Researching Ayahuasca in the Amazon

Written by Michael Coe, SEB Student Ambassador at Large.

Over the last few months I have been working with several volunteers from Alianza Arkana as well as Laura Dev, the Research Coordinator for Alianza Arkana, to help assess the overall importance and sustainability of medicinal plants among certain Shipibo communities.

Before beginning the research, I participated in a focus group that Alianza Arkana facilitated in the community of Paoyhan, to discuss priority areas that the community would want to focus their efforts for future development.

When we asked the community members who attended the focus group about how they felt about the importance of traditional botanical knowledge, they discussed how having a local botanical garden would help them access plants that have become more difficult to find in the area and aid in passing on local ecological knowledge to younger generations.

I agreed to help with this project, as it will provide a way to give back to the community in a tangible way. During the focus group, community members agreed that the research I had planned for my dissertation, aimed to determine which medicinal plants were important and irreplaceable to the community, would be complementary to the long-term community driven botanical garden project.

To do this work, we interviewed 30 community members of diverse ages about their use of various plants for medicinal purposes, such as for illness, injuries, during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as for artisanal purposes such as dyeing fabrics. We also asked about which plants were easy to access, and whether they were already being grown or managed.

(Laura Dev, Maestro Gilberto Mahua, and Michael Coe in Paoyhan after an interview with the Maestro about important medicinal plants he uses for healing and learning.)

We anticipate that the results from these interviews will aid the community in determining which plants will be essential to include in their botanical garden. Although the botanical garden project is in the initial planning phases now, we are looking forward to developing this project further with the community, and will be writing more about the garden as it progresses.

In a different Shipibo community, we conducted research in efforts to help aid the development of a forest management plan for an economically important medicinal vine species, Banisteriopsis caapi, which is one of the two plants used to make ayahuasca, a culturally important psychoactive brew.

I designed a demographic project and worked with Laura Dev, Diego Kau, Orestes Rengifo, and Karl Vikat from Alianza Arkana, as well as other Shipibo community members, to assess the effect of harvest on wild populations of vines in the community territory.  In total, we gathered the first season of plant demographic data on a wild population of over 200 B. caapi vines located in a primary forested area of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, owned and managed by the Shipibo community.


(Wild Banisteriopsis caapi a.k.a ayahuasca growing in the Peruvian Amazon.)





During our field work, we spent seven days in the forest taking measurements of vines, and mapping out plots over the territory. We set up 6 plots (3 with high harvest levels and 3 with low harvest levels), to assess the effect of harvest pressure. The conditions were both challenging and rewarding, with long days walking through the dense forest in the heat without clear paths, locating plants. One of the greatest challenges we faced, to be honest, is that every time we stopped to take measurements or record notes, we were feasted upon by relentless swarms of mosquitoes, more intensely than we had ever hoped to experience.

Despite the discomforts at the time, we learned a lot from the experience, and our admiration of our local Shipibo guides only increased as we saw how effortlessly and skillfully they navigated this difficult terrain, and how deeply they knew the plants and the forest. We are grateful for the opportunity to see the plants in their native habitat and to begin this project, which we anticipate will contribute to helping these important plants persist over time.

We will follow up with at least one more year of demographic data to fulfill essential data requirements needed to assess long term population dynamics of the vines. This study has the potential to illustrate the critical importance of carefully managing harvest regimes of B. caapi populations. Managers employing harvest regimes based on results informed by this study will have greater capacity to develop more realistic management plans that are ecologically sound with respect to long term sustainability of B. caapi harvested populations.

(Karl Vikat, Laura Dev, and Michael Coe ready to head out into the forest to begin setting up plots and taking measurements for an ayahuasca vine sustainability study outside of a Shipibo community).


A version of this article was first published on the Alianza Arkana website, and was reproduced with permission of the author.




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