Creating a Safe and Sustainable Ayahuasca Culture

MAPS Bulletin Spring 2014 Vol. 24, No. 1 – Psychedelics and Education

Download this article.

Along with many positive stories, the many risks to ayahuasca seekers and ayahuasca culture make frequent headlines. At best, cultural misunderstanding about appropriate relationships between giver and receiver lead to misunderstandings. At worst, exploitative relationships threaten ayahuasca’s expanded free use. The possibilities of further repressive legislation, harmful media exposure, or senseless casualties are very real.

Given ayahuasca’s global prominence and legal status in South America, we now have an opportunity to develop a post-prohibition model of ayahuasca safety and sustainability—one that protects the plants, improves the safety and reputations of people, and holds space to expand ayahuasca’s place in global culture across disciplines. But how?

The Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council is a new organization devoted to this cause. We are working to transform lives by assuring the sustainability and safe use of ceremonial plants like ayahuasca, peyote, and iboga, and other traditional plants.

The ESC’s flagship project is the Ayahuasca Dialogues, which will establish an “Ayahuasca Agreement” on safety and sustainability.

To be fair and useful, the multi-year Ayahuasca Dialogues to build the Ayahuasca Agreement will follow a clear, careful consensus building process modeled on the global best practices used by groups like Fairtrade or the Rainforest Alliance. We will use a clear scope, proactive outreach to disadvantaged stakeholders, and a responsive, constructive attitude to public comments.

Words like “sustainability” and “safety” are subjective and sometimes even contentious, especially in the cross-cultural contexts where ayahuasca is often consumed. Agreement on transformative social, environmental, and economic goals will take time, but the ESC’s preliminary engagement already shows interest in three main areas:

First is ceremonial center safety, like preventing inappropriate touching, avoiding injury during ceremonies, and ensuring first aid preparedness.

Second is site sustainability, like paying living wages, building facilities suitable to the local environment, or planting native plants.

Third is fair and sustainable plant cultivation and wild collection, focusing on improving local education or health care, fair wages, and ensuring continued local access to plants for traditional uses.

Thanks to initial donations, the ESC is preparing to launch the formal Ayahuasca Dialogues in 2015 by hiring a local research team to interview key stakeholders in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, where ayahuasca culture is legally-recognized and protected.

Joshua Wickerham

The AyaDialogues will also establish transparent and voluntary mechanisms for assuring that ceremony centers and growers are living up to the Ayahuasca Agreement. We want to allow anyone willing to do the safety and sustainability work the chance to be recognized at maximum rigor and minimal cost. This will help more centers join the ESC and help more people find safe and sustainable ayahuasca centers and plant materials.

Sustainably and fairly grown plant materials will use the ESC logo at the retail level. Ceremony centers can display a rating system. Such tools will help connect seekers with responsible and sustainable sites.

We depend on and are grateful for community support. MAPS, as our fiscal sponsor in the US, accepts tax-deductible donations as we establish our own nonprofit entity. MAPS director Rick Doblin is also on the ESC’s interim board. In Europe, the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS) is acting as an incubation partner and fiscal sponsor, with their director Ben DeLoenen also on the board.

We are currently fundraising to be able to present comprehensive research on the social, economic, political, and environmental aspects of sustainable and safe ayahuasca leading up to the World Ayahuasca Conference in Ibiza, Spain this September. This research sets the stage for the formal Ayahuasca Dialogues while using the language of economics, policy, and science to give the plants and their stewards the widest support possible from leaders in business, government, health, tourism, agroecology, sustainable development, and drug policy reform communities.

We look forward to the dialogue!


Joshua Wickerham founded the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council. For over a decade, Joshua has worked around the world designing and implementing transparent and participatory international governance systems that balance economic prosperity with social and environmental sustainability. Joshua has a BA from the University of Michigan and master’s in international relations from UC San Diego. In his spare time, Joshua tends an Urban Micro Garden at his home in Thailand and explores historical Chinese ethnopharmacology. He can be reached at

MAPS Bulletin Spring 2014 Vol. 24, No. 1 – Psychedelics and Education