The threat of losing herbal healers and their unparalleled knowledge of plants to the coronavirus prompted photographer Florence Goupil to document efforts to prevent the spread among the people of Shipibo‐Konibo
Back in the spring of 2020, with support from the Pulitzer Center Rainforest Journalist Fund, photographer Florence Goupil made a trip from her mountainous hometown in Cusco to the Peruvian capital of Lima to see her mother and a couple of close friends. It wasn’t long before this routine visit took on a new and unexpected purpose, as Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra declared a national state of emergency and Peru was plunged into a national lockdown. The French Peruvian photographer found herself trapped in Lima while her friends were grounded in Cantagallo Island, a downtown camp which is occupied by the Shipibo-Konibo. Sensing the heightened importance of this moment, she began working on Shipibo-Konibo, The Healing Plants, an ongoing photo project documenting the realities of fighting coronavirus within this indigenous community.
The Shipibo‐Konibo is the third largest indigenous people living in the Peruvian Amazon region. Though the majority still live or have roots in tight-knit native communities along the Ucayali River, around 200 families live in an urban Shipibo area of Lima. Despite being quite a distance from the rainforest, Goupil still stresses that “their lives depend on plants and biodiversity.” She goes on to explain that they call themselves “the people of the forest or the people of the woods.” Through a combination of surreal landscape shots taken at sunset and portraits of individuals immersed in nature, Shipibo-Konibo, The Healing Plants, provides an introspective insight into this organic relationship.
“I wanted to make it visible to the world what was happening there, to help them raise their voice and say ‘We are here, this is our world, this is how we think, heal, live and exist.’”
Goupil has spent the past decade collaborating with the community on small photo projects but never produced a documentary series. It was only during the pandemic that she was able to spend more time listening to their stories and forming stronger ties with the community. “I wanted to make it visible to the world what was happening there, to help them raise their voice and say ‘We are here, this is our world, this is how we think, heal, live and exist.’”
Over the past year, she accompanied some of the plant healers into the rainforest where they showed her the different flora they use. “I’ve never been so close or intimate to this nation as I am now. I really see inside their world and how they are using the plants,” she gushes, growing increasingly animated as she recounts this experience. This new approach allowed Goupil to create “an honest narrative series.”
Lack of medical supplies, structural racism and cramped housing conditions contributed to the fast and deadly spread of Covid-19 within the Shipibo-Konibo community in Cantagallo Island. “In May the government came to see them and discovered that 98 per cent of the population in this community were affected,” Goupil explains. “Two people had already died there.” Goupil discovered how they, “went back to their roots by protecting themselves against this virus using their medicinal plants.” After realising that they were, “completely abandoned by the state,” they turned to herbs and plants including ginger, eucalyptus leaves and plant essences such as tobacco smoke. Often, they shower or cover themselves with these plants in the belief that during their sleep, the plant’s spirits will come to visit and help them heal.
For the Shipibo‐Konibo the rapid rising infection and death rates in the area also carried a new threat: the extinction of their extensive flora knowledge. “We were scared because this disease attacks the elders and they keep in their memories recipes, ways of using specific plants from the rainforest. They thought they were going to die,” Goupil laments, her usual upbeat tone turning sombre. “Who else is going to pass on this knowledge?” she asks. Her photographs, which can be seen as a visual record of the rituals and procedures commonly used serve more as a poignant reminder of the diversity of the human and animal kingdom.
While the Shipibo‐Konibo is currently using plant-based medicines in their battle against the virus, Goupil makes clear that she’s in no way suggesting this is a cure. Rather, she hopes that this project will help people to understand how the indigenous cure themselves: “We live in a world that is diverse and one way to allow this diversity is to be open to hearing other ways of living, from other worlds that were here long before us.”
Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.