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FLAS Fellow Hugo Puerto on the Decolonization of Public Health in the Amazon

May 13, 2019

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“…they agreed to work with me because it was the first time a researcher came to their community to ask them what their priorities are and to listen without prejudgements.”

Hugo Puerto, a University of Washington PhD student in Medical Anthropology and Global Studies FLAS fellow in Portuguese, is working to create a new research model that collaborates with indigenous communities rather than acquiring, and thereby colonizing, their medical knowledge and health systems.  For the past two years, Hugo has been collaborating with national Indigenous organizations as well as with two Cubeo indigenous communities along the border of Colombia and Brazil to revitalize community health knowledge and infrastructure.  The goal of his dissertation research is not to acquire their medical knowledge himself, but to support the community-based strengthening of their medical knowledge and health care infrastructure.  The research was co-designed by Hugo and Indigenous leadership at a national and local level, and he acknowledges the community’s ownership of their medical knowledge and their right to determine how it is shared or withheld.

The Cubeo communities, like other Indigenous peoples in Colombia, have a more holistic understanding of health than the Western anthropomorphic-based understanding of health.  Hugo’s research involves mediating the dialogue between indigenous healing practices and western medicine.  The Colombian government has created a set of policies to support indigenous health systems—policies which are broad and intended for adaptation to local realities and needs.  Last year, Hugo completed a thesis for his Master’s degree in Public Health that focused on the implementation of these policies in the Colombian province of Guainía (on the border with Brazil).There are many Cubeo communities throughout the Amazon rainforest and in different countries, and since 2018 Hugo has been working with two of these communities in the Colombian Province of Vaupés.

Hugo writes, “One of my greatest learning experiences working with them is that I constantly face my implicit biases, privileges, and positionality.  When one of the communities accepted working with me, they told me that they agreed to work with me because it was the first time a researcher came to their community to ask them what their priorities are and to listen without prejudgements. This was a response to my approach of active community participation in the development of this project.”

The language of the Cubeo people is Cuebo, but Hugo is able to communicate with Cubeo people in Colombia in Spanish.  He is studying Portuguese to enable his communication with Cubeo people in Brazil.  He hopes his PhD project will create knowledge about how to support indigenous health system strengthening rather than taking ownership, or colonizing, the knowledge of the communities.  He hopes to use this knowledge in a career in anthropology and public health in Latin America.

1 Puerto, Hugo. “A New Hope: Perspectives on Implementing the Pilot of a New Comprehensive Health Care Model in Guainía, Colombia” Master’s thesis, University of Washington, 2018, ISBN: 9780438173613

FLAS Fellowships are funded by the International and Foreign Language Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education. FLAS fellowships support undergraduate, graduate and professional students in acquiring modern foreign languages and area or international studies competencies. Students from all UW departments and professional schools are encouraged to apply. Find out more about the FLAS Fellowship here.