Sara Riegler Travels to Guatemala

Posted March 5, 2018

The Petén department, in northernmost Guatemala, is home to various Maya groups, including the Itzá, who inhabit the small villages around Lago Petén Itzá – a massive freshwater lake in the middle of the department. The Itzá are one of the Maya populations most in danger of losing their cultural heritage, including their language, their traditional lands and ways of subsistence, and their healing traditions. The Itzá are threatened by a convergence of geopolitical factors, including encroachment from cattle farming, a massive state-led conservation project, and waves of immigrants who have been displaced from other parts of the country. Additionally, the Itzá fell prey to bioprospecting in the 1990s, wherein researchers from the US and Europe collected information on the region’s medicinal plants and the Itzáes’ deep knowledge as to their uses, and sold this information to pharmaceutical companies. This resulted in deep wounds among Itzá elders and healers that are still present today. During the summer of 2017, I contributed to the ongoing repatriation and preservation of Maya Itzá plant medicine knowledge in Petén, with the goal of supporting the Itzá in their quest for sovereignty, autonomy, and preservation of their culture and way of life.



 Don Reginaldo, Itzá Maya elder and healer, showing me around the BioItzá urban garden in San Andrés, Petén


To that end, in collaboration with local conservation organization ProPetén, I completed the development, creation and implementation of Object to Audio smartphone application pilot. This included the development of the first full set of plant ID cards and recordings, based on compilations of the diverse plant knowledge archives, housed at ProPetén. These archives are based on information collected from local healers over the last thirty years. In collaboration with two other UCD students and the ProPetén staff, I built a new Excel database to serve as the singular hub for all the of information archived at ProPetén. This involved converting print information to digital from various books and paper files, as well as recovering information stored in obsolete softward in the late 90s. From this database, ProPetén and collaborators will be able to develop future plant ID cards for use with the app, with greater ease and accessibility.

Following development of the first set of cards for use with Object to Audio, I trained ProPetén staff on use of app and the software for managing the app and its content. I also engaged in outreach, meeting twice with BioItzá (a small Itzá conservation and preservation organization located in the lakeside village of San Andrés) organizers and youth group to talk about their vision for preservation of medicinal plants and traditional healing knowledge, and introduce them to the app and it’s potential as a tool for this preservation and education. I was very warmly received by Don Reginaldo, a long-time leader and collaborator in the Itzá community, and his son Aderito, who leads a dynamic group of youth leaders working on the preservation of their indigenous knowledge. We spoke of their visions for the future of their healing traditions, and the preservation of Maya Itzá knowledge and language,  and how ProPetén may continue to support those visions, including through the possible use of the app for language learning. I was grateful to contribute in one small way to the Itzá community’s ongoing struggle for sovereignty and autonomy in their homelands, and to contribute to the process of healing years of bioprospecting that robbed the Itzá of their rights to their plant medicine knowledge.



After lunch and the privilege of listening to Don Reginaldo tell us about many years of history in San Andrés



What many of my days looked like in the ProPetén office – digging through print materials and adding information to the digital database