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  • Andre Gomes

Addressing Ayahuasca’s history of Western extraction and exploitation

Ayahuasca has captured the world’s fascination – for better or worse. The name of this shamanic brew (also known as caapi, or yagé) originates from the Quechua word meaning “vine of the souls”; it is a brew of plants native to the Amazon rainforest, with the primary ingredient being a vine that contains the psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT) within it. Ayahuasca is believed to contain and invoke the spirit of Mother Aya, a wise plant teacher that can educate, connect, and guide its consumer.

Although used for millennia, ayahuasca’s potential has been recently “re-discovered” by Western science. This is because the production and consumption of DMT was globally prohibited by the United Nations’ 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. However, as part of the “psychedelic renaissance” - the period of renewed interest in psychedelic drugs beginning roughly in the 2000s – it has re-emerged onto the mainstream scientific stage. With transformational therapeutic benefits, particularly for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, ayahuasca is now notorious across the globe. Many of these benefits resolve some of the most intractable and troublesome conditions of modern late-stage capitalist existence, causing much global excitement and appetite for the brew.

A brief history of ayahuasca and the West

Ayahuasca has been used for millennia by indigenous groups - and later Amazonian mestizo people – to deal with physical and mental ailments, as well as social issues and spiritual crises. Early Western ethnobotanists recorded that in the 1960s some communities’ shamans used ayahuasca to spiritually diagnose patients. Other groups consumed ayahuasca socially with little ritual, used mostly by men to bond socially over their ayahuasca-induced visions.

Its growing global popularity has been noted since at least the late 1980s: as researcher Marlene deRios put it, Peru’s “internal tourism has been replete with troubled men and women travelling great distances to seek out healers,” who consumed ayahuasca in a “never-ending search for self-actualisation and growth”. More intrepid explorers wishing to use ayahuasca would find it with shamans willing to share their medicine with visitors.

It is with the national recognition of ayahuasca as part of Peru’s national heritage in 2008 and its protected status that ayahuasca-related tourism exploded in the country. Expensive retreats and a shamanic industry ballooned, with guests paying up to £1,000 a week for ceremonies. A 2017 report estimated the ayahuasca industry in Iquitos in Peru brought in £5million GBP per year. Training courses for shamanism popped up, adapted to Western learning models. There are now over 200 ayahuasca retreats in Europe alone, as Westerners return to their homelands to share the medicine with others, creating more demand for the brew’s production abroad.

This experience is aligned with much of Western interactions with ancestral psychedelic plant use. Psilocybin mushroom globalization mirrored ayahuasca's trajectory decades earlier. In the 1950s, Gordon Wasson, a LIFE Magazine reporter, visited Maria Sabina, a healer in Huatla, Mexico, who introduced him to Mazatec medicine as the community did with the small stream of hippies that pilgrimed to Huatla. However, Wasson's article attracted a flood of tourists seeking enlightenment and pleasure, over-commercialising the practice and disrupting the community. Wasson later acknowledged his story’s disruptive effect, and described[AG1]  the tourists as “a mob of thrillmongers seeking the ‘magic mushroom’ descended on Huatla”.  Sabina died poor, sick and ostracised by her community, who blamed her for bringing in the outsiders that upended their way of life.

The voracious and extractive appetite for ayahuasca

Sabina’s tale is a cautionary tale of the consequences of over-exploring, over-consumption and extraction of psychedelic medicine from the Global South. It also foreshadows how psychedelic industries may come to develop if they are allowed to explore these substances without any respect or regulation.

From wellness coaches, hippies and New Age shamans emulating cultures through their exotifying perspective, to pharmaceutical companies seeking scalable and patentable new products, the West is incredibly apt at extracting resources from the Global South. This also applies to ayahuasca: a 2020 report highlighted that the DMT-containing vines are over-harvested, with its price increasing nearly sevenfold in the past 10 years; up to two tons of vines were processed by a single ayahuasca producer per month.

The local side has also taken advantage of this surge of interest and capital – with deadly consequences. A Peruvian shaman was arrested for the death of a young American in 2012 who had consumed ayahuasca with him. Another British young man died after a ceremony in rural Colombia in 2014. Cases of sexual violence have also come to light, as shamans abused their patients/clients who are in vulnerable altered states. Coercion and emotional abuse have been documented in some notable instances. Greed, naivety and abuses of power have led to these tragedies, ending lives while casting a disreputable shadow over ayahuasca and its indigenous caretakers.

Repairing, Respecting, Restoring Ayahuasca

More needs to be done to ensure that there are no more victims of ayahuasca’s multidimensional and global exploitation. We need a holistic view of how to respect the communities that have administered this medicine for millennia while protecting curious outsiders from any further harm.

In the wake of news of sexual abuse, some organisations reflected on the path forward. Chacruna Institute, a non-profit organisation committed to protecting indigenous psychedelic medicine, posed guiding questions to counter the commodification of ayahuasca ceremonies and ensure its responsible use. The Ayahuasca Defense Fund provides financial and legal support to defend traditional and non-traditional ayahuasca practitioners, with a supporting guide outlining the ethical responsibilities for practitioners to follow.

Epistemic injustices must be addressed. Indigenous people’s traditional use and ancestral knowledge of ayahuasca’s use is often deprioritised or excluded from science: it is not valid because it was not conducted in a laboratory, and because it favours spiritual rather than psychiatric discourses around its therapeutic effects. Ayahuasca’s benefits have been known for longer than Western science has been around; global attention on the brew only came when academic papers replicated ancestral knowledge. Their epistemic authority has been delegitimised.

Epistemic justice means producing a model of knowledge that enforces indigenous rights, protects their biocultural heritage (especially from patenting by third parties) and establishes benefit-sharing schemes that transfer money, land ownership, and environmental stewardship over their medicine.

A 2022 paper outlined key ethical principles of indigenous medicine to guide Western psychedelic research. The eight principles - Reverence, Respect, Responsibility, Relevance, Regulation, Reparation, Restoration, and Reconciliation – include concrete ethical actions to implement. This paper was co-produced with a panel composed of indigenous representatives from across the Americas, showing how we can centre future practices on the involved communities from the start.

The unbridled exploitation of ayahuasca is currently the norm for this psychedelic medicine, but we know what needs to be done to change the direction of this industry and prevent further harm. Respecting the medicine and its traditional custodians and offering reparations that tangibly prevent its over-exploitation and empower communities to safeguard its use may limit its short-term consumption. However, in exchange, we guarantee its survival as well as the respect that the medicine – and Mother Aya within it - deserve.



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