Ways in which Ayahuasca Tourism Proves to be a Threat for Tradition Plant Based Medicines

Ayahuasca retreats are offered in Brazil and Peru, along with Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia, with the trend’s epicenter in Iquitos

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Ayahuasca
Ecuadorian Amazon rain forest. Wikimedia Commons
  • Thousands of people visit the Amazon each year to sample ayahuasca which is a hallucinogenic brew produced from Amazonian plants
  • A few say the experience provides a way to deal with addiction, gives them personal insight or helps to heal previous traumas
  • Ayahuasca retreats are offered in Brazil and Peru, along with Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia, with the trend’s epicenter in Iquitos

Peruvian Amazon, August 15, 2017: Jens Kossmagk was staring into something dark and spotted a Jaguar looking at him. He felt his nails grew into claws and his cheekbones took the shape similar to feline features. He realized that as he viewed the Jaguar, he slowly turned into the animal.

Inside a wooden room with peak-roof in Peruvian Amazon’s heart, a dozen figures with their closed eyes sat motionlessly. Due to the sound of a drum, there was rising of a voice which went down in a droned tune.  Whenever Kossmagk took a low-moaned yawn, his Jaguar seemed as if conjured. The function kept going a few hours until finally, at some point before 12 a.m in July night 2016, the pictures blurred, the Jaguar went back to the forest once more, and the white figures returned to beds. They had to be rise early the following morning to scribble in the journals while having strong tea of ginger, take a plunge in a chill river, as well as saluting the sun with a feel of New Age.

These were many people who visit the Amazon annually to try ayahuasca which is a hallucinogenic brew produced using plants of Amazon. Some want psychological or physical healing, and other people want to be awakened spiritually. A few say the encounter helps them handle addiction, provides personal insight or helps to provide relief from previous traumas. Others get motivated by a thirst and curiosity for adventure. For a day, the majority of upscale travelers of ayahuasca tourism usually pay around $100 or more for regimes which are advertised as healing methods which are traditional through tobacco purges, diets based on plants and ayahuasca ceremonies.

Also read: Peru’s Amazon Tribes will Block any Attempt by Oil Companies to Operate on their Lands

The wants and expectations of tourists wanting alternative therapies are met by the boom but has also managed to reawaken attraction for traditional medicine based on plants among indigenous people and created employment in semi-rural areas of Amazon where jobs lacked. But this new attraction is also debatable. Critics public denounce the utilization of traditional practices and medicine for profit, the amendment of an ancient ritual of Amazon to assimilate expectations of modern tourists, the predominance of lodges by owners who are foreign-born, and the negligent regulations around ayahuasca’s potentially harmful utilization.

“The phenomenon is complex,” says Beatriz Caiuby Labate who is a Brazilian anthropologist. She works at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Guadalajara, Mexico. She has written books and edited them too on this matter. Outlooks on ayahuasca tourism take two different extremes, “One pole is the Messianic salvation and healing of the Amazon and humanity, and the other is that it is either a dangerous hallucinogen or a perverse cultural appropriation of indigenous traditions” she says.

Two distinct plants are used in the preparation of the potion commonly called ayahuasca. The hallucinogen present in the brew- DMT obtained from a bush, also called chacruna. The vine called Banisteriopsis caapi —the plant is usually called ayahuasca—possesses an alkaloid which helps to suppress that enzyme. As the brewed mixture or tea made of the chacruna leaf and ayahuasca vine are ingested, the consumer may see visions due to the DMT which hits the brain: multi color, dreamlike, vivid sceneries like Kossmagk’s Jaguar.

Ayahuasca
Preparation of Ayahuasca. Wikimedia Commons

DMT is regarded similar to a controlled substance in countries like the United States, Brazil, Germany, and Australia. In Brazil, numerous organizations claim the use of ayahuasca as a sacrament for religious purposes and have gotten the designation of churches, permitting them to utilize it legally. Peru’s government doesn’t standardize ayahuasca due to its use in traditional ways.

Ayahuasca retreats are available in Brazil and Peru, along with Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, with the epicenter of the trend in Iquitos. The city is enclosed by the largest stretch of the country of tropical forest, which can be accessed by river or air only. Operators of local tourism approximate that around 50-100 lodges cater to ayahuasca seeking tourists in the region. Restaurants in the tourist zone of Iquitos even provide special menus for those who do not want to have specific foods—like fermented foods, cured meats, dairy products, and spicy fare—in order to prepare for a ritual.

The rustic retreat selected by Berlin’s Kossmagk, aged 43, and a computer specialist, is close to the Tamshiyacu’s small River town in Amazon, which takes around an hour and a half from Iquitos by boat. Kossmagk says he wanted to experience something which will enable him to connect his heart with his head. Eva, a guest, told that she reserved her retreat while she was in a hospital due to a breakdown. This retreat of 11 days, she anticipated, would enable her to overpower anxiety that could not be resolved by traditional therapy.

The owner and/or operator of the lodge is Agustín Rivas Vázquez, known as one of the best plant-medicine specialists of the region and utilizes ayahuasca. He is a small man with glasses and a white mustache. His age is 82 as per the identity documents but he tells he is actually 91. He was a famous wood sculptor when he was young. After a mishap in 1976 which left his right hand without any sensation, he began to practice plant medicine for a living, which indigenous shamans had taught him. He visited the US and Europe for practice. He initiated his own Peruvian retreat outside his hometown. Like any farmer of Amazon, he also looks after banana and cassava plants.

Rivas works using a diversity of plants and native tobacco’s smoke. He claims that he can cure spiritual and psychological ills, along with physical ailments, which include cancer, although some diseases, like tuberculosis, he accepts he can’t treat. He cautions against far-fetched expectations who claim that they can do magical cures. “Someone is missing an arm and thinks the shaman will give them an arm, or they’re blind and think the shaman can restore their sight,” he says.

However, the dull side of this boom says that a few ladies have reported of being assaulted in a sexual manner by shamans. This has resulted in more female-driven lodges. Ayahuasca lodges have witnessed no less than nine deaths in the previous years. As per reports as well as a member of staff in the Iquitos’ Ministry of Culture office, however, it is uncertain if any were specifically due to ingestion of ayahuasca. A few were caused in relation to other brews based on plants.

Iquitos’ tourism authorities shy away when questioned about the subject of deaths. Few tour administrators brush the hazards off, saying the sufferers were going through hidden medical problems or had mixed Ayahuasca with cocaine, marijuana, or antipsychotic or antidepressant prescription medications. According to Fotiou, that approach is wrong. “We need to figure out why these deaths happened,” she says. “If we want to prevent this from happening, minimizing it doesn’t help.”

Endeavors for regulating the ayahuasca industry include the launching of The Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council, an international organization, which is not-for-profit in 2013 for addressing the safety concerns, alongside stresses over the potential overharvesting of ayahuasca vines. However, the council was dispersed after two years when a few anthropologists started raising concerns, initiating arguments particularly concerning the council’s proposition for ayahuasca lodges certification which would, in turn, lead to more outsiders interfering in the traditional practices of indigenous people.

Early this year, a few lodge operators of Iquitos gathered to talk about the formation of the Ayahuasca Safety Association, that plans to promote health, labor standards, and health. This effort was in part a result of the international pressure after some deaths of a few higher-profile individuals. Recently, the association acquired legal status of a non-profit one and aims to draw members from all through the country, said the group’s president, Sascha Thier.

“The main goal of the association is to avoid any more tragedies,” says Thier. “Every single death that happened was preventable.” The issue is that “everybody can just come, open a center, and start pouring ayahuasca and have no idea what they’re doing … and nobody asks you about medical conditions, medications you’re taking, or anything like this. It’s just a disaster waiting to happen.”

The association has underlined “ethical, safety, and good-practice guidelines” which covers issues like preventing sexual abuse, participants’ financial exploitation, and transparency. They have also asked for procedures relating to emergency and safety and the revelation of the components utilized in the making of potions.

Another sensitive issue is if local people are receiving their share from this industry of tourism and if the traditional practice is being distorted by retreats of the tourists.

Most recent lodge owners belong to foreign countries and not indigenous who keep local shamans for carrying out ceremonies, says Thier. Often the lodges that fail belonged to local people with knowledge about plant medicine and no experience on tourism.

As noted by Fotiou, one positive result of the boom in ayahuasca tourism is that it is reviving attraction in traditional medicine based on plants among indigenous youth. “Until two or three decades ago, I would say that shamanism was dying, because it is a hard path. It takes a lot of sacrifices to become a shaman,” she says. Now, the jobs in the industry of tourism make that sacrifice appealing. foreigners, and tourists who move around the places where

Foreigners, and tourists who move around the places where
cultural traditions and tourism mix can have a better understanding of other individuals and themselves, says Bellstedt, the naturopath who was sitting with Kossmagk and his Jaguar while the rhythmic chanting and drumming created visions.
“It changed my life,” Bellstedt says of her first visit, which was in November 2015. “I can see the world with other eyes. I see that the problems we have aren’t real—they’re all in our mind.” She plans to lead others to that same realization. “I’m coming here to learn and to understand life and to help people,” she says. “I often ask myself what I’m doing here, but I know it’s right.”

-prepared by Harsimran Kaur of NewsGram. Twitter Hkaur1025