A small Ecuadorian indigenous community is famous for having driven mining companies out of their Amazonian territory in northern Ecuador. But the CofánAvie natives have another mysterious and fascinating characteristic: they are the masters of ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic, medicinal plant and gateway “to the world of spirits.”
“God once lived here, on this planet,” says Isidro Lucitante, 63, patriarch and “taita” (shaman) of the nine families that make up that community in the village of the Bermejo Ecological Reserve. The sparse CofánAvie population lives scattered in 55,000 hectares of jungles and rivers, along the border with Colombia.”God pulled out one of his hairs and planted it on the ground. Thus, ayahuasca, a source of wisdom, was born,” he adds.
Also known as yagé, it is a decoction traditionally prepared by the peoples of the western Amazon basin from the “Banisteriopsiscaapi” liana.Very popular in the United States and Europe, ayahuasca has become famous as a miracle remedy, recreational hallucinogen, or even a dangerous psychotropic drug.
In Peru, and to a lesser extent in Ecuador, a juicy psychedelic tourism industry has developed around this plant, which is already available in capsules or infusions and is sold on the internet.
Environmental nobel prize
For the CofánAvie, ayahuasca is part of their culture and ancestral cosmogony, it is transmitted from generation to generation and is linked to the exuberant nature that surrounds them. A few privileged visitorsget ready to live the experience.
Every weekend, family members, neighbors, some university students, and a few tourists sit in the hammocks of the maloca, or indigenous communal house, where they drink the strange, bitter, brownish liquid.
Under the supervision of “taita” Isidro and his assistants, among the tobacco, the songs, the nausea and the feverish monologues of the participants, the chaotic, hypnotic journey begins, which takes the conscience to unknown spaces.
First and foremost a remedy
“Our culture comes from the knowledge that our ancestors had of the medicine of yagé, an ancient, sacred plant,” explains Isidro, his copper-skinned face dotted with makeup.Yagé “is first and foremost a remedy,” he stresses.Collected in the forest, the liana is “crushed, mixed with water and boiled for hours. The cook must fast, follow a special diet,” he adds.
The Lucitante ceremony takes place at dusk in the family wooden maloca, painted with parrots, snakes, multicolored panther heads and the faces of illustrious elders of the community.
The Goldman Prize
The CofánAvieare known in Ecuador for having obtained a historic legal victory against the mining industry in 2018. A local court annulled 52 gold mining concessions granted by the Ecuadorian State without consulting or informing the community as required by law.Their fight was honored in 2022 with the Goldman Prize, known as the Nobel Prize for environmentalists, awarded to Alex Lucitante, one of the community leaders.
“It’s not a drug”
Alex, 30, one of the shaman’s sons, organized an indigenous guard and drone surveillance to collect evidence of the miners’ abuses.”It has been a long and difficult fight to protect our territory and nature, a path in which we have been inspired by the wisdom of the ancients and the knowledge of yagé,” says Alex.
He wears a necklace of peccary teeth (a medium-sized mammal similar to a hairy pig) on his chest, a red scarf around his neck, a feather on his nose. This “hero of biodiversity”, as some NGOs call him, officiates at night as his father’s assistant and a singer with a guitar to accompany the trance of the participants.
Connect with the spirits and balance the world
“Thanks to yagé medicine we can connect with the spirits and (…) balance the world. Yagé is a sacred path that invites us to live in harmony with nature,” explains Alex.
In fashion at different parts of the world, ayahuasca can nevertheless be dangerous for those who take antidepressants, suffer from heart or psychotic problems, epileptics and asthmatics.
Although the recipe for CofánAvie was not revealed, this concoction usually contains the hallucinogen DMT (Dimethyltryptamine), which is banned in the United States and other Western countries.”Yagé is not a drug,” Isidro insists in his cavernous voice. “My grandfather drank yagé every week and he died at the age of 115,” he says.
Ayahuasca does not create dependency, according to experts, and on the contrary, it can serve as a treatment for certain addictions. “They come sick, some drug addicts. They leave calm or in better health,” says the old shaman, who started using it when he was five years old.
“Contact with this other world can be dangerous, and it is the role of the shaman to guide and protect the apprentice,” warned in 2004 the main documentary on the subject, “Other Worlds,” by filmmaker Jan Kounen.
Drinking “ayahuasca is a risky proposition”, since the drink “acts as a revealer of the psyche, and one never knows, until they have ingested it, what this powerful hallucinogen will reveal about oneself (…)”, he warns in the book “Two plants that teach: tobacco and ayahuasca” by Jeremy Narby.
It is also a “purge” as the ritual is also known. “You vomit all the bad food and the negative energy accumulated in your body. It’s like a great cleanse,” describes Isidro.Only then “can the visions arrive. First the colors. Then, concentrating, the jungle appears. The animals come, the boa owner of the rivers, the catfish or the jaguar. And finally the people and the spirits (…) but not everyone can see them”, explains the old wise man enigmatically.
In the maloca everyone prepares for the “journey” inside. The fledglings remain apprehensively silent. The most tanned, chatting and joking. The “taita” calls each participant in turns to drink a cup of the disgusting mixture.Everyone settles into their hammocks, eager to walk “the path of the serpent.”