We know from the ethnographic literature (Tastevin, 1925) that the use of secretions from the kambô frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) is a traditional practice among several Indigenous peoples in the southwest Amazon, especially among Pano-speaking peoples such as the Noke Koĩ, Yawanawá, Matsés, Huni Kuĩ and their neighbors of different linguistic groups along the Peru-Brazil border region (Lima, 2009). Local uses have also been recorded, to a lesser extent, in other regions of the Amazon, such as among the Tikuna people in the border region between Brazil and Colombia (Nimuendajú, 1952) and among the Waiãpi people between Brazil and French Guiana (Lima, 2014). In these indigenous contexts, the substance is used mainly as an emetic, tonic, and stimulant for hunters.
Before gaining fame and spreading globally, kambô had already expanded beyond its original context among caboclo or riverine populations and among rubber tappers who learned about its use from Indigenous people. According to journalist Leandro Altheman Lopes (2000), who documented the expansion of kambô throughout Brazil in the late 90s, and who is currently my colleague in the master’s program in anthropology at Federal University of Paraná, a pioneer in this process of expansion was the former rubber tapper Francisco Gomes Muniz, or Shimbam. He lived among the Noke Koĩ people in the vicinity of Riozinho da Liberdade (a tributary of the Juruá river in Acre), and learned about the use of the “frog vaccine” from them. Subsequently, he moved to Cruzeiro do Sul and began administering kambô to non-Indigenous people there for therapeutic purposes, a reinterpretation of Indigenous practices in an urban context. In the 1990s, he began to travel to larger Brazilian cities administering kambô within the ayahuasca religious communities of União do Vegetal (UDV) and Santo Daime, since he himself was a member of one of these religions.
After the death of Francisco Gomes in the early twenty-first century, the practice expanded within other neoshamanic and New Age circuits, especially those linked to “alternative therapies.” The substance began to be disseminated almost as a panacea, capable of curing ills of all kinds, whether physical, psychic, or spiritual (Lima & Labate, 2007; 2008). Currently, kambô circulates around the world mainly among holistic therapists and neoshamanic networks focused on the use of so-called “forest medicines”: ayahuasca, tobacco snuff, sananga, and kambô.
As might be expected, the accelerated urban expansion of this indigenous practice brought up many important issues surrounding the commercial circulation of traditional knowledge. In 2004, Brazil’s National Health Surveillance Agency, ANVISA, banned the advertisement of kambô in Brazilian territory, due to a website that disclosed possible medical benefits of its use. Shortly beforehand, in 2003, the Noke Koĩ sent a letter to the Ministry of Environment requesting the protection of their traditional knowledge due to its increasing popularity in large cities. The request resulted in the creation of the Kambô Project (Lima, 2009; Martins, 2006), conceived as a broad interdisciplinary effort bringing together anthropologists, biologists, doctors, herpetologists, and Indigenous knowledge keepers around the topic of the “frog vaccine.” The project, however, never came to fruition, encountering difficult issues, such as: equitable financial distribution of any benefits from potential products emerging from pharmacological research, the question of intellectual property concerning a practice shared by more than a dozen Indigenous peoples, and a lack of recognition of Indigenous contributions by scientists, among others (Carneiro da Cunha, 2009; Lima, 2009).
And What About the Frog?
However, with the continuous and growing demand for the substance by different elements of the neoshamanic and New Age scene, further studies are necessary to measure the real ecological impacts on the amphibian population.
A lot has already been written about the urban expansion of kambô and the transformations this practice entailed. However, relatively little is known about the current ecological conditions of the carrier of the substance itself, the tree frog species Phyllomedusa bicolor, and the impacts of its rapid popularization in the last two decades. Until the mid-1990s, the use of kambô was on a small scale, restricted to a few small Amazonian populations. However, with the continuous and growing demand for the substance by different elements of the neoshamanic and New Age scene, further studies are necessary to measure the real ecological impacts on the amphibian population. This issue has been raised most prominently by Edilene Cofacci de Lima (2014), who has worked for more than two decades with the Noke Koĩ, and published a series of articles on traditional uses of kambô and the transformations resulting from expansion of this practice.
To get a sense of the scale of kambô internationalization, besides its uses in neoshamanic circles and holistic therapies, there are also courses promoted by an “international association of kambô practitioners” for those who wish to become “urban applicators”
To get a sense of the scale of kambô internationalization, besides its uses in neoshamanic circles and holistic therapies, there are also courses promoted by an “international association of kambô practitioners” for those who wish to become “urban applicators” (Ribeiro, 2017). In addition, it is possible to find European websites that freely market the substance itself. It is in this new context that considerable challenges arise, such as the question of the conservation of the frog species in the midst of this new demand coming from large cities. In view of the sensitivity of amphibians to environmental change, it seems pertinent to raise various questions, such as the difference between local uses, on a small scale, and large-scale uses resulting from the urban expansion of the practice. To do so, let’s talk briefly about the process of extracting the kambô venom.
The Extraction of the Venom
To collect the venom, the Indigenous people go in search of the tree frog, usually at dawn, by following its characteristic vocalizations. The frog is usually found in branches of trees or shrubs near streams. As the tree frog moves very slowly, the task does not involve any major difficulties. Once found and captured, it is customary to tie its hind and front legs to crossed branches, so that the tree frog is stretched in an “X” shape. In this position, the person responsible for the collection seeks to provoke the animal momentarily so that the poison is expelled from its skin, and then carefully scrapes the skin with a small wooden rod so that the substance is collected. It is not customary to remove an excessive amount of poison from the animal, so as not to “empty” it of its defenses. After the extraction is carried out, the tree frog is returned to the forest and its venom can be used fresh immediately or stored in a palm leaf container for later use, owing to its rapid crystallization.
Despite the momentary stress, it is important to note that local uses of the tree frog do not result in mistreatment, much less damage during the extraction process.
Despite the momentary stress, it is important to note that local uses of the tree frog do not result in mistreatment, much less damage during the extraction process. The irritation to which it is subjected is made only so that it releases the poison more quickly. The process is over quite quickly, since the animal does not need to stay tied up for long. From my research experience with the Yawanawá, including a decade of friendship and several seasons of fieldwork on the Rio Gregório River Indigenous Lands, I always observed great care and respect when handling the kambô frog. Among their neighbors, the Noke Koĩ, Lima (2014) also noted that, owing to the careful collection technique employed, the same specimen can be subjected to venom extraction again after about six months. The same author makes other interesting observations that reinforce the care and respect with which Indigenous people treat the animal. As she noted in her first study on the topic (Lima, 2005), the Noke Koĩ believe that some venomous snakes produce their own poisons from the kambô. Thus, if someone injures the tree frog, they run the risk of being pursued and bitten by a poisonous snake as a form of revenge for mistreating the owners of the “raw material” for their poison.
Although an immediate, superficial assessment may judge the indigenous technique of extracting the frog venom as “abusive,” we must be careful not to impose our own Western moralistic point of view on the process, reducing it to “animal abuse.” This is a traditional practice of Indigenous Amazonian peoples, who have maintained and controlled it in a sustainable way for centuries. This technique is based on modes of management and relating with the environment that certainly do not endanger the frog species carrying this culturally valuable secretion.
But things may be changing with the massive popularization that is now occurring. Although local uses appear to have remained sustainable, the accelerating urban expansion that has taken place over the past 20 years makes it urgent to study possible environmental impacts and threats to the tree frog. E. C. Lima (2015) and myself (Ribeiro, 2017) have raised such concerns in recent publications: Are tree frog populations sufficient to supply this new demand for kambô venom? What are the trade routes taken by the substance as it travels to “urban applicators”? What is the participation of and return to Indigenous people in the process?
Regarding the impacts of this high demand, Lima has mentioned (personal communication, 2021) the fact that, in the vicinity of Cruzeiro do Sul, small farmers have begun to collect the secretion due to high profits that they can generate. pull out The difference between traditional uses in the Amazon and commercialization of the substance in urban areas is clear and needs to be further studied.
Although many of the non-Indigenous “whites” currently involved in the urban use of kambô claim to maintain sustainable practices, it is important to ensure that the power relations inherent in colonialism are not reproduced in other ways.
In this scenario, it is necessary to rethink the transformation of a substance such as kambô into a commodity, given that the consumer society in which we live tends to reproduce capitalist and imperialist models in its relation to the substances, practices, and knowledge of cultural Others. Although many of the non-Indigenous “whites” currently involved in the urban use of kambô claim to maintain sustainable practices, it is important to ensure that the power relations inherent in colonialism are not reproduced in other ways. The exploitation of biodiversity resources from Amazon can have major impacts on local ecosystems, cultures, and economies.
Without rushing to make moral judgments, it is worth reflecting on how, where, and with whom to undergo experiences with certain substances, in order to guarantee, at the very least, the access of Indigenous peoples to this precious resource of the Amazon rainforest, known in the Western world as kambô.
Featured art by Trey Brasher.
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