Globalhuasca: Reciprocity and Integration of Indigenous and Scientific Worldviews
Adam Andros Aronovich
Jordan May sheds light on the undeniable impact that the globalization of ayahuasca has on the communities and ecosystems of the Amazon in Globalhuasca: A Closer Look at the Global Ayahuasca Movement. As he points out, the commodification, commercialization, and globalization of ayahuasca are no longer philosophical issues to be pondered, but rather lived and felt realities that need to be pragmatically addressed.
To that end, this piece focuses on two different but correlated problems:
The possibility of working with ayahuasca and other forms of traditional plant medicine in a reciprocal way that steers away from colonial patterns of exploitation, resource extraction, and/or cultural appropriation
The fundamental asymmetry found between the various enchanted indigenous worldviews and the theoretical/ideological limitations of materialistic Western science
Concerns about the commodification and globalization of ayahuasca were some of the most pressing messages articulated at the second World Ayahuasca Conference, organized by the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research & Service (ICEERS) in the state of Acre, Brazil. Albeit using different words and tones, sometimes in different languages, most of the indigenous representatives at the conference in Rio Branco—as well as some academic and independent Western researchers—shared similar sentiments of anger, resignation, and ambivalence regarding the mainstreaming of their traditions into the popular Western mind.
However, and perhaps more importantly, they also expressed a hopeful desire to cooperate in the creation of a meaningful intercultural dialogue. Indigenous leaders were very much aligned with the view that medicine is to be shared and should be readily available for anyone with an honest wish to do the hard work needed for deep individual and collective healing—independent of ethnicity, nationality, or socioeconomic status, as long as it is done with respect for their traditions.
Respect is not only about acknowledging the importance of dietary and sexual restrictions, the ceremonial designs, ritual, song, or reciprocal relationships that provide a safe container for ayahuasca experiences. It also means being aware of scientific hubris, of acknowledging that it’s indigenous practitioners—not any of us scientists or researchers—who are the true “experts” of their own traditions.
No depth of ethnographic work or pharmacological analysis can compare to the expertise derived from being the heirs to ancient oral traditions, lived and embodied cosmologies passed down through lineages of medicine men and women, whose memory of interdependence and interspecies communication hasn’t succumbed to the crushing weight of our disenchanted mechanistic worldview.
Respect means acknowledging a metaphysical substrate, which still allows people to have their own connection with the transcendental, a validation of animism not as a primitive, inferior theology, but as the lived reality of people whose whole lives are spent embedded within layers and layers of sentient and intelligent plants, fungi, animals, and spirits.
Even if we don't necessarily share religious, spiritual, or mythological assumptions, are we able to reconcile between such seemingly different and antagonistic worldviews?
Can the scientific method ever align itself with the wishes of indigenous people to respect their cosmologies and practices, even when they sometimes fundamentally clash with a rational, materialistic, evidence-based science?
Can we transcend the deeply ingrained industrialist mythology that reduces the earth to a source of material resources to be grabbed, and benefit from ayahuasca without subverting the local environments, economies and cultures?
Scarcity and reciprocity
One of the main points stressed by indigenous leaders is that ayahuasca is one out of thousands of other botanical resources found in rich and diverse medical systems. Its ritual use is embedded within an enchanted worldview that ascribes agency and intelligence to the vegetal realm. Plants are not necessarily seen as sprouting pharmacies to be exploited by humans, but as conscious spirit-imbued sentient beings, masters of alchemy, with whom we can respectfully communicate.
As Westerners, heirs to our own materialistic, anthropocentric mythologies, it may make more sense for some of us to work in a reductive, molecule-based level. It is important, however, to be aware of the unanimous plight of the indigenous leaders, to respect their traditions, and at least make an effort to understand their worldview. From some perspectives, pharmahuascas or analogues of any kind will never be considered a proper “ayahuasca practice,” as using different plants would result in encounters with different spirits.
There is another way to address the problems of ayahuasca extraction and scarcity, one that is being explored by The Chaikuni Institute, a local, nonprofit organization partnered with one of the most successful retreat centers in the Peruvian amazon, the Temple of the Way of Light. This organization is currently experimenting with the cultivation of the slow-growing vine, with over 1,000 plants growing in their rainforest land. This initiative is one aspect of Chaikuni’s mission to implement equitable, inclusive, and abundant living systems inspired by both Western permaculture principles and indigenous philosophies based on reciprocity and interdependence.
Reciprocity is critical to consider at every level of engagement with ayahuasca, from the ceremonial space to the wider circles of social and environmental justice. There is a fundamental difference between the highly individualistic Western medical systems and the more collective-geared indigenous worldviews. From the perspective of Sumaq Kausai, nobody can be truly healthy unless we are all healthy. Nobody can really heal unless the rivers and forests are healed, too. Our individual traumas are inseparable from our social, cultural, and environmental traumas.
In order to address this particular problem, Chaikuni not only provides legal advice and other empowering services to the communities fighting on the front lines of ecological devastation brought about by oil companies, but has also put its dedicated team of forestal engineers, permaculture workers, and gardeners at the disposition of the surrounding communities in order to participate in communal projects and co-create sustainable income opportunities for local farmers, many of whom work for the Temple. Furthermore, both local workers and Amazonian indigenous students from the city of Iquitos are invited to attend ayahuasca ceremonies at the Temple for free.
Many of these students hail from ashuar, kichwa, awajún, and nine other Amazonian communities. Most of them have never drank ayahuasca before. In fact, many of them fear or outright dismiss it, buying into centuries of religious demonization and cultural devaluation of their own traditions. Besides including them in the activities of the center, it is an exciting opportunity to re-introduce this medicine to younger generations of indigenous communities who (as May writes in his article citing Langdon) tend to “increasingly adapt modern Western paradigms in order to avoid discrimination,” causing a sharp decline in the number of practitioners of traditional medicines. It will be interesting to see how this process unfolds over time, both in terms of the building up of their identities and their changing perceptions on medicine use.
Without a shadow of a doubt, there is always room for further healing the deeply patronizing and imperialist roots of Western presence in the Amazon. Yet there is something about the recent ayahuasca boom, and the kind of people that it brings to the jungle, that feels radically different to previous enterprises.
This new wave of foreigners settling down in the jungle are not necessarily the power-hungry and greed-driven entrepreneurs of the past—at least not all of them—but people who, having worked with medicine, and having incorporated the principles of interdependence and reciprocity into their worldviews, are genuinely and honestly interested in building sustainable and horizontal relationships with the locals, giving back to the communities that sustain their centers.