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Without Reciprocity, Ayahuasca Consumption Is Extractive

As COVID-19 devastates Amazonian communities, spiritual tourists are abandoning the cultures holding the sacred traditions of Ayahuasca.

A shaman (R) puts a broth of "Ayahuasca" into a cup. The brew, which is prepared from the liana Banisteriopsis caapi, is used for medical or religious purposes in the Peruvian Shipibo ethnic group and in various Amazonian ethnic groups. (Photo: Ana Karina Delgado/picture alliance via Getty Images)

A shaman (R) puts a broth of "Ayahuasca" into a cup. The brew, which is prepared from the liana Banisteriopsis caapi, is used for medical or religious purposes in the Peruvian Shipibo ethnic group and in various Amazonian ethnic groups. (Photo: Ana Karina Delgado/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Since 2014 I have travelled to regions of the Ecuadorian and Peruvian Amazon, working with non-profit organizations supporting Indigenous peoples’ rights and environmental protections. Like many other international activists in the region, I was introduced to the plight of Amazonian peoples through the psychoactive brew known as Ayahuasca.

In recent years the so-called Ayahuasca boom has drawn headlines like “The Drug of Choice for the Age of Kale” or “Hollywood’s Hip, Heavy Hallucinogen.” As usual, these stylized interpretations tend to obscure the deeper story.

Found throughout the Amazon basin, Ayahuasca is traditionally consumed for divination, healing and communication with the spirit-world. Every year, tens of thousands of people from wealthier nations travel to remote regions of the Amazon to meet with Indigenous shamans and folk-healers to experience the mind-bending, purgative effects of what’s colloquially referred to as "the medicine."

Supporting the rights of Indigenous peoples is the most effective strategy for mitigating widespread deforestation, land degradation and carbon emissionsand to create more resilient ecosystems.

Seven years ago, on my way to meet Ayahuasca shamans in Siekopaï territory in Sucumbios, Ecuador, I drove through devastated landscapes now seared into my memory. The road to the last Siekopaï shamans cuts through eerily silent palm oil plantations (the latest commodity heralded by the World Bank as the ‘green’ alternative to fossil fuels) and abandoned, rusted oil rigs cordoned off by barbed wire posted with Chinese signage. Far from the Edenic shamanic voyage I’d pictured, I found myself in something resembling a post-apocalyptic, industrial landscape.

We know the history taught in schools is a curated construction that often conveniently positions ruling classes and establishments as the rightful benefactors of property and power. This became clear to me when I realized I’d completed my higher education without any significant institutional acknowledgement that the wealth of the Western world is largely built upon the extraction of the global South; I could now visibly see the effects of the pillage of Amazonian ecological knowledge, resources, land and labor.

I was never taught that 80% of the world’s biodiversity is safeguarded by less than 5% of the world’s Indigenous population, or that the Amazon rainforest is the key to a healthy global ecosystem. My curriculum did not include any mention of the genocide, torture and enslavement of Indigenous peoples across the Amazon during the 19th century rubber boom, driven by the United States’ military industrial complex and the era’s prized jewel, the Ford automobile. It seems that we also overlooked European colonialists and missionaries importing diseases which may have annihilated an estimated 90% of South America’s Indigenous peoples.

These inconvenient truths are the foundation of the United States’ wealth and my access to economic and cultural privileges as an American. Our pension funds, university endowments, banking systems and museums are the direct beneficiaries of theft, suffering and destruction in the Amazon rainforest, Latin America, and the global South at large. The sheer scale of the sprawling, complex international commodity-chains have largely separated us from the knowledge that the preservatives in our store-bought products, the red meat in our supermarkets, our industrial lubricants, the gasoline in our cars, the precious minerals in our cell phones, the medicines we use and the oxygen we breathe are from the Amazon.

Communities of the Amazon basin are, once again, living out the nightmare of a pandemic created and perpetuated by industrial capitalism. In some cases, up to 80% of villages in Peru and Brazil are testing positive for the virus. In Iquitos, the remote jungle-hub of the Peruvian Amazon, hospitals are turning away patients for lack of space and medical supplies. Prices of oxygen tanks are gauged up to $1,000 USD, forcing families to surrender their year’s wages for basic treatment.

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Riverine communities living far from urban centers find themselves in an impossible situation, voluntarily isolating at the cost of accessing vital provisions. Many are suffering from hunger and infection. Perhaps worse than the impact of COVID are the heavy-handed stay-at-home and curfew restrictions, which have severed travel, the ability to work and trade routes that prevent access to water, food and medicine.

Communities of the Amazon basin are, once again, living out the nightmare of a pandemic created and perpetuated by industrial capitalism.

In reality, the romanticized notion that Indigenous peoples continue to live autonomously from the land is far from the truth. Today, most communities in the Amazon derive their livelihood from extractive industries like mining, logging, agriculture or tourism. With commodity prices plummeting and tourism evaporating, the economic lifeblood of the forest has run dry.

COVID-19 is revealing and amplifying the multiple crises in the Amazonextractivism, deforestation, and perhaps most alarmingly, a lack of action from the international community. Time is running out, and the Amazon is reaching its tipping point. In their hour of need, Amazonian communities are calling upon the world for their support and reciprocity.

There is still a chance for the people whose lives have been positively impacted by Ayahuasca and medical traditions of the Amazon to mobilize in support of Indigenous peoples who are the stewards of the plants, of healing cultures and of the rainforest. As Amazonian medical traditions teach, healthcare begins with the individual, but cannot end there. It must extend to family care, community care, societal care, and Earth care.

There are three main actions supported by those who are standing in solidarity with the people of Amazonas. The first, is the demand for an immediate moratorium on extractive enterprises in the Amazon. The second is to support and raise funds for communities in emergency situations. For example, the Amazon Emergency Fund is a multi-stakeholder initiative of Indigenous peoples and civil society. All funds go directly to communities in need. Finally, a more long-term solution is to support regenerative agroforestry initiatives in the region. As beneficiaries of the spoils of the Amazon and Indigenous cultures, how can we gain as much as we do without reciprocity? If we do not act now, we will prove the Ayahuasca boom to be nothing more than a transactional, extractive and short-sighted iteration of neo-colonialism.  

In North America’s moment of reckoning with structural violence and institutional racism, let us not forget the people of the forest; those Indigenous voices who have been silenced and forgotten for so long. Now is the time to dismantle extractive systems, to de-colonize our thinking, and to support regenerative systems change, not simply “sustainable development”.

Supporting the rights of Indigenous peoples is the most effective strategy for mitigating widespread deforestation, land degradation and carbon emissionsand to create more resilient ecosystems. Indigenous communities on the frontlines of the expanding commodity frontier are, as Sonia Guajarara of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) put it, the “Cura Da Terra”—the Cure of the Earth. Our wellbeing is bound together with the health of the Amazon and its communities. We can no longer afford to operate under the illusion of separation. Or worse, believe we can take without reciprocity or consequence.

Sophia Rokhlin

Sophia Rokhlin MSc. is an anthropologist and nonprofit organizer. She currently serves as a Program Coordinator at the Chaikuni Institute in the Peruvian Amazon, and supports development for the benefit concert for Amazonian communities, Folk Medicine. She is the coauthor of When Plants Dream: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Shamanism and the Global Psychedelic Renaissance (2019).

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