Ayahuasca, a drink produced from two plants native to the Amazon region, has gained notoriety in Brazil and internationally, especially because it contains small amounts of DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), a controlled substance under the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. In Brazil, the use of ayahuasca is widespread throughout the country. One can highlight the consumption by several Indigenous groups and the religious groups recognized by the Brazilian government and academic literature as “Brazilian ayahuasca religions” (Labate & Araújo, 2002): Santo Daime, Barquinha, and União do Vegetal (UDV). Besides these groups, there is a series of newer groups classified under the category “neo-ayahuasca groups” (Labate, 2004), referring to new modalities of ayahuasca consumption in urban centers that range from artistic to psychotherapeutic use, incorporating oriental, New Age, neoshamanic elements, and other esoteric features.
Ayahuasca became the subject of public policies in Brazil in the 1980s. Initially, ayahuasca was temporarily banned for six months in 1985. In 1987, the Federal Drug Council (CONFEN) regulated the religious use ayahuasca. After almost two decades of debates, from the 2000s onwards, the regulation process moved progressively toward the public recognition of the use of ayahuasca as a popular cultural and religious manifestation (Antunes, 2019).
However, since the second half of the 2000s, the public policies governing the religious use of ayahuasca have undergone a shift, as the beverage ceases to be the subject of drug policies and becomes the focus of public policies of patrimonialization. One of the milestones of this shift concerns the request for recognition of the religious use of ayahuasca as an Intangible Heritage of Brazilian Culture, sent to the Institute of National Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN) by representatives of Santo Daime (CICLU-Alto Santo), Barquinha, and UDV.
In November 2008, the IPHAN refused the initial request, based on the argument that foods or beverages, as well as philosophies, theologies, and beliefs could not be considered cultural manifestations subject to recognition, only references for the production and reproduction of cultural practices (Santana de Queiroz, 2008). Despite the initial refusal, the IPHAN designated a National Inventory of Cultural References, whose objective was to conduct a survey on the cultural aspects related to the ritual use of ayahuasca.
The Brazilian ayahuasca religions did not limit themselves to asking the IPHAN for this recognition as part of Brazilian cultural heritage. They also organized themselves in order to make their claim public. An important initiative in this regard was the organization of the seminar, “Traditional Ayahuasca Communities,” held in 2010 in Rio Branco, Acre. On that occasion, the ayahuasca religious groups demanded help from municipal, state, and federal agencies for the process of formulating and implementing public policies for “ayahuasca cultures.” The initiative of such groups to invest in the idea of a shared cultural tradition does not, however, mean that there is a consensus or a common goal amongst ayahuasca groups. On the contrary, the recognition process of the religious use of ayahuasca as an intangible heritage of the Brazilian culture is filled with tensions and disputes.
The divergences were initially seen at the “First Meeting of Ayahuasca Diversity,” held in Rio de Janeiro, in 2011. The meeting was organized by the Igreja do Culto Eclético da Fluente Luz Universal (ICEFLU)—the first offshoot from the original church, and the main group responsible for the expansion of Santo Daime at a national and international level—and by independent ayahuasca groups, with the participation of representatives of IPHAN, the Ministry of Culture, and members of various Indigenous groups.
The organizers emphasized the need for an opening for the “diversity that characterized the ayahuasca universe”
The event was marked by a critique directed at the ayahuasca groups from Acre that requested the patrimonialization of the religious use of ayahuasca in 2008. The organizers emphasized the need for an opening for the “diversity that characterized the ayahuasca universe” (Labate & Goulart, 2016, pp. 8–9). The criticism also mentioned the non-inclusion of Indigenous groups in the request and condemned the exclusion of religious groups considered relevant to the tradition of the use of ayahuasca, such as ICEFLU, without any kind of prior consultation or debate (Alverga, 2011).
In light of this, Labate and Goulart (2016, p. 15) argue that the current mobilizations of Brazilian ayahuasca groups around the recognition of the religious use of ayahuasca as part of the national heritage point to important transformations in the public actions, political strategies, and the discourses operating in this debate. On one hand, the shift from the issue of drugs to that of culture has advanced the social recognition of ayahuasca groups. On the other hand, this shift has resulted in changes in the classifications and self-presentations of the different ayahuasca groups.
According to the anthropologists (2016, pp. 10–11), the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the debate on the patrimonialization of ayahuasca highlights several complex and ambiguous aspects, such as the construction of new alliances between Indigenous groups, “ayahuasca religions,” and “neo-ayahuasca” groups.
As a result, Labate and Goulart assert that the alliances between agents and institutions are being redefined throughout the intensification of discussions and negotiations with state agents, especially with the more visible presence of Indigenous groups in the disputes. According to the anthropologists (2016, pp. 10–11), the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in the debate on the patrimonialization of ayahuasca highlights several complex and ambiguous aspects, such as the construction of new alliances between Indigenous groups, “ayahuasca religions,” and “neo-ayahuasca” groups. These new alliances end up blurring boundaries, classifications, and distinctions previously established in the debate.
This new configuration was also highlighted by the anthropologists (Goulart & Labate, 2017) at the Second World Ayahuasca Conference, held in Rio Branco, Brazil, in October 2016. The event was organized by the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service (ICEERS), a non-governmental organization based in Spain. The conference gathered representatives of various Indigenous ethnic groups and ayahuasca religious groups, as well as therapists, sociologists, anthropologists, doctors, politicians, activists, and local authorities, among others (Labate & Assis, 2018).
At the end of the conference, the Indigenous leaders read a letter questioning the organization of the event and stating the necessity of a leading role for Indigenous people in the patrimonialization process
During the event, ICEERS convened a meeting on ayahuasca and cultural heritage. The meeting was closed to the public, and its goal was to discuss proposals on recognition of ayahuasca as a heritage of humanity (Labate & Assis, 2018, p. 226). This universalist stance was questioned by some, generating an open conflict of positions. At the end of the conference, the Indigenous leaders read a letter questioning the organization of the event and stating the necessity of a leading role for Indigenous people in the patrimonialization process (Indigenous People of Acre, 2016).
In a broader perspective, the disputes surrounding these processes are symptomatic of this new direction in the public policies governing the use of ayahuasca, especially with the inclusion of the Indigenous groups. These groups, in turn, claim for themselves the role of predecessors of the use of ayahuasca and call into question the “traditional” label given to ayahuasca religious groups.
The criticism from representatives of Indigenous groups regarding the patrimonialization process was apparent at the First Yubaká Hayrá – Ayahuasca Indigenous Conference, held in 2017 in the Poyanawa Indigenous Land, in Acre. The event raised a series of questions about the patrimonialization of ayahuasca and about the role of Indigenous peoples in this debate. Some of the main Indigenous leaders of Acre emphatically questioned the role of IPHAN, problematizing the legitimacy of the institution to produce a policy that meets the interests of the various Indigenous groups that consume ayahuasca (Santos, 2018).
In addition to the critiques presented by various Indigenous leaders, it is worth noting that one of the main results of the First Indigenous Conference of Ayahuasca was the publication of a document entitled “Internal Recommendation Letter,” signed by representatives of the Indigenous groups present at the event (Dias, 2018).
The letter also presented a concern regarding the possibilities and limits for sharing traditional knowledge with non-Indigenous people.
Among the main points of the document, it was established that the groups should collectively position themselves and reflect on issues such as the use of traditional medicines and the protection of knowledge in the indigenous internal context, as well as the changes observed in traditional uses. It also stressed a concern related to the forms of exchange with non-Indigenous people and the forms of protection of traditional knowledges in view of the transformations resulting from the expansion of the use of ayahuasca. The letter also presented a concern regarding the possibilities and limits for sharing traditional knowledge with non-Indigenous people. Finally, the document also pointed out a series of problems faced by Indigenous groups, such as the lack of commitment from researchers toward the Indigenous movement, and the need for Indigenous groups to take a leading role in the patrimonialization process (Internal Letter of Recommendations, 2017; for more, also check https://chacruna.net/the-first-indigenous-ayahuasca-conference-yubaka-hayra-in-acre-demonstrates-political-cultural-and-spiritual-resistance/).
From this brief look at this intricate debate, it is possible to state that the mobilizations and disputes surrounding the recognition of the religious use of ayahuasca as an “intangible heritage of Brazilian culture” highlight a complex landscape. These controversies are reshaping boundaries and alliances, creating tensions between religious entities, indigenous ethnic groups, state agencies, and civil society groups, and sparking new disputes regarding the possible direction of the patrimonialization process of ayahuasca.
This set of disputes generates concerns regarding the appropriate uses of ayahuasca, and about the extent of notions of tradition, heritage, cultural rights and diversity. As a result, this process attests to the emergence of new forms of collective rights and claims on affirmative actions directed toward the Brazilian state. Moreover, this phenomenon elucidates the legal predicament of identifying “who” and “what” can be considered part of this cultural heritage.
Art by Marialba Quesada.
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The representatives of the Indigenous Peoples of the Juruá Valley- Apolima-Arara, Ashaninka, Huni Kuin, Jaminawa, Jaminawa-Arara, Kuntanawa, Nawa, Noke Koi, Nukini, Puyanawa, Shanenawa, Yawanawá and Shawãdawa (2017, December). Internal letter of recommendations. (2017). Chacruna.net. https://chacruna.net/declaration-of-the-1st-brazilian-indigenous-conference-on-ayahuasca/
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This work is part of a research supported by São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), grant: 2019/11202-0.
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