The Expanding World Ayahuasca Diaspora

Appropriation, Integration, and Legislation

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Editor(s): 
Beatriz Caiuby Labate, Clancy Cavnar
Vitality of Indigenous Religions
  • New York, NY : 
    Routledge
    , February
     2018.
     244 pages.
     $150.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780415786188.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Bia Labate and her colleagues, who specialize in the study of entheogenic religions, have produced a good number of edited books about ayahuasca-based spirituality, and others are in the making. This collection of essays particularly follows The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinvention and Controversies, edited by Labate, Clancy Cavnar, and Alex K. Gearin in 2016 (Routledge). Labate has emerged as the most authoritative guide in matters ayahuasca, and those who have followed her different books and articles have learned how religions based on the ritual use of ayahuasca, an entheogenic brew made out of Banisteriopsic caapivine, Psychotria viridis leaves, and other natural ingredients, were born in Brazil and expanded internationally. The three main such religions are Santo Daime, the União do Vegetal (UDV), and the Barquinha, with Santo Daime, the largest group, now present in some forty-three countries.

The book edited in 2018 by Labate and Clavnar is not a duplication of The World Ayahuasca Diaspora, nor a simple repository for articles that did not find their place there. Rather, it proposes a broader perspective based on the notions of appropriation and integration, on which a large sociological and anthropological literature now exists. This book is premised on the fact that in the world today the circle of those using ayahuasca, or similar substances, for ritual or spiritual purposes is much larger than the aggregate members of the three original Brazilian religions. Mapping this circle is the book’s ambitious aim.

Of course, it does include the non-Brazilian followers of the three religions, on whom Labate and Glauber Loures de Assis provide a comprehensive and useful bibliography in the first chapter. These groups keep encountering legal challenges in several countries, based on different legal definitions of what uses of mind-altering drugs are allowed in a ritual context. Jonathan Hobbs focuses on the (quite confusing) British situation, and Matthew Conrad on how some legal restrictions are overcome by purchasing ayahuasca online. Ayahuasca religions use different strategies to prove that they are legitimate spiritual paths rather than “drug dealers cults.” Gillian Watt discusses how initially in Ireland Santo Daime tried to introduce itself as a variation of Catholicism. Ireland, however, secularized quickly on the aftermath of some of the largest Catholic pedophile priests scandals in the world, and the Daime found it wise to emphasize its shamanic roots more than the Catholic ones.

The core and the originality of the book is its focus on groups and currents that are not part of the trinity Daime–UDV–Barquinha. The traditional definition of ayahuasca spirituality is that it is a Brazilian path based on the ritual consumption of ayahuasca. Both parts of the definition are called into question in what the authors call the “world ayahuasca diaspora.” First, not all groups and currents exporting internationally “ayahuasca” spirituality are Brazilian. In his fieldwork in Uruguay, Juan Scuro encountered the Camino Rojo (Red Path) from Mexico as a competitor of Santo Daime. Alhena Caicedo Fernández reconstructs the controversial story of the Colombian Comunidad de Paz de Pensamiento Bonito (Peace Community of Nice Thoughts), whose founder, Orlando Gaitán, was arrested in 2015 on charges of sexual abuse of women, some of them minor. Several chapters deal with the complicated world of Peruvian Vegetalismo, including those by Ana Gretel Echazú Böschemeier and Carl Kevin Carew on the contested category of “shaman”; by Labate and Gearin on diets associated with the use of ayahuasca in Western groups; and by Labate and Ilana Seltzer Goldstein on the cooperation between the Huni Kuin tribes of the Peruvian-Brazilian border and Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. In all these groups “ayahuasca,” as used by both the practitioners and the scholars who study them, becomes a convenient category going beyond the original botanical and chemical definition of the Brazilian brew, and including a number of different entheogenic substances that only have in common a South American origin.

Scholars of new religious movements learn from the book that they need to include in their lists of ayahuasca-related religions groups from Peru, Colombia, Mexico and other countries and not only the comparatively better known Daime religions from Brazil. However, as it expands globally, including to Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, and Thailand, ayahuasca spirituality is often spread by tours and seminars given by individual “shamans” for a fee, where becoming a member of a group or movement is not requested. And ayahuasca is appropriated and integrated in a number of New Age-style paths and experiences, which are often far away from the Brazilian religions. Clancy Cavnar reports the positive experience of LGBT ritual consumers of ayahuasca, who have found help there in accepting their identity, but contrasts this with the conservative and homophobic attitude of the UDV. As Silvia Mesturini Capo notes in her chapter, ayahuasca seems to have become a living and proteifom being, transforming and adapting continuously to new possibilities and situations.

The ayahuasca diaspora, as documented in this book, is not a rosy picture only. Ayahuasca spirituality has indigenous roots, although these interacted with the non-indigenous rubber planter culture since the very beginnings of the modern ayahuasca spiritual movement in Brazil. When these roots are appropriated and integrated into Western systems, the question of authenticity obviously arises. For instance, diets associated with ayahuasca seem more similar to contemporary Western and New Age fads than to authentic food shamanism from Amazonia. Contemporary artists such as Neto “cooperate” with native tribes, but one can ask difficult questions about who keeps the significant money involved in the process, who occupies the center stage, and whether the intellectual property of the tribes is recognized and protected, a question of great interest to the United Nations in recent years.

As the book notices, questions of authenticity are inherently ambiguous, and most Western practitioners and “shamans” have little patience with anthropologists who raise them. They argue that, if a path “works,” whether it is “genuinely” Amazonian or has been reinvented in the West is not crucial. But it is also true that the “Amazonian” label sells, and that unpleasant questions about both exploitation of indigenous Americans and manipulation of gullible Western consumers cannot be entirely avoided.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Introvigne is Managing Director at the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Torino, Italy.

Date of Review: 
June 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Beatriz Caiuby Labate has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), Brazil. Her main areas of interest are the study of psychoactive substances, drug policy, shamanism, ritual, and religion. She is Adjunct Faculty at the East-West Psychology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco and Visiting Professor at the Center for Research and Post Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) in Guadalajara. She is co-founder of the Drugs, Politics, and Culture Collective, in Mexico (http://drogaspoliticacultura.net), and co-founder of the Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (NEIP) in Brazil, as well as editor of NEIP’s website (http://www.neip.info). She is also Chief Editor at Chacruna (http://chacruna.net). She is author, co-author, and co-editor of seventeen books, one special-edition journal, and several peer-reviewed articles (http://bialabate.net).

Clancy Cavnar has a doctorate in clinical psychology (Psy.D.) from John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, CA. She currently works in private practice in San Francisco, and is an associate editor at Chacruna (http://chacruna.net), a venue for publication of high-quality academic short texts on plant medicines. She is also a research associate of the Interdisciplinary Group for Psychoactive Studies (NEIP). She combines an eclectic array of interests and activities as clinical psychologist, artist, and researcher. She has a master of fine arts in painting from the San Francisco Art Institute, a master’s in counseling from San Francisco State University, and she completed the Certificate in Psychedelic-Assisted Therapy program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is author and co-author of articles in several peer-reviewed journals and co-editor, with Beatriz Caiuby Labate, of eight books.

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