Last July, nearly 300 Sarayaku from the Ecuadorian Amazon gathered at the Teatro Capitol, an iconic theatre in Quito, to make a radical proposal to both the Ecuadorian government and the world. They called on the international community to establish a new category of conservation that recognizes the natural world as an intelligent, sacred ecosystem comprised of parts that all depend on one another to thrive. This category known as Kawsak Sacha, or the Living Forest, is about shifting the perception of nature, it says, “as an undemanding source of raw materials destined exclusively for human use” to one that deserves respect, not only because of what it supports, but also because of what it inherently is.
The proposal was formally handed from Mirian Cisneros, President of Sarayaku, to Elizabeth Cabezas, President of the National Assembly, Ecuador’s Congress, in a moment that was historic for the Sarayaku people. They worked on the proposal for decades, but, in reality, the knowledge contained within it is thousands of years old. It’s been accumulated, in large part, by Sarayaku and other Indigenous peoples who through generations of living and spiritual practices have cultivated an understanding of the Amazon’s ecosystem they believe is essential to its preservation.
Of the roughly 400 indigenous groups in the Amazon, approximately 100 of them, according to indigenous activist Daiara Tukano, drink ayahuasca as a part of these practices. The psychoactive tea – made from a vine in the Amazon called Banisteriopsis Caapi and Psychotria viridis (which contains the psychoactive DMT) and sometimes other plants – has grown exponentially in popularity in urban areas around the globe in the last decade. The experience typically lasts four to six hours, causing vivid visions as well as insights. As these practices have globalized, ayahuasca has become known as a tool for personal healing. In indigenous communities, however, it’s much more.
“A lot of the Indigenous people in the Amazon, they’re deeply connected to the forest,” says Leila Salazar-López, Executive Director of Amazon Watch, on the role of ayahuasca in Amazonian preservation. “Their most powerful, knowledgeable elders sensed and saw what was to come, whether it be the bulldozers coming or the extraction of the blood of mother earth and they warned their people and they guided their people on what to do, whether it be to resist or pray or organize or come together or reach out to people outside their community in solidarity and guidance.”
Miguel Evanjuanoy, an Inga from Colombia, engineer, and member of UMIYAC, the Union of Indigenous Medics and Yageceros of Colombia, speaks to how his community’s elders and the yagé (ayahuasca) ceremonies they hold play an integral role in ensuring the health of the rainforest. Together, when the community drinks yagé, they work on healing the psychological trauma of watching their land be exploited for resources and the violence that has resulted from that. But they believe they also heal the plant spirits, the rocks, the rivers, the rain and the animals. These deep collective experiences also keep them bonded as a community, more capable of working together to come up with creative solutions for resisting outside forces encroaching upon their rights and territory. While perhaps difficult to explain to an outsider, for communities like Evanjuanoy’s, these things are inextricably tied.
“For working purposes, you might separate the personal, the community and the planet, but within the vision, the cosmology of Indigenous communities of the Amazon rainforest, you do not separate the individual from the community from the planet, that’s fictitious,” says Evanjuanoy. “Individual health is collective health, collective health includes the territory. We’re talking about one ecosystem which is inseparable and it’s very important to view it as one.”
UMIYAC uses their ceremonial practices to fuel political action. They organize mingas, a Colombian term for social gatherings, where they think collectively about the world’s problems, from the migrant crisis in Europe to the commodification of yagé. They also advocate for Indigenous rights with the Colombian government and international bodies like the United Nations.
According to both Salazar-López and Riccardo Vitale, a social anthropologist who works with UMIYAC, the Indigenous cosmologies of interconnectedness explain why communities in the Amazon are so skilled at living in harmony with their environment. It’s confirmed by extensive research, says Salazar-López, that Indigenous and community-managed forests are better protected than national parks and extracted reserves. It’s no coincidence, she says, that, according to the United Nations, Indigenous peoples only make up four percent of the global population, but hold 20 percent of the global land mass containing 80 percent of the biodiversity on the planet.
Vitale recently concluded a two-year study with Oxfam America which looked at case studies in Latin America and Asia of how Indigenous communities are coping with climate change and disaster risk reduction.
“The message we decided to send forward is basically this,” said Vitale. “We need to understand the resilience of Indigenous people and incorporate this knowledge into development models if we want to take a step in the right direction and reduce pollution so that the human race can maintain the standard of living it envisions.”
It’s an ambitious goal, but there is a movement of organizations working towards building respect for Indigenous knowledge. This spring, the World Ayahuasca Conference, hosted by the NGO ICEERS (the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service), is bringing together more than 1000 Indigenous peoples, researchers, conservation groups, and thought leaders to talk about how their interest in practices with psychoactive plants might be used as a jumping off point for addressing sustainability and Amazonian deforestation, among other timely issues.
“As a global society, we’re definitely in a moment of crisis,” says Andrea Langlois, ICEERS’ Director of Engagement. “Indigenous communities hold important knowledge about living harmony with the planet and are stewards of some of the most important ecological sites in the world, so to create a space where that knowledge can be shared is essential.”
The conference will be connecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups to think creatively about how they might collaborate, and will be a meeting place for Indigenous groups from neighboring countries who rarely have the opportunity to get together and build networks of solidarity. ICEERS is creating an autonomous Indigenous space where these groups can engage in dialogue, however feels most comfortable and productive for them. ICEERS, Langlois says, doesn’t “have an agenda,” per say, about what will unfold. They merely want to create an opportunity for fruitful dialogue born from the sense that ayahuasca and other plant medicine practices foster a sense of greater connection with others and the world.
It’s time, Langlois says, to think about how this connection can be transformed into concrete action for a better world.
Shelby Hartman is a journalist who has written about psychedelics and mental health for VICE, Quartz, and Rolling Stone, among others.