Tag Archives: ethnobotany

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.