Ayahuasca: National Cultural Heritage

On June 24, 2008, the Peruvian National Institute of Culture resolved that indigenous ayahuasca rituals — “one of the fundamental pillars of the identity of Amazonian peoples” — are part of the national cultural heritage of Peru, and are to be protected, in order to ensure their cultural continuity. The National Institute of Culture is charged by statute with recording, publishing, and protecting the Peruvian national cultural heritage.

The resolution explicitly differentiates the traditional use and sacred character of indigenous ayahuasca rituals from “decontextualized, consumerist, and commercial western uses.”

The resolution is based on a May 29, 2008, report originally submitted by Rosa Giove Nakazawa, a physician at the Takiwasi Center in Tarapoto, to the Regional Bureau for Economic Development, a local governmental entity in the departamento of San Martin. The Takiwasi Center is a medical facility investigating the treatment of addictions using traditional Amazonian medicine, including ayahuasca.

The Resolution states that ayahuasca is "a plant species with an extraordinary cultural history, by virtue of its psychotropic qualities and its use as a drink combined with the plant known as chacruna.” This plant, the Resolution says,

is known to the indigenous Amazonian world as a wise or teaching plant, which shows to initiates the very foundations of the world and its components. The effect of its consumption is to enter into the spiritual world and its secrets … The effects of ayahuasca, widely studied because of their complexity, differ from those usually produced by hallucinogens. Part of this difference consists in the ritual which accompanies its consumption, which leads to a variety of effects which are always within culturally defined limits, and with religious, therapeutic, and culturally affirmative intentions.

It is not clear to me what legal effect this resolution has, or what powers the National Institute of Culture has to enforce it, or whether this means that support is available for additional research and publication on ayahuasca rituals, or whether the resolution is intended to encourage or discourage ayahuasca tourism.

It is also not clear what impact — if any — the resolution might have on drug prosecutions in the United States; but, given the specific disclaimer language cited above, it might make it more difficult for North Americans to claim religious exemptions from US drug laws.

The complete text of the resolution is here.


A Parable

Harry West is an anthropologist who currently teaches at the University of London. Back in 1994, he spent a year living with the inhabitants of the Mueda plateau in northern Mozambique, studying, among other things, their ideas about sorcery. One of the things he learned was that, when the villagers saw a lion, they often speculated that it might not be an ordinary lion, but might instead be a sorcerer who had turned into a lion, or a lion that had been created by a sorcerer, and was in either case intended to eat the flesh of the sorcerer’s enemies, either through a physical attack or by causing chronic sickness.

West had been helped in his research by an organization called the Arquivos do Patrimônio Cultural (ARPAC), the Cultural Heritage Archives, especially by a staff researcher named Eusébio Tissa Kairo. As partial repayment for this help, West gave a talk about his research to an audience of about two dozen people at the ARPAC provincial office. He wanted, he says, to encourage the ARPAC ethnographers to engage more deeply in anthropological theory, so his presentation was about the ideas of anthropologist Victor Turner on the interpretation of cultural symbols.

He told his audience about Turner's famous symbolic analysis of the girls' puberty ritual among the Ndembu, and about Turner's belief that anthropologists — including ARPAC ethnographers — can see and interpret such ritual events in ways unavailable to the participants themselves. He then set forth Muedan beliefs about lions, most of which were, of course, already familiar to the Muedans in his audience.

Finally, he told his audience, consistent with Turner's theory, that lions had symbolic meanings to Muedans unarticulated by the Muedans themselves. Lions symbolized both dangerous predation and royal protection, and represented a deep ambivalence toward the use of power in the social world — a cultural contradiction, he said, between the idea that power was necessary for the common good and at the same time an ever-present threat.

The talk was followed by a long silence, and then a few inconsequential questions about minor ethnographic details. Finally, one of the Muedans in the audience cleared his throat. “Andiliki,” he said, using West's Muedan name, “I think you misunderstand."

"How so?" said West, nervously.

"These lions that you talk about … ” The Muedan paused, and then continued politely but firmly. “They aren’t symbols — they’re real.”