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Ayahuasca: On the Value of Traditional Knowledge

The World Ayahuasca Conference will be a space where traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge are bridged – bringing people together in dialogue about our shared desires to heal humanity and the planet.

Imagine you went to a seasoned psychiatrist with an extensive resume and they told you you’d need to come back weekly for hour-long sessions to see significant changes. You might even need, they said, to come back every week for years. Would you question them?

It happens all the time – and patients don’t. And yet, the same respect and credibility isn’t always afforded to those who have worked with yagé for generations as it spreads across the globe.

Members of UMIYAC from the Yocuro Family, representing three generations – Geminton Jojoa Yocuro (grandson), Humberto Yocuro (son), and Tarcesio Yocuro (grandfather).

This is an analogy used by Riccardo Vitale, PhD, a social anthropologist who has been working with indigenous communities to advocate for the value of their knowledge as indigenous medicinal practices grow in popularity among urbanites everywhere. Vitale, who works with an organization of spiritual authorities belonging to five indigenous peoples known as UMIYAC (the Union of Indigenous Yagé Medics of the Colombian Amazon), acknowledges that healing can be found in different cultural contexts, but is clear about UMIYAC’s stance: “Yagé, yes, is a spiritual ancestral biotechnology, but it’s useless without the guidance of the indigenous scientists who know and have learned through generations of studying and profound observation how to work with it”.

Elders and building
relationships with the plants

The training required to become a traditional doctor, Vitale says, is more rigorous than that of a university degree, demanding generations and decades of familiarity with the plant and the ceremonies that surround it. This prepares elders to properly support patients, or those who are sitting with yagé if they are confronted with what indigenous communities understand as malignant spirits or destructive energies. There’s an element, too, of inheritance, growing up around the plant and learning from family members.

The communities from the Colombian Amazon who are a part of UMIYAC – Cofán, Inga, Siona, Koreguaje, and Kamsä Biya – believe that the land itself and energy points on it play an integral role in giving these elders the power to have visions and to heal. They can travel and administer yagé abroad, but they can’t stay gone for too long. And they can’t just train anyone to do what they do.

Miguel Evanjuanoy, an Inga, engineer, and member of UMIYAC, says it’s important for the yagé peoples to have an ongoing relationship with it.

 

Building mutual respect
for diverse knowledges

“Yagé can give you the sensation, the feeling, after one or two ceremonies that you’ve reached a degree of knowledge, but that’s sometimes just a new life trial,” says Evanjuanoy. “It’s something that you need to continually process and it can take many, many years in order to reach a little bit of light.”

These are all conversations that are being had amongst the communities that make up UMIYAC as yagé – and the guardians of it – continue to face pressure from the outside world to share and commercialize their knowledge. In response, UMIYAC is now making an effort to reach out to the scientific community and to start a dialogue about yagé. It’s incredibly important, Evanjuanoy and Vitale say, that they work to “build bridges” and “form alliances” with people who share different perspectives. But it’s equally important that theirs’ is heard.

For UMIYAC, the World Ayahuasca Conference this spring in Spain is about continuing to do that. Both Vitale and Evanjuanoy, along with Rubiela Mojomboy Jojoa, one of the women elders of UMIYAC, will be sharing their knowledge as a part of panels and in the Indigenous Autonomous Space.

“We want to build a language between ancestral science and western knowledge,” said Vitale. “A communication amongst two equally important knowledge systems built on the premise of mutual respect and a shared desire to heal humanity and to protect the amazon rainforests and the planet.”