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Feature - Issue #12

The Plant Name-Giver

Words and artworks by Abel Rodríguez / Mogaje Guihu
Translated by Laura Strang Steel
With an introduction by Beatriz López Beatriz López

Mogaje Guihu is a sage of the Nonuya people who possesses the ancestral knowledge of medicinal plants and the ecological systems of the Amazon basin. He comes from a territory known as The Savanna, situated between the Cahuinarí River and the upper part of the Igara Paraná River in Colombia.

Since his early years, Mogaje Guihu was designated to be the ‘plant name-giver’, a term that identifies someone who knows about and handles the vegetal species of the tropical rainforest; this implies the mastery of hundreds of flora species, their anatomical features, their architecture, the type and distribution of branches and leaves, their bark type, their flowers and fruits, as well as the ecological relations with different animal species. One of the most precise and appreciated aspects of the plant name-givers are their knowledge of the medicinal properties of each plant and the production of remedies.

In the 1990s, running away from the Colombian armed conflict, Mogaje Guihu’s family left their native territory, eventually ending up in the capital city Bogotá. He began using his Spanish name, Abel Rodríguez, and in order to preserve his legacy, started documenting his knowledge through drawings, seeking to transmit his cosmovision - not only about the forest, but also about the human condition.

Territorio de la Sabana, 2018, Abel Rodríguez, BALTIC. Photographed by Rob Harris.

In the Savanna I learnt all the names of the plants, trees - large sizes, small sizes - the vines and the ferns. It’s something that is a little laborious but I can say that yes, I learnt everything. It was a way of life for us. You have to be in contact with the forest. You don’t listen or talk to anybody else, you just have to be there facing it.

Where we have the mambeadero - a place where we talk about our traditions and our customs - we also talk about the trees, the life of the trees, how they were, who made them, how they were born - just like us, that’s where we have our origin of life. So we are always there, in the mambeadero - it’s where part of our teaching was born and part of our learning as well. If we are not in the mambeadero we are walking around, looking at the trees, the types of trees, the streams, the earth - “is it sandy?”, “No, it’s not sandy.” We work out where they live, why they live and who put them there. We learn about all the uses of the trees, according to their type - about the wood, what it’s used for as well as the bark, the trunk, the roots and the vines - everything that is in the canopy. We also learn about all kinds of illnesses, how the illnesses appear and we must know our medicinal plants - how to find them and keep them organised in its place according to its use.

Monte Firme, 2020, Abel Rodríguez, BALTIC. Photographed by Rob Harris.

‘‘We learn about all the uses of the trees, according to their type - about the wood, what it’s used for as well as the bark, the trunk, the roots and the vines - everything that is in the canopy.’’

Bit by bit, we learn the names of the trees and the fruits that are edible and the ones that are inedible and which ones are poisonous. We have to know the smell, the sweat, the milk that comes from the tree. Sometimes when it is poisonous it has a smell and you feel weak, you get headaches or a fever. To know this, to debate this, we have to know with what, why, when, which - and if it has an owner or not. We say a tree has an owner when it has an evil spirit. For us to know all this we have to sacrifice ourselves.

Tierra FirmeII, 2018, Abel Rodríguez. Photographed by María Paula Bastidas.

El Arbol de la Vida y la Abundancia, 2020, Abel Rodríguez. Photographed by Camilo Perilla.

‘‘The shape of the trees are always there in my head and I remember every tree, how to take hold of the branches to extend them to their full size, the colour of the trees and the colour of the bark.’’

We have to know all the names, not just of the trees but also of the fish, and of the all the terrestrial and aquatic animals. We have to know all of them because we need to know what we can use, what we can’t use - so a lot of the time we cannot use certain species, we have to ask their permission. It’s a lot of studying for us. We’re talking all the time.

When I started to work for Tropenbos [an International non-profit organisation with aims to improve the governance and management of tropical forests for the benefit of local people and the global community and to encourage western scientists to integrate Indigenous knowledge into their research] as a guide, I had to learn to classify, organise and maintain… I learnt to draw graphs and to choose, divide and group trees by type. I complemented my knowledge working with Tropenbos. The shape of the trees are always there in my head and I remember every tree, how to take hold of the branches, to extend them to their full size, the colour of the trees and the colour of the bark. When I worked with Tropenbos, the director Carlos used to say to me that I could wake that world up, to keep up the dialogue in our language, with that same memory. He said to me that the Spanish language is now dominating everything. Who replaces a chieftan or an elder or a maloca (communal house) builder? There is no longer anybody who has this knowledge because these kinds of customs and traditions are being lost. I just keep on painting. I still have the mountains and trees in my head, what they are like and where they are, what the places are called. That’s where I was raised.

La Centro Montaña, Abel Rodríguez. Photographed by Nicole Lopez.

Terraza Alta III, 2018, Abel Rodríguez. Photographed by María Paula Bastidas.

Arbol Natural III, 2018, Abel Rodríguez. Photographed by Maria Paula Bastidas.

Hueco Guacamalla, 2018, Abel Rodríguez. Photographed by María Paula Bastidas.

Terraza Vaja, 2018, Abel Rodríguez. Photographed by María Paula Bastidas.

La Montaña de Centro IV, 2021, Abel Rodriguez. Photographed by Sandra Vargas.

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