These Indigenous Communities are Using Ayahuasca in the Struggle for Autonomy

Conversations about ayahuasca cannot be divorced from the role that it plays in the lives of indigenous peoples coping with human rights violations and the on-going struggle to protect their territories from encroachment and extractive industries.

These topics will be central at the World Ayahuasca Conference, where indigenous and non-indigenous groups will be discussing how plant medicines not only heal personal trauma, but also can serve to build community cohesion and inspire strategies to resist exploitation.

In the Colombian Amazon, the ever-present threat of violence demands this sort of individual and collective work. In November of 2016, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia-FARC—a guerilla movement now established as a political party— signed a peace agreement which, in theory, ended the country’s armed conflict. But, since that time, the number of assassinations among social leaders has actually risen. According to Colombian News Source El Tiempo, in 2016, 97 social leaders were murdered. In 2017, that number rose to 159. And in 2018, it was 164. So far, just this year, 11 social leaders have been killed, according to the most recent data.

Among these statistics was Mario Jacanamijoy, a founder of the Union of Indigenous Medics of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC), a collective of five indigenous groups who use ayahuasca (or yage, as it is called in this region) for community healing. His story exemplifies the connection between yagé, personal healing, and political resistance.

On November 25, 2017, Jacanamijoy, a family man and member of the Inga people, disappeared. Two days later, his body was found along with that of Dubier Prieto Coro, another farm worker. He’d spent his life, since he was an adolescent, fighting for the preservation of his peoples’ territory, Yurayaco, a region at high risk of conflict and corporate development because of its unexploited oil wells.

Shortly after the murder, UMIYAC began reaching out to human rights organizations to demand that the Colombian state and the United Nations investigate the case and acknowledge it as a part of the murders happening to rural leaders protecting their land and natural resources. A year later, they celebrated a small victory when a Colombian official, equivalent to the United States Attorney General, acknowledged the case as a part of the systematic assassinations of indigenous rural and urban human rights leaders in the country.

Equally important for the community, though, was the organization of what they call a “spiritual health brigade” in the wake of the murder. An evening not long after the killing, Jacanamijoy’s family and friends, including his sisters who are also community leaders, drank yagé as a way to begin healing their pain and cultivating resilience for the political battles ahead.

“As indigenous communities, we know that we have the bio-technological-spiritual tools to intervene in Colombia where the government is grossly absent,” says Miguel Evanjuanoy, an Inga, engineer, and member of UMIYAC. “This means taking care at the community level of the spiritual and mental health of people who have suffered profound scars and wounds from the war conflict.”

Riccardo Vitale, a social anthropologist who works closely with communities in the region, says the chances of ever finding out what happened in a case like Jacanamijoy’s are slim. And, unfortunately, it’s just “one little occurrence in a grand trend of atrocities committed against vulnerable communities and leaders.” It’s important to remember, he continued, that while the armed conflict began in Colombia in the mid-60s, that the indigenous communities in the Amazon have been coping with violence from outsiders for centuries. Ayahuasca has and continues to be, they believe, a pillar for their survival.

Vitale and Evanjuanoy will be presenting at the World Ayahuasca Conference, alongside indigenous leaders from Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador who will also be speaking to the role that ayahuasca practices play in strengthening communities and inspiring the strategies they are employing to defend and protect their traditional territories.