Back in the early 1990s, when I was doing fieldwork for a book that eventually became The Channeling Zone, I was invited to an ayahuasca healing session in Santa Fe. I had seen enough ayahuasca consumed in northeastern Peru to think that the prospect of full-on emesis and purgation in the house of some stranger was singularly unappealing, so I decided to take a pass.
Now I have regrets, mostly because the sacramental use of ayahuasca is on the cusp of becoming a permanent part of the colorful religious landscape of northern New Mexico. After years of litigation, it now seems likely that União do Vegetal (UDV)–or more formally, O Centro Espirita Beneficente União do Vegetal–will build a temple in Arroyo Hondo, just outside Santa Fe. UDV has thus far successfully fought a series of legal battles that have established the legality of the sacramental use of ayahuasca and prevailed against NIMBY lawsuits from neighboring property owners. UDV claims to have other centers is the states of Colorado, California, Texas, Florida, and Washington as well as in several countries beyond Brazil, where it originated.
Aside from concerns about the legality of ayahuasca use in the US or local objections to the construction of a UDV church, the spread of this new religion raises challenging questions about whether its practices represent a harmful form of cultural appropriation. The unauthorized use of the knowledge and cultural productions of other ethnic groups, especially indigenous ones, remains a serious problem worldwide, even if accusations of cultural appropriation sometimes descend to silliness that trivializes real injustice. The growth in what has been called “ayahuasca tourism” in Amazonian countries has come in for its share of criticism, some of it convincing.
But it is harder to see how the global diffusion of a religion that uses ayahuasca for sacramental purposes could have a significant prejudicial effect on the Amazonian peoples whose knowledge led to the discovery of the relevant plant species and their incorporation of their visionary properties into a range of religious traditions. There might be short-term environmental impacts if global demand for Banisteriopsis and Psychotria extracts exceed supply. Presumably, however, practitioners of UDV are already attempting to cultivate these plants in their home countries.
It’s true that the situation contains an element of unfairness: the Amazonian creators of ayahuasca-focused spirituality derive little or no benefit from the global spread of a new religion based on their knowledge. In some cases, the purveyors of this new religion are conspicuously wealthy. Does this matter? The ethics strike me as ambiguous when considered in light of the accelerating movement of images, ideas, and technologies around the globe. Could something good come from it? Equally hard to say. I’d welcome a careful, non-tendentious assessment of the impact of a global religious movement that draws on Amazonian understandings.
Some relevant sources:
“Controversy Brews Over Church’s Hallucinogenic Tea Ritual, “National Public Radio, April 2013.
Brian Sheets, “Papers or Plastic: The Difficulty in Protecting Native Spiritual Identity,” Lewis and Clark Law Review, 2013. [Contains no direct discussion of the UDV but reviews the legal status of efforts to control the appropriation of Native American religions in the United States. Relevant concluding passage: “While it is difficult to try to define what constitutes appropriation from sincere religious beliefs and then try to protect Native culture from its dilution and misrepresentation, at least one thing is clear: destructive acts that bring the repute of Native culture and religion down need con- sequences. And whether that is to be formed in a court of law or public opinion, the difficulty arises from culture-clash that is still in the process of being resolved” (p. 634).
Crowd-sourcing works! Within hours of uploading this post I heard from a number of friends from the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (SALSA, natch) who suggested additional sources. Probably the most significant is a series of books edited by Bia Labate (Beatriz Caiuby Labate) and others, a complete list of which can be accessed at her website. She is co-editing yet another relevant work, The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies, with Clancy Cavnar and Alex Gearin, due out in mid-2016.
With a special tip of the sombrero to Josh Homan and Glenn H. Shepard.