Is Ayahuasca Tourism Harming The Amazon?

Is ayahuasca tourism harming the Amazon? We investigate

By Nastassja Salem

It’s the plant medicine that has been used for centuries in the Amazon, and more recently, it has begun to change the lives of thousands of Westerners. There are retreats offering the stuff in Brazil, Colombia and Peru, where it is legal, and in North America and Europe, where it is not. But as popular as it has become, and as ancient and useful as it can be, is there a darker side to ayahuasca? And is ayahuasca tourism harming the Amazon?

Ayahuasca usage dates back to at least 1000 A.D. and is a deeply embedded practice in Amazonian culture. It’s made from two plants: the banisteriopsis caapi vine combined with the leaves of the chacruna plant. This unique blend allows drinkers of the brew to see visions and to even experience what some have called ‘entry into another dimension’, or ‘communion with Mother Ayahuasca,’ the spirit associated with the medicine.

Traditionally, indigenous Amazonian healers, known as curanderos, have used ayahuasca to help them diagnose their patients. Apparently, the plant allows them to ‘see” what is wrong with another person, and helps guide them to select the right cure. In retreats aimed at foreigners, however, it’s the ‘patient’ who does the drinking, with the aim of looking inward and ‘healing’ whatever psychological, physical or even psychic damage that is present.

Effects – good and bad

Physically, the experience lasts approximately 4-6 hours and is usually done at night in a ceremony led by a shaman. You are handed a bucket at the beginning of the ceremony for purging into. It is believed that the vomiting and diarrhea that accompany ayahuasca drinking are the expelling of negative energies; a release of sorts.

There are a whole host of other possible effects. These include crying or laughing uncontrollably, feelings of bliss and euphoria, trembling and dissociating from your physical body. The experience is said to be heart opening; a sudden knowingness can take hold and bring you clarity about your life.

This medicine is quite unlike psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in ‘magic’ mushrooms for example), which inspires a mythic awe in the world and sense of transportation or change in perception on life. Sure, ayahuasca can also provide a sense of oneness and connection with the earth, nature, energy and life; a deep remembering of sorts. It also has the potential to cure myriad maladies, from post traumatic stress disorder and addiction to self-harming and depression.

Westerners have been seeking out ayahuasca as a tool for self-healing and expansion of consciousness only very recently. However, today’s reconfiguration of the shamanic healing tool to cater to the self-help epidemic is cause for concern on many levels in terms of ethics. 

Is Ayahuasca Tourism Harming The Amazon?

One of those concerns is overuse of the plants needed to make the brew. It raises the question: is ayahuasca tourism harming the Amazon?

According to research by Carlos Suárez Álvarez, Amazonian studies expert and author of Ayahuasca, Iquitos and Monster Vorāx, in Iquitos, the largest city in Peru’s Amazon, 10 of the 40 biggest retreats here earn nearly £5m annually by hosting foreigners at well over $1,000 per stay.

This has led to the banisteriopsis caapi vine, which is the raw ingredient in ayahuasca, to decline in availability. It has also more than trebled in price over the past six years. In fact, the declining supply of ayahuasca ingredients was identified as a major botanical issue in an industry-wide survey conducted by the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (ESC) in 2014.

is ayahuasca tourism harming the amazon

There’s still another issue we need to address, this time, regarding animal welfare. According to recent research published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice, the trade in jaguar body parts is growing across Latin America, particularly in Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru, and Suriname.

Over the past few years, the most serious new threat to jaguars that has emerged is the illegal trade in jaguar fangs for the Chinese market. But according to a team of researchers led by Alexander Braczkowski of Australia’s University of Queensland, “commercialized ayahuasca tourism may be an undervalued contributor to the trade” in jaguar body parts.

Braczkowski and co-authors write in their paper that: “Most organized trafficking appears to be by contractors working for foreign companies hired to hunt cats to export body parts. But with Latin America’s current ayahuasca and shamanic tourist boom there are additional demands for jaguar products.”

Between August 2016 and August 2019, Braczowski and his team searched for jaguar parts trade in markets in three Peruvian cities that are considered top ayahuasca tourism destinations. These are Lima, Iquitos, and Pucallpa. And the results were depressing: “Every single place we went to look for jaguar skins, jaguar teeth, we found them,” Sharon Guynup, a co-author of the paper, told Mongabay Magazine.

The researchers found that jaguar canine pendants, jaguar skin bracelets, and other jaguar products are being sold to tourists under the false pretense that they somehow enhance the ayahuasca experience. It should be noted that local indigenous shamans and healers from the Pucallpa area (Shipibo, Conibo, and Ashaninka ethnicities) strongly deny this. They firmly state jaguar parts do NOT enhance the ayahuasca experience in any way. Furthermore, they insist that this practice is being marketed by ‘charlatan shamans’ seeking financial gain from the ayahuasca boom.

Other Concerns

While ayahuasca tourism has been blamed for botanical and ecological concerns, there are anthropologic ones, as well – specifically the themes of cultural appropriation and the twisting of Amazonian traditions for profit.

As mentioned above, ayahuasca ceremonies are being tainted with rare animal parts by charlatans. But just as bad is the fact that many untrained foreigners are now administering the brew. Indigenous people of the Amazon are not concerned about where their patients come from, but are indeed saddened by the degradation and devaluation of their traditional ceremonies.

“For many years, I have been coming here (to the Sacred Valley) to perform ceremonies to the foreigners. But now, some of the foreigners I gave medicine to are doing the ceremonies. This is very bad. These people are not curanderos. When I was a child, eight years old, I was drinking ayahuasca. I was taught by my father, a curandero. And he was taught by his father, also a curandero. I learned the icaros (songs sung during ayahuasca ceremonies) when I was a child. Mother Ayahuasca is a part of me,” says Shipibo elder Roberto Matias.

The necessity of an expert

He has reason to be concerned. In unregulated ceremonies, there have been cases of stabbings, molestation and violence when the facilitator isn’t an expert. There have been cases of several people dying – and even being murdered – in ayahuasca ceremonies.

These issues could also arise if the brew was not prepared properly, if the ceremony is not held by an experienced curandero, or if the drinkers are not screened. For example? Individuals with psychotic tendencies are not meant to drink ayahuasca at all. Nor are people on certain medications. After the ‘trip’, it’s essential that the experience be integrated into the psyche of the ‘patient’. This can take weeks, or even months.

As Dennis McKenna, famed American ethnopharmacologist and brother of the famed psychedelics proponent Terence McKenna states: “It’s a psychotherapeutic process: if (drinkers) don’t integrate the stuff that comes up, it can be very traumatic”.

Indeed, curanderos are considered medical professionals in the Amazon, and ayahuasca is thought to be such a powerfully curative plant, that only high trained specialists can administer it. The proliferation of ‘pseudo shamans’ – whether they’re in the business for the money, or because their egos have been inflated by the medicine to lead them to believe they have a ‘gift’ for ayahuasca – means that the integrity of ayahuasca practices is under threat, and much money generated by ayahuasca tourism doesn’t even go back into the hands of the indigenous communities.

So, Is Ayahuasca Tourism Harming The Amazon?

I should stress that the rise in ayahuasca drinking isn’t all bad. The interest in retreats has brought much needed money to this very poor region. And of course, many lives have been absolutely transformed from the stuff.

In fact, ayahuasca can be so effective, it is believed it could well change the face of Western medicine, such as in the treatment of cancer and Parkinson’s disease. But we must all acknowledge that these gains come with certain costs. Namely, the further degradation of the Amazon and the indigenous cultures that lie within.

What do you think? Is ayahuasca tourism harming the Amazon? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Nastassja Salem
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