Category Archives: Ethnobotanical reflections

A compelling case of biopiracy: The Stevia story

stevia_cultivationToday we hear less about biopiracy than we did a few years ago.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, some cases of alleged biopiracy are more ambiguous than critics of cultural appropriation typically admit.  But one case of flagrant biopiracy, that of sweeteners drived from the South American species Stevia rebaudiana, is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.

S. rebaudiana is an herbaceous plant native to eastern Paraguay that was long used by indigenous Guaraní peoples as a sweetener for teas and medicinal preparations.  The sweetness of Stevia comes from several glycosides, including stevioside and rebaudioside, that produce a sensation of intense sweetness without increasing the blood glucose of those who consume it.

Use of Stevia as a sweetener was documented by Western science in the late nineteenth century, although its chemical constituents were not identified for another sixty years.  As developed nations began to search for calorie-free sweeteners, the properties of Stevia became of considerable interest.  Stevia seems to have been embraced as an alternative to sugar first by Japanese and Chinese corporations.  In the U.S., use of Stevia initially stalled because of preliminary evidence that its chemical constituents might be carcinogenic, although effective lobbying by manufacturers of competing artificial sweeteners was also a factor.  The carcinogenicity claim was eventually refuted, however, and Stevia‘s commercial value has grown substantially since the 1980s.

The Guaraní, one of South America’s poorest and most endangered indigenous populations, have received negligible benefits from the global market for this potentially billion-dollar product.  Ironically, marketing campaigns for Stevia-based sweeteners often identify it as “traditional” or “indigenous.”

stevia

Smallholder farmers in Paraguay derive some income from cultivation of the plant for the market.  But even this modest compensation is being undermined by commercial biosynthesis of Stevia‘s key compounds in the developed world.  In other words, industrial producers no longer need the Stevia plant to manufacture the sweetener that has become a hot product in the competition for zero-calorie alternatives to cane sugar in parts of the world where obesity and diabetes are major public health problems.  The scale of this obvious injustice is staggering.

For more information on this situation and efforts to address it, a good starting point is the publication The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia, a report published by a consortium of European and Paraguayan NGOs.  A protest petition directed to Coca-Cola can be found here.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Ayahuasca update

Ayahuasca_prep
Ayahuasca being prepared with Psychotria viridis.  Source: Wikimedia Commons; Awkipuma, CC BY 3.0, 2010.

Time for contributing to his blog has been scarce in recent weeks.  This post simply catches up on some developments related to the growing use of ayahuasca and related entheogens for religious and therapeutic purposes in different parts of the world.

UDV in Santa Fe.  The União do Vegetal (UDV) Temple in Santa Fe, New Mexico, officially opened a few weeks ago after years of legal wrangling.  Its inauguration is documented by the Brazilian anthropologist Bia Labate in an article in the Huffington Post in late April.  In classic participant-observer fashion, Labate describes herself as “enjoying, alongside the members of the UDV, the pleasant taste of justice, freedom, and victory.”  A story not to be missed.

When ayahuasca lands on the pages of the Wall Street Journal, you know that something is going on.  The article, by Ryan Dube, includes obligatory references to ayahuasca sessions that have resulted in violence or psychological injury, but it generally avoids sensationalism.  As Dube notes, the explosive growth of centers oriented to international ayahuasca tourism in Peru’s jungle cities––Iquitos and Tarapoto most prominently––is both good for the local economy and a happy hunting ground for opportunistic shysters.  Even as I write, doctoral dissertations are being written about ayahuasca tourism and its effects.

Apropos of which, I recently corresponded with Miroslav Horák of Brno University, who has authored a report on a Tarapoto-based drug-treatment facility that uses ayahuasca as part of its treatment regimen.  The report, entitled The House of Song: Rehabilitation of Drug Addicts by the Traditional Indigenous Medicine of the Peruvian Amazon, is available for full-text download  (4.7 MB) from Horák’s Academia.edu page.


On a completely different note, don’t miss Indian Country Today‘s extensive coverage of a recent series of SAR public talks on the future of repatriation 25 years after the implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

UPDATE TO THE UPDATEI was contacted by Ricardo D’Aguiar, a freelance videographer and producer, about his documentary about ayahuasca therapy in Tarapoto.  Most definitely worth a look!

Here’s Ricardo’s description of the video and relevant links to view the trailer and the complete documentary:

The film presents the work of the research & treatment center Takiwasi based in the High Amazon region of Peru. Founded in 1986 by French, Japanese and Peruvian doctors, Takiwasi uses Traditional Amazonian Medicine combined with Western psychology to achieve a high success rate in the treatment of severe drug addiction, depression and other psychological ailments. Patients from around the globe as well as from the local community seek Takiwasi which also offers seminars for self-exploration and spiritual research. Takiwasi relies on a interdisciplinary, multinational staff of both western-trained professionals and traditional healers from around the region which is notorious for producing some of the greatest curanderos of the Amazon. The center has developed a unique approach of integration and articulation between Western science and traditional methods to produce a therapeutic protocol focused on long term, sustainable results for its patients.”

Trailer
https://vimeo.com/149336882

Full film
https://vimeo.com/146340483


ANOTHER UPDATE, 9/5/2016

Now in distribution: The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies.  Edited by Edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Clancy Cavnar,  and Alex K. Gearin.  An excerpt from Glenn Shepard’s forward is available here.

ayahuasca_changeyourlife

An Amazonian religion in New Mexico’s high desert

udv-psicodelico
Image from https://vimeo.com/66879503

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.

UDV documents related to its Supreme Court case and other issues.

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.

Regulating ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca being prepared, Río Napo, Peru. Attribution: HEAH, CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

A fascinating debate has erupted concerning the use and proposed regulation of the Amazonian hallucinogen ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi, sometimes supplemented by other plant substances).  As explained in Upriver, consumption of ayahuasca was once an integral part of individual spiritual development among the Awajún, and its use may be undergoing a revival despite the Awajún’s significant rate of conversion to Christianity.

A non-profit organization called the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council, apparently based in the United States but with institutional support from the Netherlands, is calling for regulation of ayahuasca cultivation and use in the interests of sustainability and the safety of users.  “We will compile existing screening documents and scientific evidence to offer ayahuasca centers a comprehensive, open-source document to keep ayahuasca drinkers safer. To develop consensus, we will invite you and other stakeholders to comment on the draft document on the ESC website,” they declare.  (Full report on the proposed ayahuasca program downloadable here.)

Although the ESC website emphasizes the importance of dialogue, the ESC provides scant evidence that it has consulted extensively with the indigenous peoples who are the original stewards of this ancient healing plant.  The ESC proposals have sparked a skeptical response from a distinguished group of anthropologists with long experience working among Amazonian peoples.

Their arguments against the ESC’s approach are worth examining in detail. In essence, however, they can be boiled down a question posed in the group’s summary statement:  “The fundamental question remains: What mandate do they [i.e., the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council] have to impose Western, hegemonic, neoliberal norms upon communities in Latin America of which they do not have a detailed understanding?”

The skeptics’ rhetoric may be heavy-handed, but it makes a crucial point.  Although one may applaud the ESC’s declared commitment to environmental protection and the safety of those drawn to the use of ayahuasca and related entheogens, the organization seems to take for granted (1) that a group of professionals drawn mostly from the developed North is  empowered to develop rules about the use of traditional indigenous plant medicines by people in the developing South, and (2) that the “problem” of ayahuasca–if there is one–can be solved by developing formal regulations that appear to be designed primarily to accommodate the growing number of vision-seeking, fee-paying spiritual tourists from the North.  Which makes one wonder whether the problem is tourism itself rather than the activities of the sometimes disreputable ayahuasca shamans who have set up shop to serve affluent spiritual seekers.

Read the documents and draw your own conclusions!

The maca frenzy

 

Pucuhuaranga family showing me maca, Dept. of Junín, Peru, 1973.  Credit: Michael F. Brown. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Pucuhuaranga family showing me maca, Dept. of Junín, Peru, 1973. Credit: Michael F. Brown. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with Upriver or the Awajún, but I can’t resist reflecting on a small but fascinating agricultural crisis afflicting highland communities in Peru’s Department of Junín, which at an altitude of 14,000 ft above sea level or higher offers an entirely different ecological regime than one finds in Awajún country.  The crisis concerns an obscure cultivated plant called maca (Lepidium meyenii), a member of the mustard family.  The story is sufficiently interesting that it recently merited an illustrated article in the New York Times.

More than forty years ago, while working as a journeyman ethnobotanist on the shores of Lake Junín (second only to Titicaca in size), I collected samples of maca and interviewed members of a family that was among the few still cultivating an obscure plant that had the distinction (among other things, as we’ll see) of being the world’s highest-altitude domesticate.  I don’t know whether that record still stands, but it surely ranks among the top two or three.  Maca survives the cold and dryness of Junín’s climate by keeping most of its tissue underground as a nondescript tuber.  Above ground, one sees only a small rosette of leaves.

Maca specimens, Junín, 1973.  Credit: Michael F. Brown.  (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Maca specimens, Junín, 1973. Credit: Michael F. Brown. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)

My maca tutor was a wizened Andean man named don Mauro Pucuhuaranga,  whose face was darkened by decades of life at an altitude where the thin atmosphere offers scant protection from the sun’s rays.  Don Mauro and his wife showed us their small maca harvest and were kind enough to give us a few tubers to eat that evening.

“Some scientific studies claim to show a link between consuming maca and an increase in libido. Such beliefs go back centuries. One historical account says that the Inca emperor fed maca to his troops to give them energy but removed it from their diet after victorious campaigns to tame their sexual desire.”–William Neuman, NY Times, 6 December 2014

The owner of the house where our research team boarded agreed to cook the tubers for us to try.  As he served them, however, he called out to his family, “Lock your doors tonight.  The gringos will be on the prowl!”  Thus we learned that maca had for centuries been regarded by Andean people as a powerful aphrodisiac and fertility-enhancer.  Its consumption was typically accompanied by lewd joking.  We were also told that during the colonial period Spaniards routinely fed maca to European livestock, which had difficulty reproducing at high altitudes.

I can’t attest personally to maca’s reputed effect—although there is some sketchy scientific data to support it—and our crew was altogether too tired and altitude-impaired for nocturnal prowling.  My maca samples eventually landed in the ethnobotany lab of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Anthropology, my photographs filed for future use in the classroom.  My assumption was that maca, as one of the world’s most endangered crops, might soon disappear from Andean diet and the world’s roster of obscure domesticated plants.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  With the growth of world demand for traditional remedies and organic “super foods” since the 1990s, maca, “the Andean Viagra,” leapt from near-extinction to rock-star status among plant medicines.  Now, according to the Times, it is the target of biopiracy by the Chinese and a product subject to large-scale smuggling and theft thanks to exploding world demand.

I can only hope that don Mauro Pucuhuaranga’s children and grandchildren are benefiting from growing demand for a plant that once seemed destined for obscurity.