Yellow Emperor has been working hard to learn more about where the herbs we use come from in order to promote a more sustainable and ethical process. With the goal of expanding our research, three members of the Yellow Emperor team, including myself, embarked on a journey to Bolivia in order to speak with experts in traditional medicine and the natural products industry in Bolivia.
After starting the strenuous journey to La Paz on August 9, traveling via LA, Miami, and Lima, Peru, we finally arrived at 4am on August 10. We had been awake for almost 24 hours, and yet even in our exhausted state, we were amazed at the beauty of this city that sits in the bottom of a valley.
The campsite we stayed at during the trip was located in a small city on the top of a hill with a clear view of the Andes mountains and a shallow river running below it. We were given a tour of the campsite and an introduction to all the activities planned for the week. On this first day we were also introduced to a very important Bolivian belief in the “Pacha Mama” or “Mother Earth”
The change in elevation was immediately noticeable and quite shocking. The cities we visited in Bolivia were at an elevation of about 13,000 feet, compared to being at sea level in Eugene, Oregon, so it was very difficult for all of us to adjust to. The campsite was located in a small city on the top of a hill with a clear view of the Andes mountains and a shallow river running below it. It was the epitome of an arcadian view and truly breathtaking.
Throughout the trip, we worked alongside an NGO called “Up Close Bolivia” and had the opportunity to visit a number of their volunteer sites. On the first day of activities, we visited the Valley of the Moon Children’s Center, which is a daycare center for children who are too young to go to school.
Another volunteer site we visited was the Equine Therapy Center. We spoke with several of the people who work there to discuss how horse therapy relates to natural and traditional healing. Natural medicine does not only consist of taking herbs, but also using all aspects of the environment and nature to improve well-being.
Despite the importance of traditional medicine to indigenous groups, Bolivia’s natural medicine industry is facing many of the same threats as in other countries around the world. The government has a significant influence over people’s ways of thinking about medicine as well as the power to regulate the industry.
On a tour discussing women’s role in traditional medicine, we visited one of the many witches’ markets in La Paz. The markets are run by Cholitas and contain many different types of healing herbs and other objects that are important to indigenous culture.
Cholitas are the women in indigenous communities, recognizable by their colorful skirts, scarves, long braided hair, and bowler hats. For many years, Cholitas were not allowed to wear their traditional clothing in public and were ostracized from mainstream society. Under Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, the Cholitas can now freely wear their traditional clothing in public spaces. We saw Cholitas working in retail stores, selling produce at food markets, and running the witches’ markets.
We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend a traditional Kallawaya ceremony with Hermano Calixto. The ceremony is a traditional offering to the Pacha Mama that many indigenous groups perform during the month of August. The ceremony began with a ritual of smelling herbs and breathing three times into them in order to purify us of our problems and sadness.
The ritual continued with adding coca leaves, llama wool, and other important Kallawaya symbols. At the end of the ceremony, we burned the altar as an offering to the Pacha Mama. During the ceremony, we learned that if the proper care is not taken when harvesting medicinal herbs, they will not have the same effects. In many places around the world, the commercialization of nature is challenging these beliefs that all living beings are equal. This experience emphasized how important it is for Yellow Emperor to think about where the herbs we use come from, and to ensure we honor the traditional beliefs and practices through our own manufacturing and production.
The following day, we visited a natural products manufacturing company that is run by a famous Bolivian shaman, Milton Gonzalez. Upon entering the facility, we were instructed to don lab coats and hair nets, which provided a similar feeling to entering the production room at Yellow Emperor. At the factory, Milton displayed an altar with symbols from many different religions, demonstrating how a belief in the Pacha Mama is complementary with a belief in other religions.
The final adventure on our trip involved staying in an indigenous community called Santiago de Okola, which is located on Lake Titicaca. We were accompanied by a tour guide who gave us extensive information about the community and its beliefs and practices, and we stayed in the house of a family who lives in the village.
The community resides next to a mountain called the “Sleeping Dragon” because of its shape. On our first day we hiked the Sleeping Dragon, where we saw ancient ruins from the Incas, including engravings on the side of the mountain, and the remnants of ancient structures used for agriculture and buildings. During the hike we came across several important medicinal herbs, including a flower called “muña” that we were instructed to rub in between our palms and breathe in deeply when we felt tired on the hike.
Each stop on our tour, and every conversation with an individual helped us piece together the culture and values of the indigenous Bolivian populations. We were able to take pieces of interaction to form an idea of how traditional practices, including herbal medicine, fits into the history of Bolivia as well as helped us learn what we can do as a company to preserve these values by making ethical choices in herb selection.
Yellow Emperor will use the knowledge we acquired in Bolivia to further expand the scope of our company’s practices in a way that not only solves some of the issues the natural products industry faces around the world, but also in a way that preserves tradition and honors the living beings in the global supply chain that work hard and make sacrifices for the products we manufacture.
Yellow Emperor also plans to emphasize protecting and serving our local community and environment through partnerships and charitable contributions. Finally, we will take a holistic approach into sustainability looking at our suppliers, our environment, our customers and their customers, and every aspect of the “pacha.”