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Traditional Fishing with Barbasco & Childhood Memories


As a child growing up in the southern reaches of the Peruvian High Jungle, I had a front row seat to see and partake of the uses of ancient plants in everything from medicine to food.

I often find myself reliving those memories of my somewhat idyllic childhood that now seems so remote and foreign at times from the comfort of a suburban town in the U.S. That is why after reading a National Geographic article describing a traditional fishing technique used for millennia in the Peruvian jungle and now being incorporated into scientific research I couldn't help but see childhood memories of my father and me fishing past before my eyes. The technique described in the article was that of using Barbasco.

The article grabbed my attention not only because I know about Barbasco (Tephrosia Toxicofera) fishing but, as a matter of fact, I used it along with my father to fish in the rivulets and ponds that surrounded us while living in the Peruvian high jungle. My father was not only an explorer of the jungle but was in his own right very knowledgeable of the nature and uses of ancient plants in all facets of life—such wisdom was passed down to him from his father; and while living in the jungle it was more precious than money, for it could make the difference between life or death.

So what is Barbasco? Barbasco is a vine whose roots are the natural source of rotenone, a biodegradable pesticide. Native people of the Amazon have cultivated Barbasco for thousands of years as a fish poison. When large amounts are pounded with stones and put into a stream, the milky sap of the roots interferes with the respiration of fish, leaving them stunned and floating at the surface. When the toxin wears off, stunned fish that are not captured may come back to life. Natives use Barbasco only during the dry season, when the rivers are low, so the toxin will not be too diluted in the water.

I recall that my father used to tell me that there were many ways to fish other than just using nets or fishing rods and hooks. I assume my father insisted on teaching me about those other fishing techniques because he realized early on that I did not have the patience to fish in the conventional manner.

Something that also caught my attention while reading the article is the respect and admiration with which the researcher approached the native communities with which he worked. The researcher, Sebastian Heilpern, graduate student from the University of Chicago, is quoted as follows: “These people know so much about the way animals work in the forest and the rivers. Fishing is in their blood and they are born with a net in their hands. It makes sense for researchers to work with them and act as a bridge to bring their knowledge to the scientific community and vice versa.”

Having lived in the jungle, I must say that I find Heilpern's remarks comforting and reassuring and demonstrative of the respect with which researchers should treat the natives and the knowledge they possess—specially when said knowledge is used in science.

by W. Pérez Mama Pacha Explorations Team

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