When I was invited to write an article for this special MAPS Bulletin edition on Psychedelics and the New Economy with a look at the “ayahuasca industry,” it struck me as an unusual pairing of words: ayahuasca with industry. Thinking conceptually about industry and reflecting on my own experiences with ayahuasca for the last 18 years, I realized that the words do fit together to describe many components of the current activity surrounding ayahuasca—from economic activity directly related to drinking ayahuasca; to tourism in the Amazon where ayahuasca retreat centers now proliferate; to the merchandizing of ayahuasca arts, crafts and clothing; to events, workshops and conferences focused on ayahuasca. While the emergence of ayahuasca into the global realm of goods and services for sale is a modern commercialization, I encourage us to not forget that ayahuasqueros, médicos, vegetalistas and practitioners in mestizo and indigenous communities continue to engage in the barter, trade, and sale of their plant preparations and healing services. So how can we, as a contemporary ayahuasca drinking culture, respectfully and sustainably grow and participate in this ayahuasca industry?
First, the good news: The existence of an ayahuasca industry has the potential to be a forward-moving, transformational reclamation of our innate desire and ability to connect and heal with plants, and to experience ourselves as part of nature. Particularly when we allow ourselves to be guided and inspired by deeper understandings of our interconnectedness, we can thoughtfully envision a new paradigm for our economy, an economy where commercialization does not emphasize profitability at the expense of quality but instead represents the availability and preference for experience over “stuff”: a New Economy beyond the New Economy1—the Experience Economy2. And, in this paradigm, the ayahuasca experience feels like a natural fit.
Now, the concerns: Much has already been written about the sustainability of the plants, the commodification of culture, impacts on indigenous cultures, carbon footprints associated with travel, and safe practices for ayahuasca use. While I was introduced to ayahuasca in the north, I have been traveling extensively in the Amazon since 2000, working with, learning from, and engaging with local people who use ayahuasca in ways that draw from traditional practices. I am not an expert nor have I conducted a rigorous scientific investigation. I can, however, offer my observations, thoughts, and experiences about a few of these areas of concern.
On the sustainability of the plants: The demand for ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and chacruna (Psychotria viridis) and chaliponga3 (Diplopterys cabrera), the primary component plants of the ayahuasca brew, has certainly increased in the wake of ayahuasca tourism and prices have steadily increased in the last ten years. Speaking with Peruvian Amazonian locals, it seems that for the most part, price increases are not a reflection of shortage or capacity to sustainably grow and produce plants for ayahuasca preparation, but rather a reflection of economic opportunity. In communities where people have wildcrafted and grown medicine plants for generations, they are recognizing the demand and opportunity to earn a living from surging interest in medicine plants.
Whereas these plants formerly were primarily wildcrafted from the forest, or procured from small medicine gardens, they are now being grown to supply ayahuasca retreat centers. And, as is typical of economic growth, jobs are springing up. Amazonians that I have talked to are enjoying the new business opportunities and particularly so because what the growers are offering is not just a meaningless product but something that helps to keep traditional plant knowledge alive. In a world of globalization, where Amazonian campesinos and jungle dwellers might otherwise move or commute into the city to learn “new” skills, they can offer what they know, right where they live and receive value.
At the same time, there are pitfalls as the growth of the ayahuasca industry has an impact on local cultures. While culture and tradition are ever-changing, transforming, and growing, the impetus for this particular “growth” was not initiated by the culture of origin but rather, by people from other cultures, mainly North Americans and Europeans coming in and declaring a value. Nonetheless, Amazonians have generally responded favorably, enjoying the opportunity to participate in a global community by offering and supporting a particular kind of healing and transformational experience, and in the best case scenario, having their traditional plant medicine skills valued and validated. This is in stark contrast to the era of conquistadores who sought to eviscerate culture and demonize plant medicine practices. The concern is that in this fast-paced shift, we will skip over the profound underpinnings of Amazonian plant medicine practices, thereby creating a watered down version. We already see this happening with people going to the Amazon and drinking ayahuasca for a few months, and declaring themselves practitioners or shamans. We also see how Amazonian medicine practices are being influenced by European and North American culture. This is mostly in the area of how ceremonies are offered to non-Peruvian ayahuasca seekers versus how indigenous communities participate in ceremonies within their native communities.
I recently produced a conference in Los Angeles on plant-based entheogens. Mestizo and Shipibo artisans and artists wanted nothing more than to be a part of it, to showcase their art and generate sales. Is this a “bad” thing? I can’t say I have the answer. I can say that I definitely promoted this element of commerce. I promoted it mostly because attendees find meaning in having a handcrafted item closely linked to ayahuasca and because the Peruvians want their works to be out in the world.
What about the ayahuasca artist who does not drink ayahuasca, or the craft person who so wants to please the customer that she tells a story about the item that the customer wants to hear? Some consumers do not want to hear that the designs on Shipibo crafts stem from tradition-rich stories about creation, community, festivals, and maps. It is much more appealing to be told that the design represents a plant someone has dieted, or that the design is a song, or something more mystical or connected to a visionary ayahuasca experience. Is there harm being done here? I think a little, because of the watering-down and changing of the story to suit the outsider. I wonder if future generations will know the true origins and meanings of the Shipibo designs, or will those stories become part of a lost ancient history?
The bell has been rung, and people across the planet are
hearing the call of ayahuasca. As this happens, the global ayahuasca community needs to ask itself some serious questions: What do we want to preserve and amplify for future generations regarding ayahuasca? Whatever that is, do our actions now support this? How can we honor ayahuasca culture and tradition and safely, lovingly steward the inevitable changes that come from the globalization of ayahuasca? Is drinking ayahuasca outside the Amazon, in our native communities, the answer to reducing our carbon footprint? How can we utilize our tourism dollars to support local Amazonian businesses and services that engage in sound ecological practices? What do we demand, require, or encourage of the transportation, lodging, and tourism sectors? How do we, as seekers and participants, or pasajeros as we are referred to at Peruvian ayahuasca centers, do our part to insure that we are safe?
I think that some of the answers lie in educating ourselves about ayahuasca, determining our risk tolerance when traveling to the jungle, asking questions, and maintaining our critical faculty. As I find myself often saying, just because someone is pouring doesn’t mean you have to drink. I am hopeful that ayahuasca will not be a fad and that coolhunters will fade into the background, opening the path even wider for the emergence of ayahuasca as a global healing resource.
Sitaramaya Sita is a PlantWisdom Practitioner trained in the Shipibo tradition. She shepherds a powerful community in Los Angeles and globally of healers, seekers, visionaries, and creators. She works with individuals and groups, in ceremonies, events, lectures, and tours bridging the chaos of modern life with the wisdom of indigenous spiritual practice. She produced the groundbreaking event Visionary Convergence: Los Angeles in September 2015. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. The term “New Economy” is often used to describe the current post-industrial service-based economy.
2. While I came up with “Experience Economy” to describe my personal vision as I was writing this article, the term Experience Economy was first described in an article published in 1998 by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, titled “The Experience Economy”. An early example is the book of Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, which Pine and Gilmore quote in their work. Toffler criticized how “economists have great difficulty imagining alternatives to communism and capitalism,” and how they could only envision the economy in the terms of scarcity of resources. He talked about the upcoming “experiential industry,” in which people in the “future,” would be willing to allocate high percentages of their salaries to live amazing experiences.
3. Also known as chagropanga or huambisa.