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The Power Of Plant Medicine: How Ayahuasca Communities In Latin America Battled The Covid-19 Pandemic

April 11, 2021 12:40 pm
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The Power Of Plant Medicine: How Ayahuasca Communities In Latin America Battled The Covid-19 Pandemic

This article by Magdalena Tanev was originally published on plantmedicine.org and appears here with permission, via Microdose Psychedelic Insights.

For centuries, the use of the sacred ayahuasca brew has been a vital healing mechanism for indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest, and in recent years, growing numbers of foreigners have flocked to Central and South America to try the medicine. These ceremonies, which are conducted by experienced shamans and facilitators traditionally take place in a group setting of up to dozens of participants, and often entail intense visions and heavy purging throughout the duration.

With the advent of Covid-19 and subsequent social distancing guidelines, however, a number of retreat centers were forced to stop operations. And upon reopening, they made considerable changes to ensure they were taking the necessary precautions. The indigenous communities from which the ayahuasca tradition descends have been hit hard, with many of them living in remote areas with little access to the medical facilities necessary to safely fight the virus. 

Despite all of this, these ayahuasca communities and their indigenous practices have remained resilient. Communities in Peru and Colombia have found ways to preserve the health of their people, while adapting traditional ayahuasca ceremonies to ensure the safety of staff and participants. By turning to traditional plant medicines and their ancestral knowledge, these groups were able to respond to the pandemic and unite their communities.

Adapting Ayahuasca Ceremonies to the New Norm

The initial blow of the Covid-19 pandemic, which first reached South America in late February, 2020, forced many ayahuasca retreat centers to stop receiving guests. Many centers in Colombia didn’t start holding ceremonies again until as late as November last year, after the country endured a strict six-month lockdown. More relaxed restrictions in places like Mexico mean that retreats could take place – but with some adaptations.

Dr. Carlos Alvear Lopez is the medical director and founder of Inscape Recovery, a retreat center in Mexico that offers ayahuasca ceremonies as part of its treatment program. Dr. Alvear Lopez explained that once the center reopened, they limited ceremony participants by half to ten people, advised the use of facemasks in common areas, and took the temperature and oximeter measurements of guests and staff every day.

“These are all suggestions, though,” said Dr Alvear Lopez. “We don’t police our guests. While we haven’t had any issues in the last five months, I recognize that there is always a level of risk. Everyone knows that that risk is there and is responsible for the risks they take.”

Gaurav Dubey, clinical biologist, content editor at Microdose Psychedelic Insights, and guest at Inscape Recovery, echoes this sentiment. “It all boils down to how much of a risk you’re willing to take – and how much you might need the treatment at that point in your life. For many people, the risk of travelling to a ceremony is still smaller than the dangers that might come by foregoing the use of ayahuasca.”

Ayahuasca has the potential to provide crucial therapeutic help for people battling conditions such as depression, anxiety, and addiction. For some, passing up on the opportunity to work with the medicine could have grave consequences down the line.

Kat Courtney, trained ayahuasquera and founder of AfterLife Coaching, explained that it’s not just procedural changes that have taken place around ceremonies. Participants are now also pre-screened more heavily.

“Fear of the medicine is normal, fear of germs is not,” said Courtney. “So for those folks that felt it was too risky, we asked them to stay home until the pandemic starts to lift.” Going into the ceremony with a heavy dose of paranoia could prevent the medicine from having its most profound benefits, as participants may struggle to fully open themselves up to the experience.

In Colombia, the name “yagé” is used for the ayahuasca brew, which is prepared using its own processes and prayers. The pandemic put the breaks on many yagé ceremonies until later in the 2020, as the country endured one of the longest lockdowns worldwide. Alex Mutumbajoy Rojas, a taita (shamanic healer) from the Putumayo region who is based just outside of Medellin, went from holding ceremonies every month or two throughout the year to putting them on hold from mid-March through to November 2020.

“There were many times during this period that I knew that someone needed a lot of help, but I couldn’t do anything,” said Mutumbajoy Rojas. “I simply had to help them solve their problems through words, from a distance.”

Mutumbajoy Rojas resumed with private ceremonies in November, with the first few including no more than five participants, compared to pre-pandemic numbers that went up to 100.

At La Ceiba, a yagé healing center located around 45 minutes outside of Medellin in Girardota, the story was similar. Founders of the center Daniela Villa and Keenan Lee explained that while they couldn’t host their usual monthly public ceremonies, they used the time to work with other plant medicines including mambe, which is made from coca leaves, and ambil, and rapé, derived from tobacco.

Upon reopening at the end of October, ceremonies at La Ceiba have had a limit to the number of participants. Guests must fill out a digital questionnaire before arriving, bring their own sleeping mats and blankets, and drink from their own cups during the ceremony.

But the pandemic painted a much starker picture in the Amazon.

plant medicine psychedelic latin america covid-19 pandemic

A blow to indigenous communities

All across the Amazonian region, where ayahuasca originates, indigenous communities were left scrambling to deal with the advent of a virus for which they were grossly underprepared. Medical infrastructure is scarce in Amazonian cities like Leticia (Colombia), Iquitos (Peru), and Manaus (Brazil), and much of the essential equipment to fight Covid-19, such as ventilators and personal protective equipment was lacking for those who needed it.

In the Colombian Amazon, which is made up of the regions of Amazonas, Putumayo, Guainía, Guaviare, Caquetá, and Vaupés, indigenous communities demanded stricter measures and increased support and resources from public bodies. The pandemic undoubtedly hit the region of Amazonas hardest and fastest in the beginning – a devastating blow considering that more than 75% of people live below the poverty line with the exception of Leticia. Amazonas’ indigenous population saw a mortality rate of 4.93%, compared to the national average of 3.2%.

Jhon Moreno, an indigenous-Kotiria human rights lawyer and specialist in environmental and indigenous justice, explained that there is a lack of qualified medical personnel in the Colombian Amazon, as well as infrastructure which simply cannot handle the pressure of Covid-19.

“The health system is extremely precarious in these rural territories,” said Moreno. “What the pandemic has done is revealed this reality. Many indigenous leaders and organizations have denounced the state’s actions during the pandemic, and demanded an immediate plan of action that works for indigenous communities.”

Rosendo Ahué, who is indigenous-Tikuna and the health advisor to ONIC (Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia), echoed this sentiment. “Many people died in the beginning,” he said. “People weren’t prepared, so we had to react and unite to help our communities.”

In the Peruvian Amazon, where ayahuasca tourism has surged in popularity over the last couple of decades, Covid-19 delivered a devastating blow.

“The Shipibo-Conibo indigenous communities [of Peru] lost almost all of their economic support from tourists and participants,” explained Kat Courtney. “The poverty and devastating impact of the pandemic is only starting to be truly documented.”

Some reports indicate that up to 93% of the population in Iquitos, Peru, could have been infected with the virus. In other more rural parts, such as the Shipibo village of Caimito, locals say that 80% of the community has shown symptoms of the coronavirus.

“The Shipibo-Conibo people in Iquitos have been greatly affected, mostly economically, as they aren’t used to saving money,” explained Santiago Tapia, the manager and spiritual advisor of ayahuasca center Nihue Rao. “At Nihue Rao, we weren’t able to pay the workers who continued to work with us. Some of them did stay however, because of love of the retreat and because we had participants staying with us.”

Olinda Silvano, a Shipibo-Conibo leader and artist, explained that in the beginning, many of the members of her community were engulfed with fear, not only of the virus, but also the economic impact of quarantine measures. “We never thought this tragedy would come to our community,” she said. “We thought it was going to be around for one or two months. When it became clear that wasn’t the case, many of the madres said to me: ‘If Covid doesn’t kill me, hunger will kill me.’”

“I said ‘we’re not going to die. No one is going to abandon us.’ A leader has to care for her bees, not abandon them.”

While Amazonian communities in Peru were undoubtedly afraid of the virus, this sentiment of refusing to be overcome with fear was a common theme among those groups. “When the pandemic arrived, fear was the worst enemy,” noted Miguel Flores, Peruvian musician and ally of the Shipibo-Conibo Community. “Once you’re afraid, your first shield comes down, and then you get sick.”

“But the Shipibo-Conibo will prevail,” he continued. “Their understanding of the plants and their ancestral culture will remain in place, but shaped in a different way from now on.”

plant medicine psychedelic latin america covid-19 pandemic

Sacred medicines to combat fear and enable healing

In the face of a foreign virus which is in many ways reminiscent of the diseases brought to the Amazonian region during European colonization, indigenous communities in Colombia and Peru turned to sacred plant medicines and generations of ancestral knowledge.

Ayahuasca is not the only sacred healing plant in Peru. “With the plants, we’ve always been able to heal. We use ayahuasca, ajo sacha, piri piri, eucalyptus, mático, kion. Plants are our hidden pharmacy,” Olinda Silvano explained. Silvano credits traditional plant medicines for her own recovery from Covid-19, along with the strength of the community, which she says has “turned into a family.”

In Colombia, communities also turned to their “spiritual armor” – the generations of ancestral knowledge and plant medicine traditions – to combat the physical and psychological effects of Covid-19. Jhon Moreno noted how people started using plant medicines as a preventative measure as soon as they found out about Covid-19, together with traditional songs and rituals.

“Many of the people that I speak to in the territories tell me that it’s because of plant medicines and ancestral traditions that the virus didn’t have worse effects in the community,” he said.

“If they didn’t have this system of alternative medicine, these communities would be in a much worse situation, not just with regard to Covid-19 but with other illnesses too.” This was echoed by Mutumbajoy Rojas, who said that elders from his village in Putumayo have been working to find vacunas naturales (natural vaccines) and other plant remedies to combat Covid-19 symptoms and boost the health of people in the community.

Colombian Amazonian communities also incorporated yagé into their efforts to fortify community health, though with protocols in place. Rosendo Ahué explained how while some groups paused group ceremonies during the pandemic, others continued but took precautions including social distancing and disinfection. “The task is to strengthen. Strengthen ourselves internally, strengthen our spiritual work, and strengthen our collective capacity to be able to confront this pandemic,” he said.

Henrri Muchavisoy, a taita from the region of Putumayo who travels to hold ceremonies across Colombia, noted how important yagé has been for his village in reinforcing people’s faith and providing psychological relief. “People are scared of the topic of death. The medicine helps with that, and can be used to solidify people’s faith in God, in plant medicines, and in Mother Nature.”

Muchavisoy also emphasized the importance of providing resources to the sabedores (“knowledgeable ones”) of indigenous groups, which would allow them to uncover and prepare plant medicines that contribute to community health.

Ayahuasca communities in Colombia, Peru, and Mexico showed astonishing adaptability and resilience in the face of the Covid-19 crisis. Only by drawing from their ancestral knowledge of plant medicines and traditional rituals will Amazonian communities be able to face situations like this one. Public bodies must adopt an approach that respects and incorporates this knowledge, and work with local community members and organizations to co-develop an appropriate response to crises like the Covid-19 pandemic.

Rather than buckling under the pressure of the pandemic, these groups united together to leverage the power of plant medicines and reinforce the health and wellbeing of their communities. “Ayahuasca has played a crucial role in seeing the positives of the pandemic,” said Tapia, of Nihue Rao. “We often found ourselves in the negative. But now we can see it as a unique opportunity to heal and learn from the medicine.”

plant medicine psychedelic latin america covid-19 pandemic

Read the original Article on Microdose Psychedelic Insights.

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