and trade between ecosystems and altitudinal zones broadens the spectrum of medicinal compounds available, contributes to the complexity of herbal mixtures and can limit exploitation of local plant populations. The market stallholders use specialist classifications that identify chemical properties, toxicity and variations between plant species and ecological regions. Plant classifications varied with the context and location in which they were used, and humoral classification enabled the selection and combination of plants in mixtures and justified remedy efficacy for specialists and non-specialists. Andean cultural beliefs including complementary opposites enabled transmission of knowledge on the medicinal properties of plants between highland consumers and lowland producers, and defined traditional Andean mixture efficacy.\ud These findings demonstrate that, although state intervention and identity politics are redefining perceptions of medicinal knowledge, the market exchange system centred in Oruro city creates localised specialist knowledge and continuity of cultural knowledge transmission.
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