The Secrets of Native Tea
Last October Rio Branco, the capital of the state of Acre, hosted the Second World Ayahuasca Conference. Experts from 40 different countries discussed the shamanic drink of indigenous origins. Psychologists and anthropologists from Brazilian universities debated the pharmaceutical, biochemical, sociological, and religious qualities of the plant.
Ayahuasca tea is a combination of two plant species: Banisteriopsis caapi (the ayahuasca vine) and Psychotria Viridis, or chacruna. Officially classified as a hallucinogen, ayahuasca induces a peculiar altered state that, according to those who consume it, assists in self-reflection and insight. It also causes visual imagery even if the eyes are closed. Users claim that ayahuasca takes them to a mental level that facilitates self-development. In addition to the tea, users often fast as a way to induce the body into having more visions.
For centuries, the drink has been used by indigenous populations for its shamanic qualities. In the 1930s, it began to spread outside of indigenous communities through a religion known as Santo Daime. The religion was founded in the 1930s and blends Catholicism, African traditions, and the trance communications with spirits popularized in the 19th century by Allan Kardec. There are now an estimated 35,000 regular drinkers of ayahuasca tea in Brazil.
The tea is thought to bring knowledge directly from God and is central to the spiritual practices of several Amazonian tribes. The Yawanawa, a tribe of 1400 people on the border between Brazil and Peru, only came into regular contact with other Brazilians when rubber farmers ventured north in search of land and free labor. For centuries Yawanawa leaders would turn to the tea and the visions it produces for answers on everything from illness to politics. A shaman would drink the tea and touch the forehead of other village men, relaying the messages he received from God through the hallucinations. While tobacco and pepper were also thought to have mystical properties, ayahuasca was said to transport people to another world.
The herbal tea, made by combining a rare vine and shrub found in the thick of the Amazon, has become the “it” drug for celebrities like Sting and Lindsay Lohan, who rave about its spiritual properties. But for the Amazonian tribes that have used ayahuasca for 5,000 years to communicate with God on matters ranging from politics to medicine, the trend is dangerous. Sudden local and international demand for the brew has put the ayahuasca vine used to make the tea at risk of eradication in parts of Peru, and tripled its price in the last seven years to U$250 a liter.
The vine is almost impossible to plant, as it only thrives in the thick of the jungle and takes four years to grow, so the natural reserves are limited. From Brooklyn to Australia, there’s a growing demand for ayahuasca. But, like any globalization fairy tale, the world’s embrace is threatening to suffocate the tradition at its source. “The sacred art of Indians has been transformed into entertainment,” said Moises Pianko, a member of the Ashaninka tribe of northern Brazil.
The ayahuasca tourism industry says the globalization trend is good. An estimated 40 therapeutic retreats around the world now specialize in ayahuasca, according to Carlos Suarez, an independent researcher who writes about economic development and cultural change in the Amazon. These centers host more than 4,000 people a year and charge up to U$400 a night. Some also offer mud baths, yoga sessions, and excursions to Machu Picchu.
“If there is a problem with ayahuasca, it will be banned, it will be condemned, and what’s going to happen to us indigenous people?” said Jose de Lima of the Kaxinawa tribe. “Imagine if our medicine is banned? Are we going to have to rely on a pharmacy? No, we want to rely on our living pharmacy, the forest.” Some researchers see the global commercialization of ayahuasca as inevitable and think the tribes should focus on getting a cut of the profits.
Recently, ayahuasca has found a new purpose – curing drug addiction. Every couple of weeks, Everson do Santos relives the worst day of his life. In 2003, under a crack-induced haze, he shot a man dead in a botched robbery attempt. He served six years in prison but relapsed upon his release and spent two years homeless, wandering the streets as a crack addict. Now, three years sober, Everson coaches 70 recovering crack and cocaine addicts at a rehabilitation center in Rio Branco using an unorthodox method he says saved his life.
The Caminho da Luz Center gives patients daily doses of ayahuasca. The center is an offshoot of the União do Vegetal, a religion that meshes Christianity with ayahuasca worship. Every Saturday night, the patients gather together for a four-hour ceremony in a bright blue temple, where they drink ayahuasca to the tune of slow Christian chants and the noises of the jungle. When the drink kicks in 20 minutes later, several residents hallucinate, often drifting back in time to observe their own lives and actions from a distance. Some lift their hands in prayer, others tap their feet, a few start crying.
Studies show that the tea helps eliminate drug cravings and is not addictive, but the brew can also bring back traumatic memories in the form of hallucinations. “When I drink the tea, I go back to that moment. I see him again,” said Everson of the man he killed. “It helps me process it, and come to terms with what I did.”
In addition to cocaine addiction, the tea is also being used in the rehabilitation of prisoners. “Many people in Brazil believe that inmates must suffer, enduring hunger and depravity,” said Euza Beloti, 40, a psychologist with Acuda, a pioneering prisoners’ rights group in Pôrto Velho. “This thinking bolsters a system where prisoners return to society more violent than when they entered prison.” Ms. Beloti and other therapists test aspects of this philosophy at a compound in a sprawling prison complex in Pôrto Velho. Judges and wardens allow about 10 inmates to live in the Acuda building, a former army installation. Dozens of other prisoners from surrounding penitentiaries attend Acuda’s therapy sessions each day.
Inside the compound, the inmates practice meditation. They perform ayurvedic massage on one another. They learn skills like motorcycle maintenance. A furniture workshop gives them access to tools like saws, hammers, and drills. And they tend a garden, growing vegetables and the plants used to make ayahuasca.
Treating inmates with psychedelic drugs anywhere is thought to be rare. “It’s certainly novel among prisoners, but ayahuasca has great potential because under optimal conditions, it can produce a transformative experience in a person,” said Dr. Charles S. Grob, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine who has conducted extensive studies on ayahuasca.
The supervisors at Acuda, who obtain a judge’s permission to take about 15 prisoners once a month to a temple ceremony in Ji-Paraná, say they are mindful of the risks of ayahuasca, commonly called daime in Brazil or referred to as tea. At the temple ceremony, Acuda’s therapists consume the brew with the inmates, as well as with the occasional prison guard who volunteers to accompany the group.
Last August, Eduardo Chianca, a Brazilian therapist, was arrested trying to enter Russia, where he was hired to work as a professor, in possession of 8 liters of ayahuasca tea. The tea contains Dimethyltryptamine, which is illegal in Russia. Chianca is being charged with drug trafficking. During the last BRICS summit held in October in India, President Michel Temer asked his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, for the release of the Brazilian therapist.
[Research for this article comes from the websites of plus55, Motherboard, and The New York Times]