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How a Ritual Amazonian Brew Keeps Brazilian Traditions Alive

Large pots in an outdoor cooking area
A man throws chacruna leaves, an additive in ayahuasca, into a brewing cauldron in Ceu do Mapia, Brazil, on June 22, 2016. © Eraldo Peres/AP

The indigenous peoples of the Brazilian state of Acre are part of a diverse mosaic of populations living throughout the Amazon who still make ritual use of ayahuasca.

A psychoactive drink obtained from the decoction of two plants that grow in the Amazon, ayahuasca is used in rituals of healing and divination by communities in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and elsewhere. In the past century, Western cultures have embraced ayahuasca as well, as a medicine sometimes used for psychotherapy and personal growth.

The peoples of Acre and the southwest Amazon have established ayahuasca traditions over generations, and surfaced innovative proposals and ongoing discussions for the recognition of ayahuasca as an important part of Brazil’s cultural heritage.

In the capital of Acre, Rio Branco, the Second World Ayahuasca Conference formalized such discussions this month. For the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, the conference was a valuable opportunity to reaffirm their founding role in the many uses of ayahuasca, and discuss its place in modern society.

It was also a chance to exchange knowledge and experiences, and to build respectful dialogue and enduring alliances between indigenous peoples, religious groups, the scientific and academic communities, national and international authorities, and civil society organizations. Participants consolidated agendas and policies aimed at upholding fundamental human rights and ensuring the protection of traditional knowledge, freedom of belief, and cultural and spiritual expression.

The conference provided a powerful reminder that, in Acre and beyond, ayahuasca is still a part of life, despite nearly seven decades of violence, discrimination, and devaluation of the peoples who primarily use it. These assaults have come in the form of raids, domination and aggression on the part of the rubber industry, and in some cases, proselytizing by missionaries.

Ayahuasca traditions continue regardless, however, thanks to 30 years of indigenous leadership, carried out with the support of civil society and international cooperation. This leadership has led to the reclamation of indigenous lands, the reorganization of communities, the maturation of successive generations of leaders, the formation of indigenous political organizations, the strengthening of indigenous leaders’ capacities, the building of specific education and health programs, and the establishment of innovative programs for the management and conservation of the forests in the collectively held territories.

Through all of this, ayahuasca has contributed to the continuity of traditional knowledge. Singers, teachers, agroforestry agents, experts in the use of plants, and generations of young people (including increasing numbers of women) have undergone ritual processes for learning and socializing under the guidance of the older shamans. These processes have shaped the organization of ceremonies, the construction of ritual houses called kupixawas, the resumption of body-painting traditions, and the re-emergence of different types of handicraft, music, costumes, and audio and visual art. In several villages, traditional gardens have been used for the cultivation of medicinal plants and plants with special powers.

In recent years, some communities have also promoted innovative ethnotourism experiences and cultural festivals. In addition to the cultural benefits to the communities themselves—specifically, the transfer of knowledge to younger generations—these activities enable exchanges between different villages and even different indigenous peoples. They also create, in some cases, additional sources of income for local families and their associations, as they attract visitors from different countries who are interested in new cultural experiences.

These efforts strengthen previous relationships while facilitating new interactions, joint initiatives, and long-lasting alliances between indigenous representatives and other people and institutions. But public and private spiritual ceremonies, artistic events, and discussion forums abroad show mixed results in terms of financial and technical returns for these communities. They raise issues related to the protection of traditional knowledge, cultural and image rights, the free movement of people, and the use of ayahuasca as a ritual instrument for new forms of spiritual socialization between people from different communities.

In a sense, Ayahuasca embodies the complexities of globalization. In certain contexts, it might be considered a substance that must be controlled, while in others it is envisaged as a crucial manifestation of culture and tradition worthy of protection. This year’s conference provided an opportunity to advance the dialogue and shed light on these varying perspectives, and consider the space this unique Amazonian drink inhabits in modern society. 

The Second World Ayahuasca Conference was funded by the Open Society Foundations.

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