Shipibo Women Healers on the Challenges and Opportunities of the Ayahuasca Boom

By Adam Andros Aronovich|March 6, 2019

After the murder of a Peruvian healer in 2018, traditional healers, local political figures, and nonprofit allies gathered to address the complexities that come with the influx of foreigners seeking ayahuasca in the Amazon.

Lila Lopez-Sanchez at Temple of the Way of Light.

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Introduction by Sophia Rokhlin

On August 19, 2018 in the largely Shipibo 1 populated Amazonian town of Yarinacocha, nearly one hundred traditional healers, local political figures, and nonprofit allies gathered with the intention of addressing the complexities that come with the influx of foreigners seeking ayahuasca. The meeting resulted in the formation of a first of its kind ‘healers union’ – the Association of Shipibo-Konibo Traditional Medical Onayabo (Asociación de Onayabo Medico Ancestrales Shipibo-Konibo).

Onaya is a Shipibo term which refers to the traditional healers who work with oni, the Shipibo word for ayahuasca whose meaning is “knowledge” or “wisdom.” Onaya therefore translates to “the one who knows,” with the suffix –bo denoting plural. The terms onaya and onayabo were claimed by the union  instead of the more commonly used but inappropriate word “shaman.”

In the Declaration of Yarinacocha, members of the group voiced their concerns over several issues exacerbated with the ‘boom’ of ayahuasca visitors in the Amazon – namely, 1) the diminishing transmission of traditional knowledge to youth within indigenous communities, 2) the opportunities and dangers that come with increased foreign interest in so-called spiritual tourism and 3) the need for intercultural, collaborative efforts to support Shipibo cultural and economic sovereignty.

The declaration shines a light on the shadowy aspects of the ayahuasca boom: foreigners seeking personal healing from an exotic medicine and culture that tends to conveniently gloss over the lived political and economic realities of indigenous communities in the Amazon.

While this as a reality, it’s also worth considering the value in these intercultural exchanges. Visitors seeking healthcare and traditional knowledge from indigenous communities play a role in supporting traditional livelihoods of the Shipibo people with their contributions (financial and other), subsequently contributing to the  revitalization of their cultural identity, landscapes and practices.

Shipibo, Asháninka, and other communities in the region who make a living  from the ayahuasca-curious are offered an alternative to working for violent, extractive industries. Communities who remain in the forest often continue to play a vital role in protecting biodiversity and mitigating climate change. Meanwhile, ayahuasca centers can help to fund non-profit organizations like The Chaikuni Institute  who coordinate programs to support human rights, regenerative agriculture, and health projects in the Loreto region of Peru, or Alianza Arkana who works together with Shipibo communities to support reforestation, youth empowerment and women’s rights. Denouncing ayahuasca tourism altogether (see ‘Ayahuasca Tourism is Ripping off Indigenous Amazonians’ published by VICE) is a conveniently simplified  perspective which ignores the nuanced, dynamic reality for many.

While much has been written about the globalization and expansion of ayahuasca from a western perspective, very few indigenous voices have been given the stage. PhD candidate Adam Aronovich, medical anthropologist and research coordinator at the Temple of the Way of Light sat down with Shipibo onayabo Laura (56) and Lila Lopez Sanchez (46), members of the newly formed association, to discuss their perspectives on these issues. The conversation took place in Niwe Rao Xobo, a center owned and operated by the Lopez family near San Francisco de Yarinacocha in the Ucayali region of Peru.

Niwe Rao Xobo

Adam Aronovich: Niwe Rao Xobo is a medical center which offers diets with master plants to pasajeros 2 from all over the world. Ynes, the owner, is a renowned Shipiba curandera 3 – the two of you , her daughters (Lila and Laura), her son Jose all work here as onayabo, another son Denis runs the administration — it’s a family business. Why did you decide to build your maloka.4

Laura and Lila Lopez-Sanchez: We are family. For some time, we have seen that foreign pasajeros haven’t been given good attention. Some so-called “maestros” have been abusing the pasajeros, tricking them. Many work purely for profit and nothing more – they don’t want to share, they are stingy with their knowledge. Seeing many bad things happen, we have organized ourselves, only family, almost only women, to offer people good work.

Many “maestros” don’t know how to prepare their medicines well; sometimes, to make people have stronger mareacion 5 (dizziness caused by ayahuasca) or more visions, they mix in many other plants. But it’s not like that! Our ancestors used oni (B.caapi) and cawa (P. viridis) and nothing else – that is it! Today everything is changing, even the medicines. We all want to be “modern”, but sometimes that doesn’t turn out well. Many foreigners don’t even know how to manage their medicines well, some of them can act crazy – some have even died.

We were the ones who convinced our mother to build a maloka, to be able to work well and help people from all over the world, to share our wisdom and knowledge with a lot of love – the knowledge and wisdom of our ancestors, who were also medicos. Our ancestors gave us their energies, their knowledge. Our mother has her own teachers as well: this work is transmitted like a chain.

How long have you had this center, Niwe Rao Xobo?

We’ve been here for two years. Before that, we had another maloka in Bena Jema, not so far from here. We built it there when the town still wasn’t very populated, there wasn’t much light, the house was strange. We were there because my mother still didn’t have many economic resources, she didn’t have her ‘career’ made yet, but there we were, and foreign pasajeros were already coming to diet.

And apart from foreign pasajeros, did Shipibo people go to diet in Bena Jema as well?

No, no, no! We are not the only onaya of the Shipibo people, there are many of us, and everyone has their confianza, their trust– you know why? As a people, we Shipibo are very envious. When we do a diet, sometimes someone else comes and they pull it from you, they take it from you.

So when your mother had access to more economic resources, you built this center?

Little by little we put together the money. In the beginning, our mother traveled to do ceremonies in Europe. Our mother and Laura went abroad and sent money to buy this land and after that we started building this maloka. After that we all came together, the siblings who are healers, and began to work little by little. We built this center without the help of anyone, it was all the result of our own efforts.

Beyond working abroad, you all work a few months a year at the Temple of the Way of Light, helping in the workshops that the center offers.

Yes of course, that too, our work at the Temple has also helped us. We have also made agreements with the owner of the Temple, who helps get pasajeros to diet here in Niwe Rao Xobo. This has also helped.

Are there more medicine (ayahuasca) centers in this area? Are all of the owners Shipibo?

No! You don’t need to be Shipibo or even Peruvian to buy land here. Next to us there is a center owned by some Chileans who also bought their land….there they also have a medicine school where children learn their ancestral culture: Nii Juinti – ‘Heart of the Amazon.’

[Over there] there are more gringo centers. Here there are many! I don’t know how many there are, but I always see and hear that more people are coming, that they’re opening another center…

And with so many centers, are there rivalries?

We’re never short of envy! This is a reality amongst the Shipibo. In our center, we protect ourselves from envy, from bad energies. But we don’t harm anyone, and no one can do harm to us. We are not like that, it is not the way we learned. We have only learned to cure, and our diets help and heal people – most importantly, some who come with traumas. There are other onaya who fight between them, but we only protect.

A few months ago, there was a gathering of onayabo, called in to discuss some of the problems that Shipibo healers encounter today in relation to the growing interest from the West in ayahuasca and your medical practices. Can we talk about this a little?

The organization COSHIKOX put together this reunion this past month of August [2018]. Since then we’ve formed a new association of onayabo: every one of us is registered in the organization and has their documents. We did it because too many onaya have appeared recently, but some of them are false! They are only cheating and luring in the gringos.

One of the areas we discussed in the meeting was that all of the malokas must be registered, every center which has a maloka must be registered with the association. Why? For example, today people meet you directly at the airport and they say “Ah, you’re going where Maestro Mateo, or to Maestra Ynes? No, no! They are not going to cure you well! I will cure you better!” And that’s how they get you – and they take you in their car.

To have a record of the authorized centers is important for the wellbeing of us and the pasajeros. Because we are onaya, we cure, we work with the plants. Not anyone can manage the plants of the jungle, and sometimes foreigners who come to diet, take the medicine, they use them without really knowing how to.

Laura Lopez-Sanchez

These problems have already been going on for a while. Why did you decide to join together and act now?

You know why? Because sometimes foreigners also abuse us, and don’t respect the maestros, as with the case of maestra Olivia. This recent case is what really got the Shipibo organizations to rise up! Everybody has to know what happened, and also that there are other tourists who come here to Peru and do not respect us, who do not respect our medicines. Because for us, these medicines, the plants of the jungle, are too special, we respect them so much, so much! But some people who come here do not respect them, they use them merely to use them and nothing more, and we have to confront this situation.

How did you receive the news of the death of Olivia?

Sad. So sad. So many people who came to heal with her, and she was helping everyone…! It’s for this reason that the Shipibo are rising up!

In one of the first lines of the declaration, you say: “Understanding the repercussions of colonialism, of the state and western education, and the invasion of industrial systems in the communities who put in danger the ancestral practices and wisdom of the Shipibo-Konibo-Xetebo people…” How are your ancestral practices endangered?

It’s important that we don’t lose the history of our ancestors. It’s important that all of this isn’t lost, for the good of our sons and our daughters. Many Shipibos today don’t speak our language, they’ve lost our customs, our teachings, the apprenticeship … here in the city, the son of a Shipibo doesn’t know how to make his canoe, doesn’t even know how to make a wooden paddle, nothing that [we] used to do! They don’t know how to hunt, how to make their chacra 6, they don’t know how to make their crafts…all of this is already becoming lost!

The jungle is ‘westernizing’ very quickly.

Many of us now don’t live as we did before in our communities. The youth want to leave their communities and come to the city. They want to study! Here in the city there are opportunities to study, there’s a lot of technology, computers…nowadays all the teenagers are just texting, nothing more! They don’t know how to make a paddle or a canoe – now they only know technology and nothing else. This is why we’re losing so many things of our culture.

Some young Shipibo want to study in the city to be more competent in an increasingly Westernized society, and sometimes this implies they don’t learn how to make canoes. As mothers, which do you prefer? That your children would stay in communities to learn to hunt, fish and farm, or that they come to the cities to ‘be professionals’?

We want and have wanted our children to be professionals in the city. For the good of our children! But we also think that we shouldn’t lose our culture. And in this way, there are some youth that come to the city to study and want to leave behind their culture. They value their studies so much, as if it were their own culture. But not everybody. You know this very well – the Shipibo, we’re not just one person. We cannot force our children to stay in the communities and learn their culture, this depends on the individual young man or woman, the desire must be born in their heart, in their spirit. So, if they want to learn the medicine, that needs to be their gift.

There’s another part of the declaration that is interesting to me: “Recognizing the size and expansion that spiritual tourism has reached in Amazonian territories, recognizing also that the international interest brings opportunities, as well as dangers for the development of indigenous knowledge.” These opportunities are clear, like the creation of this very center, or the opportunities for work in the Temple [of the Way of Light], or the opportunity to travel to ceremonies in Europe. So what are the threats poised to the development of indigenous wisdom?

Some foreigners, when they’ve finished a few diets, they say they’re already maestros! They say they’re maestros, they put on their kushma or their skirt, and they take the medicines to their countries to cure, to work. But they don’t have that much knowledge, and they’re only going to fool their people! They are still lacking; sometimes tourists come and diet for a few months, no more.

But the diet of an onaya, to become a curandero and work with the medicine, you have to diet for at least one or two years. With diets of only five or six months or sometimes even less, you are not connected with the plants. Your body isn’t prepared to manage those levels of energy. Sometimes for this reason some foreigners lack respect for the medicine, they only do what they want, using the plants without respect, nothing more than using it. But it’s not like this – to work well with the plants, you have to diet a minimum of one or two years!

How can onayabo work together to resolve current conflicts in the Shipibo communities?

Onayabo must be connected to our communities to be able to help with the problems and all that they need. It’s important to be connected with this knowledge, in our community, the Shipibo – we’re not all onaya! – we have a word for this: akinananti.

What does akinananti mean?

You could say … be united, help each other, help each other in union! Everyone and each one of us! Sharing our knowledge with each other. For example, a community can have political problems, people fight, and there the onayabo must help, and sometimes we resolve these problems singing our ikaro.

For example, someone could come to this center and feel jealous of us. They think: “we want to take something from you.” So we, with our song, with our ikaro, we can block their thoughts so they don’t keep thinking that way.

It’s not like we don’t have illnesses in our communities too, there are people who have their daños, people to whom something bad has been done. Some don’t have resources, they can’t go work in their chacras. There are a few maestros that don’t want to help when someone asks for help and support, even when they come screaming.  Sometimes [the maestros] only want money, some maestos charge you 3,000-5,000 soles 7 ! Even though they don’t heal you, they’ll charge you 3,000 soles! We, on the other hand, when someone comes without resources, people who don’t have money, we help them with a lot of love! We work to heal them without compensation, free. In the past, our ancestors worked like that – they didn’t even ask for one sol, they didn’t charge people for their help.

An onaya also has to make a living. They have to eat.

Of course – there’s the akinananti. In the past, onayabo cured, and their patients paid voluntarily, depending on their possibilities. A person who had been cured would bring a chicken, a motelo,8 sometimes they’d pay with platanos, sometimes fish, if they had some change, sometimes they’d give it – good! For a while now, nothing has been free. Even if it’s within your own family, same! They’ll charge you! People don’t do any favors. This is how it is today everything is about money now.

Another point that the declaration suggested that onayabo should “focus on the transmission and the training of young Shipibos, especially in communities, prioritizing our actions in families and communities to counter the cultural appropriation by foreign apprentices.” Here in Niwe Rao Xobo, or in the Temple, or in Europe, you work almost exclusively with foreigners who bring you resources to continue building and expanding this center, to help pay for the studies of your children in the city…How could this idea be compatible with your actual reality?

It’s important that we focus on the transmission of knowledge, because right now [we] are losing these practices, these things… many onayabo now don’t want to help or even support without receiving money. With this new association, we think that we should continue in the path of our ancestors, with the way the ancient onayabo worked, who would help anyone that was suffering. This is the way we worked back home in our community, we give them their plant and they repaid us voluntarily. It was like this before! And we continue to bring this custom here, but in other centers, in other malokas, they work differently. But few people come to heal. Here where we live now, there isn’t really that lifestyle anymore.

At least from an economic perspective, for many Shipibo families it’s important that foreigners continue coming, wanting to learn about these medicines. What could be a solution for it to happen in a more reciprocal and conscious way, allowing onayabo to also work with youth in their communities? What would be a good mechanism for foreigners to embrace akinananti and really reciprocate with native communities?

Yes, this we’re going to think about more in the future. In the last meeting only onayabo who live nearby were present. For the next meeting, we’re going to organize for all the onayabo from all of the communities, and from there we’ll make our conclusions.

Regarding the theme of reciprocity, for now this depends on the individual will of the people: we don’t ask for it. But if they want to help, of course they can. Nobody is saying that gringos shouldn’t come and heal themselves and learn. This isn’t going to happen! They’re going to continue coming, and we will always give them good attention. Here we’re particularly helping a lot of women who come with a history of sexual abuse, including abuses by some curanderos. In this center we work predominantly with women, and for this reason they have more trust in us.

What does ‘cultural appropriation’ mean to you?

Sometimes foreigners come, they diet a little, and then they put on their kushma – if it’s a woman she puts on her skirt and they say that they’re curanderos, that they’re Shipibo. Later, they go to their countries, take our medicines to their cultures…but they’ll never work like us! They can’t connect to the plants like we can. Shipibos are the original masters of this knowledge, these medicinal plants belong to the Shipibo people. In our myths, we recount the origin of the ayahuasca tradition — it is here that it originated. We’re talking about that, how we can confront that: if we don’t try, little by little our culture is going to disappear, and it can end. That’s why we’ve formed the association of onayabo, to reach conclusions.

Sometimes people can become confused, somebody says something, another one says something else, they read something in a book or on the internet…some things are true, but not everything. That’s why people get confused, they don’t understand what’s real and what’s their illusion.

Here we don’t learn from books or computers, we are learning directly from the plants – from the root! And this is the medicine that we have, the medicine of our ancestors and our grandparents. From many plants, we’ve learned!

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Adam Andros Aronovich

Adam is a PhD candidate living in the Peruvian Amazon, working as research coordinator and workshop facilitator for the Temple of the Way of Light. In addition, he is an active member of the Medical Anthropology Research Center in Catalunya, Spain, and a member of the Ayahuasca Community Committee at He has written for various publications around the world.