When I first flew above the Amazon, I admired a solid sea of canopies that reached from one horizon to the other and I had the sense that the vast rainforest is not as fragile as people say. During over a decade of regular visits to the area, I discovered it is much more vulnerable than we think.
I am an economist by education and an environmentalist by profession, and I advocate for the transition to a circular economy and global equity. I spent years in the rainforest exploring plant medicine knowledge. To my mind, the magic of visionary plants like ayahuasca resides in their ability to teach deep ecological and healing knowledge. As ayahuasca becomes but another global treasure from the Indigenous rainforest, we are presented with a very special opportunity to mend some major mistakes of the past.
Ayahuasca offers a path that can shape an environmentally healthier world that is rooted in social justice. But only if we are willing to see it. This article offers perspectives for heading in this direction.
The hardwood of the rainforest still commands vertiginous prices on global markets. It is hard precisely because it grows slowly. It takes such tree at least a hundred years to reach felling height. That’s one or two human generations. Large trees are also their own ecosystems. When we fell such tree, we destroy four different habitats: the canopy, the understorey, the trunk, and the forest floor around the roots.
Many of those trees have healing properties. By some measures there are eighty thousand different species of plants in the Amazon rainforest. Anthropologists say that it is common among indigenous lore to hear that recipes for the medicine plant brews, such as ayahuasca, were first learnt by Indigenous Amazonian shamans in altered states of consciousness. Ayahuasca and similar plants are often called teachers and they are communicated with by a shaman when he or she diets with the particular plant. Non-indigenous people have only recently begun to start understanding the role of teacher plant dietas in such learning processes.
Twelve years ago, I began undergoing lengthy shamanic plant dieting processes. My experience and learning with ayahuasca included over 30 teacher plant dietas. To my mind, the plant teachers are not teaching me just about healing properties of plants, but mainly about healing processes in general, sources of illnesses, intergenerational transmission of experiences, connection between different realities, and universal laws of nature. Plant dietas open the door to a rainforest university, which—similar to our universities—requires years of study and discipline. It has different levels of knowledge, exams to pass, and different specializations. The plant dieta discipline builds the connection with teachers in other realities who become indispensable guides during specific healing process, and who share details about the preparation and use of healing plants.
Indigenous people of the Amazon have developed a complex and rich pharmacopeia of healing plants, and they say they achieved this through shamanic dieting. Botanists have relied on Indigenous medicine specialists who have developed and managed to maintain their knowledge to the present day. The key to understanding the plants lies with the inhabitants of the jungle.
Trees and other plants possess symbolic and tangible spiritual meaning for Indigenous cultures. They are a precious source of knowledge from which they knit their very being, their explanations of the world, and their understanding of the physical and spiritual existence.
Indigenous communities of the Amazon still understand nature as the source of the planet’s life force—a force that permeates everything and enables and supports life. It’s not only the diversity of flora and fauna. It’s described as a more general energy that flows in different forms and different ways. Growing and maintaining this energy is possible in certain spaces of nature. Such spaces became sacred places, and they are carefully protected. The more such places there are, the more biodiversity there is and the greater the force. The more we destroy, the more we threaten biodiversity and the weaker the life force becomes.
Some plants and places make it easier to transition to altered states of consciousness. By learning how to use them, Indigenous cultures are able to access what may be called a kind of organic internet of the forest. By this, I mean, shamans access a terrain of information linked to the environment. Journeys into these states are said to enable communication with different spiritual entities and flows of energy which are perceived as just as much a part of everything as we are. This includes perceptions of how human actions and decisions affect each other, and the perspectives operate in a way that is very foreign to materialistic culture and thinking.
This is one of the reasons why indigenous communities are closely connected with their territories and environment. Forcing them to move is like removing the floor underneath their existence in a physical, cultural, and spiritual sense.
Unfortunately, in their rainforests hide economically valuable water springs, precious ores, and oil. Vast expanses of the Amazon became target of businesses sacrificing its incredible biodiversity and Indigenous cultures with their knowledge and sacred spaces for the lust for ever greater profit, ever greater GDP. Rainforests have become doomed by the very treasures they possess. Since 1950, humans have managed to destroy more than half of all tropical rainforests. With its disappearance, we are losing more than just incredible biodiversity. We are losing Indigenous knowledge, potential healing methods, different worldviews, and special connections with nature.
When local and Indigenous people stand in opposition to this destruction and greed, all too often they pay with their lives.
Global Witness is an NGO which publishes annual reports about killed environmental activists on a global level. In their 2017 report, “At What Cost?”, they counted 201 murders—about four every week—with Latin America accounting for almost 60 percent. Brazil recorded the most killings of any country with 57 people killed, 80 percent of them while protecting the natural riches of the Amazon. Indigenous people remain massively overrepresented with 25 percent of total defenders killed. Most of the killings were connected to agribusiness (40), mining and extractives (40), followed by poaching and logging (23 each). Murders are only the tip of an iceberg. In only one attack by Brazilian farmers, 22 Gamela indigenous people were severely injured, some with their hands cut off.
Indigenous cultures represent only 5 percent of world population. According to UN Food and Agriculture Organization, they guard 80 percent of planet’s biodiversity. By contrast, the rest of world’s 95 percent population manged to destroy over 50 percent of tropical rainforest in the last 60 years and decrease big-fish stocks by 90 percent. In less than 50 years, the population sizes of world vertebrates dropped well over half. Over 40 percent of insect species are declining and a third are endangered. The total mass of insects is falling by 2.5 percent a year and could vanish within a century.
We’ve only come to understand that we live on a planet with limited resources now that several of them have all but disappeared. Capitalism and consumerism depend on materialism and an assumption of infinite growth. In a world of limited resources, infinite growth is not possible, and both capitalism and consumerism are doomed to collapse. That is why change is inevitable. It will not be merely cosmetic. It will reach the very roots of our awareness, culture, and spirituality.
On the contrast, Indigenous cultures often see themselves as guardians of the planet. They are aware of the life force and of the role of biodiversity and sacred places in weaving the net through which it flows. They have 80 percent of world biodiversity on their territories to prove their understanding is far more sustainable than ours.
The harmony between humanity and nature could only be achieved by first establishing harmony between people themselves. One of the first steps is to acknowledge difference and diversity in all its many forms as a shared treasure. Integral to this is recognizing the role of Indigenous cultures on all continents and finally bringing them in from the periphery. Diversity can only enrich us once we fully respect and accept it.
Western civilization’s attitudes toward Indigenous cultures are, even today, often prejudiced and negative. Methods and terminologies of the age of colonization were adopted by modern economies spreading their influence into places with abundant natural resources, weak regulatory legislation, and a cheap workforce. Even the meaning of the word “civilization” reflects this. In its original definition, it means to civilize the uncivilized, and is inescapably tied to imperialism and colonialism. Today, Indigenous communities remain caught in the crossfire between the interests of global economies, corporations, and the major world religions.
Despite all this, I remain optimistic for at least one significant reason. I have the sense that in the last few decades, people around the world are becoming more aware and are coming to understand the impact that their ways of life are having on the planet. We live in a time of globalization—the only moment of recent history when we are becoming interconnected on a planetary level. This presents many challenges but also opportunities. Among the greatest of those opportunities are modern communication and social networks. Differing groups of people can easily come into contact with one another. On the global level, we are seeing movements that are slowly but surely changing economic, political, and educational systems.
Global connectedness has the effect of tearing down dams on a river, and this is important for another reason. Fear and mistrust are easiest to manufacture through the manipulation and withholding of information and knowledge—one of the historically most widespread tactics of political, economic, or religious elites. A connected world vitiates these tactics. Connectedness gives us an important gift as well—the understanding that the diversity of perspectives, ways of thinking, cultures, religions, and spiritual practices is a treasure to us all and not a threat to another.
Ayahuasca and the West
There are probably several reasons why ayahuasca has rapidly expanded into the Western world. An increasing number of studies constantly confirm its therapeutic benefits— helping with our peculiar, modern mental illnesses—when used in proper set and setting. But if we check recent history, we may also notice that Indigenous knowledge and culture, and the extraction of natural resources from their territories, have always benefited the Western world and usually left Indigenous cultures without much or any compensation. What they have left with, instead, is destruction of their living space and environment, and further deterioration of their culture. Incentives of financial compensation from pharmaceutical companies for indigenous medicine recipes have appeared in some rare cases, but as far as I know, none have been implemented.
Ayahuasca may be one of the last tokens Indigenous cultures can still redeem.
Growing numbers of people from Western world who have met or are seeking ayahuasca may raise the value of this token. If every person who benefits from ayahuasca or any other Indigenous knowledge would also become informed about pressing issues of Indigenous communities and their cultures, the tide of awareness would grow high enough to start a significant change. The eyes of many could then be more likely to watch over the decisions made in Brazil, Honduras, US, Canada, Sudan, Congo, Philippines, Australia, etc. This tide should then demand integrity of Indigenous territories, respect of their culture, and support for their sovereignty to decide about their lives and their future.
Unfortunately, Indigenous cultures are struggling with many pressing issues. The fact that they represent 5 percent of world population and have almost no political power is the reason why they may not solve those issues on their own. They need, for instance in the case of ayahuasca, a responsible global ayahuasca network which is able to put aside its own quarrels about who knows most and what’s the best way to approach ayahuasca and unite in support of the challenge for Indigenous cultures. Every single one of us can help by being informed, informing others, donating to NGOs, demanding and influencing political change, and ensuring the use of sustainably grown plants. If not, then ayahuasca will prove to be just another looting of Indigenous knowledge and culture.
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