An important place where we should pause our sights and minds is on the persistent link between these forms of violence and the transnational policies that have shaped the commercialization and penalization of so-called narcotics.

On April 20, an Indigenous Nasa governor from Colombia, Sandra Liliana Peña, was assassinated. Her death is evidence of the intensification of violence against the defenders of Amazonian territories where the consequences of decades of state and market policies continue to be felt in the high numbers of affected, displaced, and murdered people. As in so many other countries of Abya Yala, to belong to an Indigenous or Black community and to be an environmental defender, demand justice, and exercise self-determination with respect to one’s land, culture, and governance often comes with a death sentence. How many names must be remembered and exclaimed out loud in order to not forget? And what are some of the threads that help us understand the connection between the lives and deaths of Sandra Liliana Peña and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman murdered after a “no-knock” warrant was ordered at her home in Louisville, Kentucky on the night of March 13, 2020? An important place where we should pause our sights and minds is on the persistent link between these forms of violence and the transnational policies that have shaped the commercialization and penalization of so-called narcotics.

In Colombia, the cultivation and eradication of the coca plant are not a vestige of the twentieth century, like Pablo Escobar’s tragicomic hippopotamuses. The War on Drugs continues to be lived through the direct and indirect violence perpetrated by governments and armed groups against small farmers and community members, and through the aerial application of glyphosates in what appears to be an endless strategy to eradicate coca plantations. And yet, the global demand for cocaine persists and its illicit status has brought about death and imprisonment for families trapped in this death economy, both north and south of the U.S.-Mexico border. This “War on Drugs” has also invited other forms of profit, most clearly exemplified in the arms trade and in the growth of for-profit prisons. The victims, once again, are disproportionately Black, Latinx, Indigenous; the “damned of the earth” who Martinican revolutionary psychologist Frantz Fanon wrote of.

In the meantime, there is a mounting debate across the United States around the decriminalization of “sacred plants,” or “entheogens.” Ayahuasca, or yagé, psilocybin mushrooms, and other entheogens (including cannabis) have become a part of the “psychedelic renaissance” that is rooted in personal and collective healing based on medicines and sacraments that are greatly valued by Indigenous peoples across different regions of the continent. Likewise, clinical studies have gained visibility for demonstrating the capacity that plants and chemical elements have in treating depression, post-traumatic stress, alcoholism, and even addiction to the opiates that have set off a sustained wave of death across the land recognized as the United States.

The money trail enthusiastically follows these discoveries and studies, as evidenced in the investments made in these clinical trials, new pharmaceutical initiatives, and healing centers and retreats. Even the successful author Michael Pollan has moved from writing about apples and culinary arts to publishing about his experiences with Bufo alvarius and ayahuasca; he now co-directs a research initiative on psychedelics at the University of California, Berkeley.

I now can appreciate with far more clarity the ecosystems that makes up the world of psychedelics, and I can see with greater preoccupation the distance that exists between a diversity of actors and protagonists that make up this world—this includes users in the Global North, as well as healers from Indigenous communities and the very ecologies these plants are endemic to in the Global South.

As someone who grew up in a household overhearing about friends and acquaintances who had died or were imprisoned because of the criminalization of psychotropic substances, I see many reasons to celebrate an opening for research and decriminalization of such substances. But I also grew up in a household where peyote was considered a plant of respect with its slow and admirable growth, and with the careful preparations that led to its ceremonial consumption that reflected care and sacrifice. I now can appreciate with far more clarity the ecosystems that makes up the world of psychedelics, and I can see with greater preoccupation the distance that exists between a diversity of actors and protagonists that make up this world—this includes users in the Global North, as well as healers from Indigenous communities and the very ecologies these plants are endemic to in the Global South.

Discover Indigenous Reciprocity Iniciative of the Americas

In the first conference on Sacred Plants of the Americas, carried out in February of 2018 in Ajijic, Mexico, the Chacruna Institute brought together several key actors, providing a space to share knowledge and invite debate. Over the years, there have been other conferences that focused on psychedelics, but for the first time, the keynote speakers and the closing ceremony were led by Indigenous peoples, in their languages, based on their ontologies and epistemologies, with both grace and a strong warning to the public about overconsumption and the trivialization of their ancestral plants and ceremonies.

From then on, Chacruna has increasingly sought to center the voices of a variety of people who continue to be marginalized in debates about psychedelics. This space is increasingly shining a light on the structural inequities present, and the strategies that can be shared around confronting the effects of the globalization and marketing of sacred plants and entheogens.

The conference reflected diversity and interdisciplinarity, providing space to share clinical studies and academic research on psychedelic-assisted therapies, as well as space to debate ethical arguments pertaining to new pharmaceutical and philanthropic initiatives.

Three years after its first conference, Sacred Plants of the Americas II took place on a virtual platform from April 23–25, and included the participation of 94 researchers and activists, each one attending from their respective geography. The conference reflected diversity and interdisciplinarity, providing space to share clinical studies and academic research on psychedelic-assisted therapies, as well as space to debate ethical arguments pertaining to new pharmaceutical and philanthropic initiatives. We heard from women on specific traditional and contemporary uses of entheogens, how race and psychedelics intersect, and the recent phenomenon of “conspirituality.” Chacruna also launched the Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative of the Americas that aims to direct public support to a variety of grassroots Indigenous organizations across the continent.

After a year of living through the physical, mental, and financial consequences of the COVID-19 epidemic, it is clear that interest in the potential of these plants and animals has not diminished. Meanwhile, new financial investments and legislative changes have continued to gather steam, opening the path for more widespread use. Undoubtedly, this brings up important debates on equitable access, rights, and sustainability. However, one of the most delicate and urgent issues at hand is the consequences that this boom has on Indigenous peoples and their territories already plundered by centuries of ecological and cultural extraction. Many speakers spoke directly to the economic, cultural, and political pressures that they live under as a result of tourists, researchers, and new spiritual circles.

The hope is that these gatherings and conversations signal a transformation and the possible democratization of the voices of those who can influence the accelerated movements that this psychedelic ecosystem has made. But, for this to occur and take on strong roots, it remains fundamental to pause our sight and reflect on our diverse positionalities in order to consider the forms of violence that are systematically present in the territories that foster the knowledge within the endemic land base of these traditional medical practices and cultures.

We cannot speak of reciprocity with ease when Indigenous peoples continue to face high levels of poverty and suffer the imposition of large capital projects. Similar realities are shared across tribal peoples from the Dakotas and Texas, to Sonora, San Luis Potosí, and Oaxaca; following the cacao roads of Central America, until reaching the Amazonian Basin, where human and non-human life is being threatened by governments, militias, and corporations.

We cannot speak of reciprocity with ease when Indigenous peoples continue to face high levels of poverty and suffer the imposition of large capital projects. Similar realities are shared across tribal peoples from the Dakotas and Texas, to Sonora, San Luis Potosí, and Oaxaca; following the cacao roads of Central America, until reaching the Amazonian Basin, where human and non-human life is being threatened by governments, militias, and corporations.

Communities live without water or with polluted water, the routes of powerful coffee plantations merge with those of the tourist seeking “magic mushrooms,” and the fields and forests that feed the eldest inhabitants of this continental land are burned or polluted. All of this emerged in one form or another during the presentations given at the conference. We have a lot of work ahead of us if we wish to interrupt the damage being done by psychedelic extractivism and to strengthen the path forward in a way that attends to decades of criminalization and that minimizes the ecological, social, and cultural pressures of economies that revolve around these entheogens.

There are innumerable people who, like Sandra Liliana Peña and Breonna Taylor, have been victims to failed drug policies. Their lives and deaths matter. It is for this, and many more reasons, that we must listen to and reflect on the realities that were shared during the conference by Diné, Inga, Mazatec, Huni Kuin, Ne Hiyawak, Rastafari, Shipibo, Tukano, Yawanawa, Wixárika, and other speakers from tribal nations and communities. At the end, the benefits of these knowledge systems and of these plants and animals cannot be celebrated without taking into consideration and putting into practice a relationship of solidarity with the defense of these lands, ecologies, and living communities.

Originally published in Spanish May 7, 2021 in Chacruna Latinoamérica.

Art by Trey Brasher.


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