[Abstract] This essay explores proposals that have been made for the political economy of Amazonian ayahuasca shamanism by the Western-based NGO Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (ESC). The discourse, aims, and methods of the ESC are shown to include messianic and millenarian visions that are interrelated with an ideological governance model shaped to a Western-oriented tourist market. The ESC is explored in the context and history of northwest Amazonian millenarianism and 19th century indigenous colonial resistance movements that were orchestrated by ayahuasca jaguar-shamans. The essay demonstrates that the ESC’s ayahuasca millenarianism — unlike its indigenous predecessors — is characterized by an advancement and not rejection of imperialism.
Whether it be in the name of a “benign,” civilizing imperialism or in a cynical pursuit of their labor power, the final objective of generations of colonizers has been to colonize [the native’s] consciousness with the axioms and aesthetics of an alien culture. ~ Jean and John Comaroff (1991:4)
Over the last decade, more and more people from Europe, North America and elsewhere have been traveling to the Amazon jungle to drink the shamanic brew ayahuasca. The increasing market is being accommodated by a growing number of ayahuasca retreat centers spread across parts of Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia and elsewhere (Labate & Cavnar 2014). In recent years, a United-States-based NGO emerged with plans to intervene upon the political economy of the ayahuasca tourism industry by introducing a type of certification system. The organization, the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (ESC), mobilized support from influential psychedelic-advocacy organizations based in North America, Europe, and Australia and proposes to offer a “stamp of approval”, and what appears to be greater market access, to Amazonian ayahuasca retreat centers that fulfill a criterion of “safety” and “sustainability”. To gain certification, retreat centers are required to follow certain safety protocols that include the need for first aid-kits and screening of consumers for certain mental-health issues. The ESC reports another series of risks they have termed “metaphysical safety issues”, and they intend on attempting to “mitigate” and banish sorcery and witchcraft from ritual contexts certified by their organization.The ESC is grounded in millenarian foundations with the founder and executive director traveling across Western countries and conducting lectures and interviews while undertaking a crowd-funding campaign explaining that the future of ayahuasca is at serious risk and in need of intervention. Embodying messianic qualities, the founder also describes drinking ayahuasca and receiving a powerful vision from which he vowed to “protect” the “vulnerable plant-spirit” ayahuasca.
This messianic path is by no means the first time in the history of Northwest Amazonia that ayahuasca revelations became associated with a shamanic idiom of political intervention. During the 19th century in Tukanoan and Arawakan indigenous societies, millenarian ayahuasca “jaguar shamans” (Wright 2014) mobilized people in large festivals and demonstrations of resistance against forms of colonial domination being imposed by European rubber barons (Wright and Hill 1988; Brown 1991; Hugh-Jones 1996). In both cases, the ESC and the indigenous millenarian movements, elements of shamanic trance-visions occasioned by ayahuasca consumption are involved in means by which proposed changes to the political economy are articulated and empowered. But there are radical differences between the history and practices of the Amazonian millenarian jaguar shaman-prophets and the millenarianism of the ESC’s Western-based top-down development model. This short essay considers this difference and argues that the ESC’s self-appointed quest to “steward” ayahuasca into the “modern world” represents a type of imperialistic millenarianism.
Amazonian millenarian prophet-shamans and the rubber boom
In the early 1800s, indigenous peoples of the Rio Negro region of Northwest Amazonia were being exploited by colonial settlers for labour (including for boat building and rubber tapping) and for forest spices and other essential items for living. During this period, the provincial Brazilian government employed military forces and extreme violence in an attempt to coerce indigenous peoples and impose tax systems on trade materials such as manioc cereal (Weinstein 1986:22; Wright and Hill 1988). The tax system failed, however, by the 1850s the rubber-tapping industry of the area had skyrocketed, urged-on by technological changes in methods of processing rubber (Weinstein 1986:123). Indigenous peoples were forced in large numbers into labour-camps to extract rubber for the bourgeoning international market (Weinstein 1986:122). It was a harrowing time for indigenous peoples of the area who were being subjugated and subject to severe living conditions.
During the 1830s several uprisings emerged among rubber-tappers. By the late 1850s large-scale forms of resistance from Arawaken, Tukanoan, and other indigenous groups of the area were manifesting in the form of dance festivals, song ceremonies, and other rituals. The movements were largely orchestrated by messianic shaman-prophets that preached narratives about the end of the world and the end of suffering. Venancio Kamiko — a mestizo Arawaken boat-builder that realized he and others were being structurally coerced into cycles of debt to colonizers — played a central role by traveling across northwest Amazonia preaching, conducting festivals and rituals and organizing other millenarian prophets to do the same. Kamiko’s political power was related to his abilities as a healer and ‘master shaman’ or ‘jaguar owner’ which he gained through overcoming an illness and training with ayahuasca and other psychoactive plants and conducting healings across northwest Amazonia (Wright 2014; High-Jones 1996; Wright and Hill 1988). The ayahuasca aficionado promised spiritual salvation to those who rejected the commercial activities of the rubber industry, and reported having shamanic and religious visions ‘in which he was directed to inform Indian people that they must refuse to work for whites and that their debts would be forgiven if they made gifts of food to him’ (Brown 1991:395; Wright and Hill 1988:45). Shamanic-jaguar powers and purification rituals provided an underlying messianic quality and idiom to his influential rejection of forms of colonial domination. The large protest rebellions were met by military force in 1858 and Kamiko fled into hiding.
[Indigenous peoples of the Putumayo region enslaved by rubber barons, 1912]
The northwest Amazon millenarian movements of the 1850s are some of the most well documented anthropological works on Amazonian millenarianism. The movements are not isolated events, however, and millenarian prophets proposing radical political and social changes have been recorded dating back hundreds of years in various parts of the Amazon basin (Brown 1991; Crocker 1967; Bodley 1972; Cepek 2009).
The type of domination that indigenous peoples of the area were resisting appears to represent an example of what Samuel Feuer calls ‘regressive imperialism’ in which colonizers or the ruling elites orchestrated and identified themselves with practices of military conquest, brutality, exploitation, and extermination of ‘undesired peoples’ (Feuer 1986). Feuer conceptualized a second dominant mode of imperialism called ‘progressive imperialism’ where ruling elites are driven by a so-called ‘cosmopolitan’ view of humanity and perceive themselves as working to help and elevate alleged backwards peoples to the moral heights of civilization (Feuer 1986). The intervention proposed by the Western-based NGO Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council does not follow the ‘regressive imperialism’ style undertaken by the 19th century rubber barons but it appears to involve a more ‘progressive’ form of imperialism in which, for example, ayahuasca sorcery and witchcraft are “mitigated” and banished while “good work” is “recognized and rewarded” (ESC 2014), with a reward-system grounded in commercial interests linked to a Western ayahuasca tourism market.
The Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council
With the ayahuasca tourism industry rapidly expanding in northwest Amazonia during the early 21st century, the ESC was born in the United States in a circuit of psychedelic symposiums and psychedelic conferences. It was officially launched at the end of 2013 at a drug policy reform conference in Colorado. The ESC founder and chief advisor Joshua Wickerham inaugurated the organization stating that Westerners are traveling to drink ayahuasca in the Amazon jungle where rituals and retreat centers are unregulated, lack accountability, and are in some cases unsafe. People are having “their bodies violated”, he explained while referring to a woman in the crowd that was raped by a shaman. There is little ability for consumers to recognize sustainable and unsustainable ayahuasca retreat centers, he further explained, and proposed that the ESC will intervene upon these problems and fill this lacuna. Raising concerns and solving issues of sexual abuse, sorcery, first-aid, and ecologically and culturally unsustainable practices related to ayahuasca use in the Amazon became the central mission of the ESC.
The organization draws its structure and vision from the ISEAL Alliance, an NGO concerned with promoting sustainability standards around the world. The ESC plans to implement a governance structure that is based upon creating a “multi-stakeholder consensus through dialogue” between everyone on “the ayahuasca value chain” including “from the people who drink ayahuasca all the way to the people who cultivate and offer ceremonies” (ESC website). While the organization states that they are “creating a table for dialogue and discussion” and not the discussion itself, the parameters of the ESC’s certification system are not neutral but defined by specific ideologies of “safety” and “sustainability”— explored below. The ESC proposed to introduce a five-star certification system in which retreat centers will need to complete complex bureaucratic requirements to be granted each star, which prompted spiritualist Rak Razam to critically ask Wickerham, “Do you realize that you are creating a five-star shaman?” (Razam 2013). If implemented, the certification system would produce a division in the market, and enhance local economic disparities, in which retreat centers that do not undergo the bureaucratic and lengthy process of gaining an ESC sliding scale “stamp of approval” would be simply not included and potentially (or probably) assumed to be practicing sorcery, sexual abuse, and environmental and cultural destruction.
Shortly after inaugurating the organization, Wickerham began a campaign promoting and requesting donations for the organization while traveling across Western countries and presenting at psychedelic symposiums, talking on radio programs and podcasts, posting on social media platforms, and engaging with mainstream media, including CNN and BBC. While telling stories of rape, death, accidents, sorcery, unsustainable practices, and other “imminent dangers” , the central rhetoric of the organization has been that the future of ayahuasca use in the Amazon is at stake or in serious danger and that something urgently needs to be done. Over sixty academic researchers and specialists of the Amazon region argued that the ESC’s campaign content has been alarmist and has involved a troubling over-representation of danger (see below Rush et al 2014). The ESC’s apocalyptic view of Amazonian ayahuasca use has been accompanied by various messianic narratives. In a public conversation with the ayahuasca spiritualist Rak Razam, Wickerham described his first time drinking ayahuasca, stating that the spirit of ayahuasca:
manifested herself… as a strong yet somewhat vulnerable forest creature that wants to work with people, wants to help people, but needs our protection at the same time. So I made a pledge that I would do my utmost to protect ayahuasca and her allies. (see Razam 2013:minute 28)
Furthermore, attuned to the cosmology and market of Western ayahuasca consumers and the governance structure of the ESC, Wickerham publically described to Razam his practice of drinking ayahuasca and “dialoguing” with the “stakeholder” and plant-spirit “Mother Ayahuasca” (see Razam 2013). Through undertaking a campaign of traveling the social milieu of Western psychedelic and ayahuasca consumers and advocates in North America and Europe and preaching about saving the future of ayahuasca and the need for donations to assist him, Wickerham’s project represents a unique form of millenarianism.
[ESC founder and chief advisor Joshua Wickerham at Psymposium conference]
The ESC has claimed to protect ayahuasca in ways that balance all ayahuasca “stakeholders” or people on “the ayahuasca value chain”. The organization, Wickerham explained, is “community governed while maintaining some organizational efficiency”, and while it has not been made explicit exactly what this “organisational efficiency” includes, one of their more peculiar plans is an assurance to consumers that ayahuasca retreat centers enshrined with the ESC’s logo will be “safe”, which would include, among other things, an absence of sorcery and witchcraft. “The areas we are working”, Wickerham stated, “are in ceremonial spaces, inside ceremonial malocas making sure people are not getting witchcraft put on them” (Wickerham, DPA conference 2013). Furthermore, in an eighty-page report titled the Ayahuasca Dialogues, the ESC explained that “witchcraft or black magic” is a “metaphysical safety issue” and that the ESC will be working with “indigenous groups to understand these dynamics and how to mitigate the risks” (ESC 2014:73).
The ESC’s naïve plans to banish sorcery lack sensitivity to the way in which sorcery and dark shamanism in Amazonia may function as a mechanism by which inequalities are contested, power is decentered, and social harmony maintained (Rush et al 2014; Whitehead and Wright 2004; Peluso 2009:199). The proposal appears to involve a tacit ideology in which local forms of social regulation are replaced by a form of market regulation linked to tourism. This goes hand-in-hand with the ESC’s uninformed discourse that traditional means of regulation have broken down.
At the end of 2014, the ESC received a series of major criticisms from a group that the ESC described as a “vocal minority”, but which could perhaps be better framed, to use the language of the NGO, as significant ayahuasca “stakeholders”. More than sixty expert anthropologists, ethnobotanists, other academics, NGOs and activists of the Amazon region signed a public statement critiquing and rejecting the ESC’s aims and methods (Rush et al 2014). The detailed critiques draw attention to the ESC’s alarmist campaign tactics and over-representation of danger; lack of indigenous representation; lack of evidence-based information; covert market and commercial orientation; proposed sanitization of ayahuasca shamanism; and other issues, while asking, ‘What mandate do [the ESC] have to impose Western, hegemonic, neoliberal norms upon communities in Latin America…?’ (Rush et al 2014). During the same period, the CNN journalist Chris Kilham wrote an open letter describing the ESC as arrogant, disrespectful, and delusional (see ayahuasca.com). Author at ayahuasca.com, Morgan Meher responded to the ESC with a passionate article describing the organization as colonialist, capitalist, paternalistic and rotten (see ayahuasca.com). At least three ESC collaborators that I know of quit the organization and two added their names to the public statement of critique noted above (Rush et al 2014). Of the three major psychedelic-advocacy NGO’s supporting the ESC: PRISM (an Australian-based organization) removed their support; MAPS (a United States organization) released a statement stating their continued support yet recommending that the ESC re-orient away from indigenous development; and ICEERS (a Europe-based organization) remained silent. Dennis McKenna, the ESC’s main academic advisor, also remained silent. As expected, some of the disputes on ayahuasca Internet forums mirrored interests in the bourgeoning ayahuasca industry and had little to do with the core aims of the ESC.On the same platform, an anonymous cartoon produced by “Stakeholders_united” was released, alluding to commercial interests of the ESC.
[Cartoon by “Stakeholders_united” from the ayahuasca Internet forums]
Despite the series of heavy criticisms given by expert academics (Rush et al 2014) and others, the ESC released a brief statement that failed to acknowledge the criticisms nor indicate any signs of changing their plans and mission, aside from mentioning that they would “consider” minor aspects (Wickerham, response, 2014).
Some final thoughts
The ESC’s rhetoric of “dialogue” and neutral governance appears to be couched in a larger project of cultural imperialism in which particular notions of “safety” and “sustainability” set the parameters for which consensus may be constructed. Furthermore, these parameters of “safety” and “sustainability” elicit contemporary concerns that appeal to a Western shamanic tourism market in a number of ways and this perhaps explains the large amount of donations ($58,000) the ESC received. While creating “a space for dialogue” between all ayahuasca “stakeholders” and proposing or assuming that this governance structure offers a platform for equal and neutral power relations, the ESC’s aims of regulating Amazonian ayahuasca shamanism represent a contemporary process of what the Comaroffs call the ‘colonization of consciousness’, whereby:
the essence of colonization inheres less in political overrule than in seizing and transforming “others” by the very act of conceptualizing, inscribing, and interacting with them on terms not of their choosing… in assuming the capacity to “represent” them, the active verb itself conflating politics and poetics (Comaroffs 1991:15)
The type of “representation” that the ESC proposes is not one in which the organization explicitly “talks on behalf of indigenous people”, but it is a process by which a foreign agenda codified in discourse on neutral mediation is imposed upon historically disempowered peoples that have not invited the initiative. The ESC does not mark the first wave of imperialistic or colonial aspects of the ayahuasca tourism industry in the Amazon. The politics of intercultural exchange already in-place in the area are in some cases, or in some retreat centers, constituted by power relations weighted heavily in foreign ownership, economics, aesthetics, and cultural norms (Labate & Cavnar 2014). But the ESC’s aims and methods mark an attempt — that is historical in scale — to tacitly impose and intervene upon ayahuasca shamanism with dramatic commercial and messianic visions.
Millenarian ayahuasca prophet-shamans of the Amazon traveled northwest Amazonia in the 1850s warning people of the end of the world and the need to reject the rubber-tapping industry — and the need to give them donations of food and goods — from which the people would be granted salvation. In a strange turn of events, in the early 21st century, the leader of a Western-based NGO traveled around Western countries warning people that ayahuasca use in the Amazon is under serious threat — that he had an hallucinogenic vision of the “vulnerable” ayahuasca plant-spirit — and that people should donate money to bring salvation to the future of ayahuasca. Both involve messianic dimensions from which proposed radical changes to the political economy are articulated and empowered. However, whereas the actions of the 19th century shaman-prophets were geared towards indigenous communities, the ESC appears to be geared towards its own existence as an NGO in accelerating, mediating, and capitalizing on the growing foreigner-oriented ayahuasca retreat centers in the Amazon jungle. The ESC’s ayahuasca millenarianism, unlike its predecessors, is characterized by an advancement — and not rejection — of imperialism.
I am grateful to Bia Labate for her input and revisions on the essay and to Robin Wright and Jonathan Hill for their correspondences on millenarianism. Any mistakes present are my own.
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