Public Health

Costa Rican Tribe's Traditional Medicines Get A Modern Media Makeover

  • According to the Terraba, anise leaves help with circulation problems.
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    According to the Terraba, anise leaves help with circulation problems.
    Courtesy of Terraba.org
  • Some of the medicinal plants are quite familiar, but the Terraba use them in unique ways. Cacao butter serves as a natural sunscreen and anti-aging face cream.
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    Some of the medicinal plants are quite familiar, but the Terraba use them in unique ways. Cacao butter serves as a natural sunscreen and anti-aging face cream.
    Courtesy of Terraba.org
  • The Terraba people boil the bark of the guanabana to treat leukemia.
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    The Terraba people boil the bark of the guanabana to treat leukemia.
    Courtesy of Terraba.org
  • Often the plants are used in teas, mixed into ointments or made into soaps.A tea of zecate de limon, or lemon grass, is used for colds.
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    Often the plants are used in teas, mixed into ointments or made into soaps.A tea of zecate de limon, or lemon grass, is used for colds.
    Courtesy of Terraba.org
  • The community clean and stitch up wounds with cotton fibers.
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    The community clean and stitch up wounds with cotton fibers.
    Courtesy of Terraba.org
  • A tea made with tilo plant is thought to help relax the nervous system.
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    A tea made with tilo plant is thought to help relax the nervous system.
    Courtesy of Terraba.org

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When the Terraba tribe in Costa Rica rallied to oppose a hydroelectric dam they feared would destroy their land and their centuries-old culture, the indigenous community took a modern approach.

They linked up with journalism students at Elon University in North Carolina, who built a website describing the tribe's way of life, including how it makes use of medicinal plants.

To help the Terraba tribe protect their land and culture, journalism students built an interactive website exploring the indigenous people's history, religion and traditional medicine.

hide captionTo help the Terraba tribe protect their land and culture, journalism students built an interactive website exploring the indigenous people's history, religion and traditional medicine.

Courtesy of Terraba.org

The 750-person tribe relies on an array of grasses, shrubs and seeds to treat everything from sunburns and colds to leukemia and prostate cancer.

None of their teas and ointments have the Food and Drug Administration's seal of approval, but the plants have been mainstays of the Terraba tribe for centuries.

"The Terraba are a woman-centered society," Amanda Sturgill, a journalism profesor who led the project, writes in an email to Shots. "Knowledge about cultivation and use of the plants is passed down through women. If they are relocated, though, access to some of these plants will be lost."

Last summer, Sturgill and her students spent time with the Terraba tribe, whose roots trace back 10,000 years in Central America. "The leader of one of their clans let us photograph different plants and explained their uses," she says.

The students pulled the information together in a website that also explores the Terraba's language, history and traditions. The site launched Thursday.

"The Costa Rican government has said that the Terraba aren't a robust culture enough to preserve them," Sturgill says. "We are showing that they are unique."

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