Considerations for Engaging with Amazonian Ancestral Practices, People, and Places

By Niki Sylva|March 28, 2019

If we truly believe in the positive transformational power of visionary plant experiences, we must support each other to make real social change happen, less this transformation stagnates at the individual level.

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In August 2018, Coshikox, a collective organization of Shipibo-Konibo and Xetebo peoples, gathered in Yarinacocha, Peru to discuss their concerns about the effects of foreigners’ encroachment in the Amazon.

Shipibo-speaking attendees, whose traditional plant medicine practices include use of visionary plants and brews such as ayahuasca, voiced concerns and ways to take action to protect their cultural heritage and ways of life.

The gathering resulted in the creation of an 8-point declaration consisting of steps to improve awareness and encourage action to ensure that these groups retain their rights to their land and maintain authority to carry forward the practices of their ancestors. (See original Spanish version here).

A summary of the points of the declaration:

    • Indigenous peoples’ struggles for sovereignty cannot be separated from the work of healing; everyone who is engaging with these ancestral practices is asked to be aware of this and to “contribute to the struggle for cultural, economic and social self-determination.”
    • Knowledge of plant medicine and healing practices are “anti-colonialist in nature and must be fortified as a form of resistance.
    • The coalition is asserting the identity of indigenous practitioners of healing as “onanya” meaning the one who knows.” The words “shaman” and “shamanism” are imported terms that “do not apply historically to our culture.”
    • There is concern about “cultural appropriation” and the training of foreign apprentices, specifically because this diverts elders’ resources away from indigenous youth, whose economic circumstances put them at a comparable disadvantage to be able to commit to apprenticeships.
    • Declarants are asking for more resources from visitors who engage with Amazonian ancestral healing practices to be directed to support indigenous youth. They will investigate a mechanism by which foreigners can make direct contributions towards this goal. Specifically, they would like to finance a school for young people to be educated in “plant medicine, politics, and art as well as in digital, vegetal and spiritual technologies.”

The catalyst for the gathering was the murder of Maestra Olivia Arévalo Lomas, an 81-year old grandmother and well-respected onanya, by a Canadian tourist in April of 2018.

Killings and death threats are not a new occurrence for indigenous people who are outspoken or choose to defend their land against dominant extractive forces, such as the palm oil industry, in the case of communities in the Upper Amazon.  

However, for communities already burdened by having to resist material extraction from their territories, these additional concerns about “spiritual extractivism” have necessitated action to address these newer repercussions.

In the case of “spiritual extractivism,” ancestral knowledge is what is being separated from the people and places that have stewarded its development.

The notion of “taking” may not sit well with sincere seekers who consider themselves to have made fair exchanges for healing experiences. The reality is far more complex, however, and we must take into account the greater context, in which communities in the Global South have found themselves facing a sudden surge in tourism from the Global North.

If you have a passport, and the ability to get on a plane and fly across international borders, you hold significant power in comparison with people living in impoverished or subsistence contexts. These dynamics have real effects on intercultural interactions, even if not explicitly discussed.

People with good intentions cannot simply ignore the impact of their actions. For those of us who have engaged in or are considering “spiritual tourism” to South America (or any other place) in order to have experiences with visionary plants or fungi, we should ask ourselves some questions about how we can incorporate what we are being implored by indigenous groups to consider.

    • Is collective healing really happening when we leave without understanding or acknowledging the daily lived reality of indigenous people’s struggles for sovereignty and their resistance to the economic forces irrevocably altering which knowledge and practices remain viable to pass down?
    • What does true reciprocity look like? How can we be responsible and accountable to indigenous people who have voiced concern about our effects on their communities and cultures? How can we reduce harmful impact?
    • How can we include indigenous voices and perspectives in the discourse that happens in our Western ayahuasca-using communities, at our gatherings and conferences, and in our publications? How can we prioritize these perspectives even when we have not made it possible for indigenous people to be present?

We must all be in dialogue within our communities, and more directly with indigenous people, to see what actions should (and should not) be taken. We must continue to think critically about the realities imposed by coercive imperialist/capitalist forces around the world and how our actions and inactions facilitate and enable the suffering of other beings.  

Commenting on the importance of this, Kathleen Harrison, Founder and Director of Botanical Dimensions told me, “A landscape and its layers — ecological, cultural, and spiritual —are a richly woven fabric when intact, alive. Yet when indigenous knowledge is broken or displaced, the whole pattern frays. These medicines we now cherish hold the very question, if we dare look: What is the true cost of soothing our own fevers?”

We who benefit now from the sacrifices made by the ancestors of other cultural groups to preserve their knowledge and traditions, and whose descendants continue to hold this knowledge under duress, can take it upon ourselves to actively seek out real and meaningful ways to be in reciprocity with indigenous people. And we can also make choices to disengage in contexts in which we are uncertain of what harm may be caused.

If we truly believe in the positive transformational power of visionary plant experiences, we must support each other to make real social change happen, less this transformation stagnates at the individual level.

There are no easy answers. But we also cannot cover our ears to mute the voices of people who are asking to be heard. It’s time to listen. 

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Niki Sylva

Niki Sylva is passionate about empowerment through information resourcing and harm reduction for individuals, communities, and the environment. She facilitates peer integration circles in her community and coordinates educational programming for Botanical Dimensions Ethnobotany Library. She is caretaker of The Understory, an online resource for integrating psychedelic worldviews grounded in community and ecology. She can often be found on a hike or playing guitar.