This is the second of three dispatches from the 2016 World Ayahuasca Conference in Rio Branco, Brazil. The first one can be found here.
From Brooklyn to Australia, there’s a growing demand for ayahuasca, a tribal, hallucinogenic tea said to have both spiritual and curative properties. But, like any globalization fairy tale, the world’s embrace is threatening to suffocate the tradition at its source.
“The sacred art of Indians has been transformed into entertainment,” said Moises Pianko, a member of the Ashaninka tribe of northern Brazil.
The herbal tea, made by combining a rare vine and shrub found in the thick of the Amazon, has become the “it” drug for celebrities like Sting and Lindsay Lohan, who rave about its spiritual properties. But for the Amazonian tribes that have used ayahuasca for 5,000 years to communicate with God on matters ranging from politics to medicine, the trend is dangerous.
Ayahuasca vine. Image: Marina Lopes
Sudden local and international demand for the brew has put the ayahuasca vine used to make the tea at risk of eradication in parts of Peru, and tripled its price in the last seven years to $250 a liter. The vine is almost impossible to plant, as it only thrives in the thick of the jungle and takes four years to grow, so the natural reserves are limited.
Meanwhile, several centers popping up around the world are freely offering ayahuasca with little regard to the safety of its users or the sacredness of the tea, according to tribal leaders.
“Ayahuasca is no joke. The white man wants to patent our ritual, to use it as one more way to make money, but the spiritual world is not for sale,” Pianko said.
The ayahuasca tourism industry says otherwise. An estimated 40 therapeutic retreats around the world now specialize in ayahuasca, according to Carlos Suarez, an independent researcher who writes about economic development and cultural change in the Amazon. These centers host more than 4,000 people a year and charge up to $400 a night. Some also offer mud baths, yoga sessions and excursions to Machu Picchu.
“The white man wants to patent our ritual, to use it as one more way to make money, but the spiritual world is not for sale.”
Andy Metcalfe, who owns and operates the Gaia Tree center, an ayahuasca retreat in Iquitos, Peru, said the days when the tea was exclusively brewed by tribes are long gone. “It has outgrown the original tribal origins,” he told me, adding that most shamen in the region are no longer directly affiliated with tribes. “At the end the day, ayahuasca comes from nature. I don’t believe in people owning or controlling nature.”
For those who can’t afford a week-long retreat, a cup of ayahuasca is just a click away. The tea sells on Facebook Marketplace and do-it-yourself kits are available for $300. But as the drug’s popularity balloons around the world, quality control is challenging. Brewed incorrectly or combined with other drugs, ayahuasca can be deadly.
Pots and ovens for brewing ayahuasca. Image: Marina Lopes
In 2012, Kyle Nolan, an 18-year-old from Northern California died in Peru from what authorities believe was an ayahuasca overdose. Henry Miller, a 19-year-old gap year student from Britain suffered a similar fate after having an allergic reaction to the drug. There are also growing reports of predatory shamen raping and sexually assaulting women who drink ayahuasca.
Tribes worry whether they’ll continue to have access to the tea if ayahuasca goes the way of cocaine, which was used by the Incas to counter altitude sickness before erupting into the global marketplace as an illegal drug.
“If there is a problem with ayahuasca, it will be banned, it will be condemned, and what’s going to happen to us indigenous people?,” said Jose de Lima of the Kaxinawa tribe. “Imagine if our medicine is banned? Are we going to have to rely on a pharmacy? No, we want to rely on our living pharmacy, the forest.”
But some researchers see the global commercialization of ayahuasca as inevitable, and think the tribes should focus on getting a cut of profits.
“We want to rely on our living pharmacy, the forest.”
“Commercialization is a fact. Ayahuasca is coming to the world, and the world is coming to ayahuasca,” said Suarez. “In the indigenous world, the only people who can monetize a traditional activity are the shamen. Why shouldn’t they benefit from the system as well?”
Some tribes want to get on board, but demand for ayahuasca is surging too fast to keep up. Today, the majority of profits originate from independent centers that claim loose affiliations with local tribes.
An ayahuasca vine in the forest. Image: Marina Lopes
“We cannot say ayahuasca is ours, because we don’t have a patent. But we want to commercialize it on our terms. We want people to come to our land and do it properly,” said Lurino Pequeno de Souza, a 26-year-old member of the Katukina tribe. “There are several shamen conducting ceremonies without an ounce of knowledge and tricking the white man.”
Until then, the rush for ayahuasca has tribes questioning the sustainability of their own ceremonies. Because extraction of the plant is largely unregulated, foresters have found that amature ayahuasca brewers wandering the jungle often cut off a piece of the rare vine and leave the rest to rest rot. Finding the once abundant vine in Peru’s Iquitos region, where most centers are located, now takes days.
“It is a daily fight for the preservation of our culture,” said Biraci Brasil, leader of the Yawanawa tribe. “Ayahuasca is not just a plant, it’s our ancestors.”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.