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A Preliminary Sustainability Report of Ayahuasca Vine in the Peruvian Amazon

By Chris Kilham

Issue 120 of HerbalGram contained the feature article “Ayahuasca Vine Harvesting in the Peruvian Amazon” that detailed work conducted by my Peruvian research team and me to assess the supply of ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi, Malpighiaceae) in Peru’s Loreto and Ucayali departments, where ayahuasca activity is heavily concentrated. The report described findings from two study trips conducted in January and June 2018.

After that article was published, our team conducted two more research expeditions to collect new information. The first of those was in December 2018 in the Pucallpa area in Ucayali department. On both trips, my team members included long-time traveling partner Sergio Cam of Chakarunas Trading Company, boat captain Jaime Baca, and Shipibo agroforestry engineering student Kleylie Vargas.

Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made from ayahuasca vine and other psychoactive plants, usually the leaves of chakruna (Psychotria viridis, Rubiaceae) or huambisa (Diplopterys cabrerana, Malpighiaceae), is now highly popular in Peru and other areas of the Amazon. It also is brewed and exported for increasingly popular ceremonial use in the United States and elsewhere. Ayahuasca has been employed for healing and divination in the Amazon rainforest by various native groups for centuries.

Popular media, music, and film celebrities and two Brazil-based ayahuasca churches, Santo Daime and União do Vegetal, have significantly boosted interest in the brew beyond its native range. Over the past few years, many people have expressed concern that the vine, which needs at least five years to reach maturity, may be imperiled due to overharvesting. Our intention was to investigate ayahuasca forest harvesting and cultivation in Peru’s Loreto and Ucayali departments to assess the population status of the vine.

One piece of the chain of ayahuasca trade we had not seen was the arrival of forest-harvested vine to the port of Pucallpa, the main trading center for vine going to both the Pucallpa and Iquitos areas. Vine that comes into Pucallpa is purchased by local ayahuasceros (ayahuasca shamans) and ayahuasca brewers, and a great deal of the vine is forwarded on to ayahuasca centers in the Iquitos area. We contacted Antonio Cauper, a harvester from Junin Pablo on the Rio Tamaya with whom we had spent time on our second research trip. Antonio informed us that he would be heading into Pucallpa with a load of vine, so we arranged to meet him.

Late morning on a Thursday, Antonio arrived into port on a rapido. So named because they are fast boats, rapidos ply the Ucayali River, acting as buses and taxis, delivering people and goods from one area to another. Rapidos are economical and are used by most people living on or near the rivers to get around. Antonio previously had told us that when he brings a boatload of vine to Pucallpa, he is spotted easily by buyers who work the waterfront. The Pucallpa waterfront is a chaos of boats, both small and large, many hauling cargo, and large vessels carrying hundreds of passengers at a time north to Iquitos along the Ucayali River. Vendors sell food along the shore, and laborers carry goods to and from boats.

A rapido at the Port of Pucallpa

Antonio arrived with eight 30-kg (66-lb) bundles of vine. The rapido had no special cargo space, so the vine was packed between seats. The cost of transport per bundle from Junin Pablo to Pucallpa was 5 soles, or $1.50.

Sergio Cam, Antonio Cauper, and ayahuasca vine on a rapido.

Once Antonio’s rapido arrived, a couple dozen passengers disembarked, and porters went on board to unload cargo. One man hauled out the eight bundles of vine, one bundle at a time, for 1 sol each, or $0.30.

A porter carries vine from a rapido.

Antonio already had arranged to supply this particular load of vine to a specific customer. So, instead of waiting for buyers to spot him, he had the ayahuasca loaded onto a moto, or moto-taxi. The moto is the most popular and economical conveyance in Amazon cities, and these vehicles are used to carry people and goods of all sorts.

The porter loads vine onto a moto.

A Second Conversation with Francis Chauca

After the arrival of Antonio’s load of vine, we headed across Pucallpa to see Francis Chauca, who I mistakenly referred to as Carlos in the first report. Francis runs a warehouse for medicinal plants and is most likely the largest supplier of cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa, Rubiaceae) in the Pucallpa area. Francis recently had purchased 586 hectares of land near Chanajao on the Ucayali River for a biodiversity project that will include large-scale cultivation of ayahuasca vine, as well as chakruna. As we learned on our first two trips, more people either are cultivating ayahuasca or have plans to grow the vine. In our conversations with people who trade plants, we learned that ayahuasca vine cultivation is very much on the minds of traders who see a long future market for ayahuasca.

A truck loaded with cat’s claw at Francis Chauca’s warehouse.

To Lago Imiria

In April 2019, our team returned to the village of Junin Pablo on the Rio Tamaya, where we had visited in June 2018. The five-hour boat trip from Pucallpa to the village offered a thrilling display of wildlife, from many gray and pink river dolphins, to raptors, parrots, and herons, and even a sighting of a giant anteater. While most rivers have experienced a grave decline of wildlife, the Rio Tamaya has been devastated less than other nearby areas. I know that will change in time, as wildlife poachers concentrate more on that region. But for now, traveling that river affords a splendid view of fauna and flora.

The Rio Tamaya

Kleylie, who grew up along the Rio Tamaya, had called a few friends and family before our departure and had received word that many robberies were happening on the Rio Tamaya. The river is busy with loggers, narcos (drug dealers), and robbers. We kept alert but encountered no problems as we rode along.

Once back in Junin Pablo, we checked into Hostel Lobo, an accommodation that offered basic shelter but little comfort. Kleylie located a woman nearby who would boil water for our morning coffee, and we learned how to raise buckets of water from a nearby well for morning bathing and to flush the dry toilet. We re-connected with two harvesters we had met previously, Matteo Teco and Antonio Cauper. Antonio has turned out to be one of our most reliable contacts, and we arranged to go into the forest with him to see wild harvesting of vine and observe the density of the vine.

Antonio and Matteo collect vine in two primary areas in the nearby forest. One area is near Lago Imiria, also known as the Imiria Lagoon. The other is Chauya, another body of water to the east of Imiria. Lago Imiria can be accessed readily by cutting the profuse lilies that grow all around its borders. Chauya is more difficult to reach because the floating waterway borders open and close constantly. Antonio told us that he has gone to Chauya a few times to collect vine, only to wind up lost, as the waterways he traveled to get there had disappeared in a day.

According to both Matteo and Antonio, Lago Imiria has a good amount of vine. But Chauya, they both say, is far richer in vine. Matteo says that he prefers to harvest in Chauya, while Antonio favors Lago Imiria. Both commented that while the forest areas around both Lago Imiria and Chauya contain a super abundance of ayahuasca vine, it is not possible to harvest just anywhere, as the forests are populated by narcos who work plots of coca (Erythroxylum coca, Erythroxylaceae), which are five to 15 hectares in size, and cook the coca in the jungle. The narcos have automatic weapons and jealously guard their plots. Antonio says that he occasionally lets the narcos know that he is a local harvesting vine nearby in the forest.

Early on a Friday morning, we got into our boat with Antonio, his son Nixon, and his daughter Sabina. Armed with machetes, oranges for snacks, and bags for carrying out wild fruits, we headed for Lago Imiria. In a sparsely populated region, Imiria is a majestic body of water, sparkling clean and with abundant fish and birds. The lake is 22 km long and approximately 0.6 km wide, is part of a 135,000-hectare Area of Regional Conservation, and is home to mahogany (Swietenia spp., Meliaceae) and cedar (Cedrus spp., Pinaceae) forests, 15 islands covered with vegetation, and a wealth of ayahuasca vine. The shores of the lake are dense with aquatic plants including the reddish yellow imiria lily, after which the lake is named, plus an abundance of lotuses (Nymphaea spp., Nymphaeaceae). These shores move about, opening and closing lanes of travel.

The majestic Lago Imiria

After traveling on the glistening lake for a few miles, we nosed into an open spot on the shore and tied our boat to a tree near a single cabin. Antonio knew the owner of the cabin and said that our boat and engine would be safe there.

As soon as we started to walk toward the forest, we spotted several ayahuasca vines, but the vines were young and of no interest from a harvesting perspective. Hiking single file into dense forest, we followed Antonio for more than 40 minutes or so. We began to see an abundance of large, older vines. Antonio estimated the age of each vine as we examined them one after another, declaring one eight years old and another 40. In every direction, we encountered mature vines, many of them bearing literally tons of thick branches. Pointing to a very large thick vine, Antonio commented that he would not cut the main vine, because it is a “mother” vine. He would cut only branches, which were excellent for making ayahuasca. He also commented that the density of vines in Chauya was appreciably greater than what we were seeing in the forest around Imiria.

Sabina, Antonio, and Nixon Cauper with a large ayahuasca vine.

Antonio says that he goes into the forest about once every month, often with two or three helpers, gathering an average of 20 bundles of vine at a time. Though we saw no snakes during our time in the forest, we were besieged by mosquitos, and wound up covered with very tiny ticks.

We hiked around the forest for a few hours and encountered an endless number of mature ayahuasca vines, most growing very closely to others. We rarely had to walk more than 10 meters to find another vine. Several vines were as large around as my arm, and a couple were double that thickness. Over the course of a few hours, we easily saw several hundred tons of living vine.

Chris Kilham, Antonio Cauper, and a large ayahuasca vine.

When we had seen enough, we started on the trail back toward our boat. Along the way, we encountered a giant ungurahui (Oenocarpus bataua, Arecaceae) tree. Antonio decided to cut the tree down, to collect the large purple drupes which are similar in appearance and taste to açaí (Euterpe oleracea, Arecaceae) berries, only much larger. After Antonio brought the tree crashing down, we scooped up tens of kilos of fruits into cloth sacks, which we carried out of the forest to the boat

Back in Junin Pablo, Nixon and Sabina had me stand shirtless while they located and removed dozens of sand grain-sized ticks from my torso, arms, and neck. I would find a few more when I returned home to the United States, when the ticks had become engorged with blood and were easier to detect.

Back in the village, Antonio asked me if I would consider being the godfather of his granddaughter Dalixa, the daughter of Sabina, who is only 18 years old. I asked him why he wanted me to do that, and he replied, “because you are a kind man.” I agreed, and we headed over to his house along the lake shore. There, Sabina prepared a bowl of water with some malva (Malva spp., Malvaceae) blossom hand-ground into it. Little Dalixa eyed me somewhat warily, but tolerated me applying the water to her hair and forehead while invoking “en el nombre del padre, del madre, y espiritu santo. After the quick little ceremony we nibbled on ungurahui fruits and relaxed for a while.

The day after our forest hike around Lago Imiria, we headed back to Pucallpa, going with the current and making excellent time.

 

Summary

The four trips that our team has made in the departments of Loreto and Ucayali have given us a good current snapshot of conditions relative to the sustainability of ayahuasca vine. A great deal of cultivation is currently underway, and many of those with whom we spoke believe that cultivation is the only sustainable way forward. But for now, it appears that the supply of vine in the forest is sufficient to meet current demand.

In choosing to assess the sustainability of ayahuasca vine in Loreto and Ucayali departments, I have taken on a project that has no end. It is my hope that the work we have undertaken thus far will serve as a foundation for others. Because ayahuasca is popular, and because export of ayahuasca brew is a significant trade, pressure on wild populations of ayahuasca vine will likely continue. At the same time, cultivation is increasing, and I believe that we will witness a great deal more of this over the next few years.

Many people made valuable contributions to this project. Sergio Cam, Jaime Baca, and Kleylie Vargas made this project possible and proved cheerful and resourceful companions. Antonio, Nixon, and Sabina Cauper helped us greatly in the forest. Matteo Teco and other villagers in Junin Pablo treated us with great hospitality and friendship and made us feel welcome during our stay. I am deeply grateful for everyone who has contributed to this work.

The Medicine Hunter Peru Team: Jaime Baca, Kleylie Vargas, and Sergio Cam

Image credits:

All images ©2019 Chris Kilham

References