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    Plant Medicine Sourcing in Changing Times


    (Ayahuasca Communities During a Pandemic Series | Part 3)

    This post is Part 3 in a series exploring the impact of the pandemic on ayahuasca communities (read Part 1 | Part 2). ICEERS seeks to support the community by providing a bird’s eye perspective on trends, movements, and the bridge between traditional practices and emerging ones. After the pandemic hit, we took the time to speak with a handful of individuals involved or are well acquainted with communities in Europe, North America, Central America and South America.

    All interviews were anonymous, therefore geographic details are left vague in order to preserve anonymity of those we spoke with. Our goal was to learn how ayahuasca communities are adapting in order to better inform our activities and to help the community gain perspective.


    Sourcing ayahuasca for international ceremonies

    The sudden interruption of almost all maritime, air, and land travel worldwide due to the pandemic has opened the door for many communities to reflect on interdependencies within a globalized world, particularly when it comes to “supply chains” for clothing, food, and plant medicines. One of the key impacts for communities that work with teacher plants (such as ayahuasca) outside of the Amazon has been the need to reconsider how they are procuring medicine for their ceremonies.

    Many ceremony leaders or facilitators have relationships with people in the Amazon who provide ayahuasca to them, usually sending it through the mail. Over the past few months, shipments from countries such as Brazil or Peru to Europe or the US have been paralyzed for various reasons. Through the interviews we conducted, we learned that even if shipments have been made, not all of them have been received.

    The question thus arises: how is this interruption in shipping affecting communities? While many of them paused ceremonies during times of lockdown or social distancing protocols in their given countries, as things start to reopen, the question of what medicine is available is of importance.

    There are also many questions arising about how people in Amazonian communities who depend on the income from sending ayahuasca internationally have been impacted. Some communities have responded by offering videoconference events by donation – sharing of teachings and songs – and more recently some centers are starting to offer distance healing with Shipibo onanyas (healers) or other ways to connect. We have compiled a list of crowdfunding campaigns where financial support can be sent to communities in the Amazon to support basic needs.

    We were not able to dive deeply into how people involved in harvesting and supplying ayahuasca have been impacted particularly because it did not seem like the appropriate moment to be interviewing people in the Amazon who are struggling for their very survival.

    The following represents some trends or considerations that we identified – they are a reflection and should not be seen as representative of all that may be happening globally. Our aim is to share what we’ve heard so that the community can engage in dialogue and deep thinking.


    Interconnection with the Amazon

    Facilitators with an ability to plan ahead expressed that they have the medicine they need for the short-term and currently are not concerned. One facilitator spoke about one package from the Amazon that didn’t arrive and another that arrived after a long delay. Another person shared that they are working with local communities in the Amazon to grow the medicine on several hectares of their property, and because they usually keep medicine on hand for one to two years’ worth of ceremonies, they are not worried at all.

    However, there are other cases in which ceremony organizers recognized that there may not be enough medicine to continue with the ceremonies with the same regularity as before the pandemic. Those we spoke with expressed vacillating between resignation and hope when facing this unpredictable future.

    One person from a European country shared: “We have a very big problem. Now you can’t go anywhere, and the countries in the [Amazonian] area are isolated. As soon as we can fly, I will go there, but things are very uncertain, and countries like Brazil and Peru especially are in bad shape in relation to the management of the pandemic.”

    A facilitator from the US said: “I trust plants and the universe, and I trust that when I really need the medicine it will come to me.” She continued: “I feel like the medicine opens the way, so it’s a matter of listening. I’m not so worried – things will unfold. I’m saying that as a possibility and a potential.”


    Trends towards use of other psychoactive plants

    Given the unpredictability with regards to how to ensure a consistent supply of ayahuasca to international communities, some communities are looking to other psychoactive plants. For example, in places like the Netherlands, where psychoactive mushrooms are legal, ceremony organizers explained that “because of the lack of ayahuasca sessions, many of the usual attendees are switching to taking mushrooms in their private spaces. In Holland it’s very easy to get them, and they’re popular and normalized among the population, so they have been using this medicine.”

    Someone from another corner of Europe told us they have three ayahuasca ceremonies left and following these, their plan is to work with San Pedro and Santa María, both of which grow well in their country and do not generate problems with the local authorities.

    “This has made us think about how nice it would be to recover knowledge of the plants and mushrooms that were used in Europe before the witch hunts, and which still grow abundantly: belladonna, mandrake, amanita, henbane, datura… We would like to find someone who knows about this lost knowledge, but we cannot find this person. Almost everything was lost…”

    In this community there is also a strong belief in moving towards de-commercialized system of working with plants. “With the arrival of business, the spirits were gradually retreating and the spirit of the plants is being lost. It is time to work with what we have around us,” they said.


    Sourcing through intermediaries

    We also identified a subset of ceremony organizers who do not engage in direct trade with people in the Amazon Basin. One facilitator, for example, shared that where she lives in Europe it is very easy to purchase Banisteriopsis caapi and Chakruna viridis plant material. They spoke to how it is not common for communities to import brew cooked in the Amazon, let alone go there personally to get it. The groups working with ayahuasca in her community either cook their own medicine or purchase concoctions made by others.

    In this case, although communities are sharing medicine, currently those who are not cooking ayahuasca themselves are facing more challenges.

    One facilitator shared that they have been working with anahuasca made with Syrian Rue for a long time. Anahuasca, or ayahuasca-analog, is a blanket term used to describe any combination of compounds other than Banisteriopsis caapi and Chakruna viridis that contain MAOIs and DMT, needed to produce ayahuasca-like effects when ingested orally.

    This individual shared, “The ayahuasca communities are more concerned than the anahuasca communities [about sourcing]. In general, people who work within the traditional school suffer more from this restriction.”


    Predicting an unpredictable future

    The momentary pause, or slowing down of “business as usual” for ayahuasca communities presents a tremendous opportunity for re-imagining what it means for plant medicines to travel the globe, to cross borders, and to be used in places far from their origins.

    Through our conversations with facilitators from several international communities, we have gotten a glimpse into how people are starting to reflect more deeply on the impacts of the where these plants come from and the sustainability of their cultural and biological ecosystems. Growing interest in healing practices with plants, such as peyote, iboga, and ayahuasca is putting pressure on their sustainability.

    Rising demands in Western countries is having an impact on accessibility for local use by indigenous communities, who are witnessing the harvesting of plants at a higher rate than is ideal for healthy regeneration.

    If this is a moment for reinvention, what is the path forward when it comes to sustainable, ethical sourcing of plant medicines that support reciprocity with traditional communities? For some, it may be that they look to alternative medicines that are more easily accessible and for which sustainability is not an issue. For others, it may be that their interest in understanding where the plants that go into their medicine come from, who benefits from their harvest, and ensuring that indigenous people are consultant and also reap the benefits of internationalization.

    Therefore, perhaps this crisis can motivate reflection about the sustainability of our practices and the weaving networks of solidarity between diverse ayahuasca communities in the Amazon Basin and around the world.

    More on this topic: Part 1 | Part 2

    Image: “Psychotria viridis (folhas),” by CostaPPPRSource: Wikimedia Commons.

    Categories: NEWS
    Tags: ayahuasca , community , pandemic