Growers, foragers, and distributors discuss the excessive levels of harvesting ayahuasca and what it means for the future of this sacred medicine.

Over-harvesting ayahuasca is putting the sustainability of the medicine, the communities, and several branches of industry in question.

The signs that wild ayahuasca is being overexploited for the global market are evident, according to the main players of this industry. “Wild ayahuasca is being depleted.” “There is almost none.” “Over harvested.” “We are worried.” “There is a shortage.” “You don’t find thick ayahuasca anymore.” “In a couple of years there won’t be any there.” Gatherers, intermediaries, processors and exporters based in Iquitos, the capital of the Peruvian jungle, or in the indigenous communities near Pucallpa, the other major production center, are in agreement about the overexploitation of wild ayahuasca. They say the vine has disappeared from the surroundings of numerous villages and from accessible areas of the forest, gatherers have to go further and further to get it, traded specimens are younger/thinner, and the price has multiplied by four in the last five years. This article examines the concerning terrain of ayahuasca harvesting by talking with key players in the industry.

Commercial war

The vine is no longer found where it was once abundant. They have to go further and further.

The Dutchman based in Iquitos Bowie van der Kroon, one of the first people who dedicated himself to the business of exporting ayahuasca, warns that if the extraction continues at this rhythm “this product won’t be available” in the near future. Van der Kroon processes about a ton of ayahuasca per month. Despite the increase of competitors, his business continues to grow, and so do the consequences: the vine is no longer found where it was once abundant.

“They have to go further and further. They find new places in the rivers, empty them and go to the next lot. When I came here there were a few people who were dedicated to this, and there were very few lodges, so I could easily find my products nearby. You won’t find anything near here right now. It’s hard to find.” Since 2013, the prices he pays have multiplied by four, from 1.50 soles per kilo to 6 soles. “It’s already a commercial war,” he says. “Now only those who pay more can get it.”

Around Iquitos there are at least seventy lodges or retreat centers that offer “traditional treatments” to foreigners. They cost an average of $1,000 for one week with several ayahuasca ceremonies. Some of the visiting foreigners stay in Iquitos to learn shamanism and when they return to their country they need ayahuasca to conduct ceremonies; it is also needed by the many local ayahuasqueros who travel throughout the world sharing their knowledge, songs, and services. It is thanks to the work of Van der Kroon and other processors, such as Jenny Torres or Elizabeth Bardales, that tens of thousands of people experience ayahuasca around the world every year.

Ayahuasca Ceremony
Justina Serrano, shamaness of Arakana Spiritual Center, during a ceremony. Photo: Carlos Suárez Álvarez

Ayahuasca Goes Boom

“With every passing day these plants are disappearing, there is a shortage,” says Elizabeth Bardales, owner of Natural Chacruna, a company dedicated to the processing of medicinal plants. “They never brought to us thin ayahuasca, before they only brought thick ones, we used to just work with that.” The thickness, related to the age, is one of the variables that determine the quality of the resulting medicine. And although the vines are thinner, prices have not stopped rising: in 2013 Bardales paid 1 sol per kilo, now she is paying 6 or 7 soles.

Bardales started her business with a modest showcase in the Paquito passage, at the heart of the Belén market. “Our customers are the ayahuasca tourists”, she explains. Two decades later, she has just built a three-story building with modern equipment that includes an industrial kitchen to convert liquid ayahuasca into a solid paste. She sells it in the form of “bricks”, which has become popular since Serpost, the Peruvian postal company, prohibited the shipment of liquid ayahuasca in bottles, because the liquid fermented, created gas and exploded, spilling over other shipments. A number of small and medium processors and exporters pay Bardales to provide them with the solidification service.

From Iquitos to Pucallpa

The raw material that feeds this dynamic industry is channeled from further and further: Ucayali, Marañón and Napo––the three great rivers that, when joining near Iquitos, make up the Amazon––are water highways that connect the most remote places of the Peruvian Amazon. Connected to these waterways, Jenny Torres has become the biggest ayahuasca dealer in the region.

Up to two tons of ayahuasca, usually harvested wild, arrive every month at her store in the Paquito passage. She resells it fresh to lodges and processors, or she processes it herself and sells it either crushed, in liquid or, most of all, in the solid brick form. Torres says that in recent years the production for Iquitos remains stable while “the solid extracts business for export is expanding”. She produces 40 kilos of bricks per month.

In her first years of activity, the ayahuasca that Torres processed came from the Napo and the Marañón basins traditionally linked to Iquitos. But now, says Torres, “there are times that there is not enough. It is harder to get ayahuasca than before.” The solution is to go further: five days and five nights of river navigation, up to lake Imiría, beyond Pucallpa, in the Upper Ucayali, where ayahuasca is still abundant in a “natural” state.

Villages Out of Medicine

“It’s hard for me to get it. With every passing day it looks more like there’s no ayahuasca.”

Keymer Noriega, 24, is a Shipibo ayahuasca processor from Limonjema, a native community on the banks of the Ucayali. Since 2013 he has been preparing the remedy for exportation. He has clients in the United States, Spain, and Costa Rica (countries where many ayahuasca ceremonies take place). Currently, Noriega exports fifteen kilos of solid ayahuasca per month. He pays 8 soles per kilo of ayahuasca; when he started, six years ago, he paid 1.50 soles.

Not only have prices changed, the origin of the vine has changed too. “I used to buy in my village or in nearby villages,” Noriega recalls, “but I bought everything that was there.” Now he goes to the resellers of Pucallpa: “They bring it from Imiría where there is a lot and it is wild.” Noriega declares himself “worried.” “It’s hard for me to get it. With every passing day it looks more like there’s no ayahuasca.”

In 2016, the Shipibo Segundo Rengifo, who cooked the brew for a famous lodge in Iquitos, used to travel monthly to Imiría to personally buy from the gatherers. Between 2013 and 2016 the price of raw ayahuasca doubled. “Now it is not near, but far away,” Rengifo explained. “Many people gather it and foreigners also look for it and there is almost no ayahuasca anymore.” Regarding the increase in prices, and in addition to the difficulty of finding the plants, he pointed out another factor: “The people who gather have realized the importance of business and charge us more.”

In his article Ayahuasca Vine Harvesting in the Peruvian Amazon, Chris Kilham reports an intense extractive activity in Imiría, where large reserves of wild ayahuasca still exist. However, in one of the villages of the lake, Caimito, a villager told him that “there used to be plenty of ayahuasca around Caimito, but most of it was harvested and sold.”

In the nearby village of Junín Pablo, Kilham met a group of researchers focused on the sustainability of ayahuasca extraction: “According to the four”, writes Kilham, “in 2017, they plotted several plots of forest 2-3 hectares in size around Lago Imiría, and tagged a number of ayahuasca vines in those plots. This year, they returned to record the vines’ size and growth. When they revisited the plots, the team discovered a high level of harvesting. More tagged vines were gone than remained”.

An Invitation to Plant

The players of this commercial activity are aware of its negative impact on the ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi. Van der Kroon has mixed feelings: he arrived in Iquitos with a problem of drug addiction and found healing thanks to ayahuasca: “Everyone has the right to experience this medicine,” he argues. He asks the suppliers to plant ayahuasca, something that he did on his farm, with bitter success: he was robbed once the plants were mature.

To all the suppliers we say: “Please, plant. It is not an inexhaustible source.”

Elizabeth Bardales, owner of Natural Chacruna, asks for a “change of mentality”: “If we don’t plant ayahuasca, it will be super expensive, we will consume very thin vines, and eventually it will disappear. To all the suppliers we say: ‘Please, plant’”. And she concludes: “It is not an inexhaustible source.”

But there is a cultural gap between the call of Van der Kroon and Bardales and the dynamics of the local villages, which are traditionally dedicated to annual maturation crops for self-consumption, while an ayahuasca plantation is a monoculture that requires a long productive cycle and market orientation. For that reason most of the plantations around Iquitos are in the hands of foreigners.

Planting to Give Back

In the three years that José Sáenz has been the owner and manager of the Arkana Spiritual Center, he has noticed a decrease in the quality of the vines. “They are younger, of lower quality, and the price is going up, indicating there is a real shortage due to the proliferation of the centers.” There are approximately 70 ayahuasca centers currently operating around Iquitos for international clients.

The shamans who work in Arkana are Shipibos from the Pisqui River, near Pucallpa, and they are also aware of the overexploitation. “In the past, in our community we went to the forest and found ayahuasca,” says the onanya ‘sage’ César Pérez. “But now the wild ayahuasca is running out because there are many people who work with the medicine, there are foreigners working with ayahuasca.” And he warns: “We know that in the future the medicine will disappear if we don’t plant. Then, what are we going to work with?”

“We know that in the future the medicine will disappear if we don’t plant. Then, what are we going to work with?”

“It is an ethical and moral responsibility to do something. We cannot simply harvest and harvest vines with the illusion that it is an endless resource”, says Sáenz. To address the problem, he initiated an ambitious planting plan in Vencedor, the village where the shamans of Arkana come from. The community gave fifty hectares of land to Sáenz to plant ayahuasca. A group of villagers are paid to maintain and expand the plantation that will supply for Arkana in the future.

The Temple of the Way of Light, another lodge near Iquitos, has developed the Ayahuasca Ayni project: sowing thousands of ayahuasca and chacruna plants with the objective to be self-sustainable. In the words of Debbie Rivett, manager of the Temple: “One of the pillars of how we work here is reciprocity, and so as we have received so much from this medicine, the most important way to give back is by replanting, making sure that we give back to the medicine”. 

Insufficient Production

Currently, the contribution of plantations to the total of processed ayahuasca is minimal. An example of this insufficiency is represented by the case of Abraham Guevara, who has one of the largest plantations around Iquitos. Married to a local, Guevara arrived from the Andes in the eighties. He lives near where the Mazán river flows into the Napo, a basin from which ayahuasca has been harvested to supply for the business. “Around here there were fifty year old thick ayahuascas, but today you don’t find that kind of ayahuasca anymore.”

His plantation has several thousands of specimens but, despite his dedication, the production is not enough to meet the demand.

Guevara recalls that, for years, different dealers traveled the Napo by boat, from one community to the next one, in search of thick specimens. “In 2000, I already had some ayahuasca that my children sold to buy their notebooks and candies. They got 15 soles or 20 soles per sack [approximately 30 kilos] and they were happy. “We didn’t give it any importance,” Guevara said. By 2010 ayahuasca trade intensified and, thanks to the suggestion of an exporter, Guevara started to plant systematically; today his plantation has several thousands of specimens but, despite his dedication, the production is not enough to meet the demand of his main and almost only client, Elizabeth Bardales.

Bonanza

There has never been more ayahuasca for sale than now, which has a disturbing consequence: overexploitation. It is not the first time that the systematic extraction of a natural resource to supply for the global market takes place in the Amazon. These so-called bonanzas began right after the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century and were intensified in the nineteenth century when steam engines allowed boats to easily reach the entire Amazon basin. Thus cinchona tree and sarsaparilla were decimated for their medicinal properties, turtles and manatees for their meat and fat, jaguars and alligators for their skins, cedars and mahogany for wood. Will this also be the fate of Banisteriopsis caapi?

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Carlos Suárez Álvarez
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