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Global ayahuasca trend drives deforestation in Brazil’s Acre state

  • The growing popularity and increased commercialization of ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew, may be harming the Amazon forest where its two key ingredients grow.
  • In the Brazilian state of Acre, regulations in place since 2010 have done little to curb the threats to the native Psychotria viridis shrub and the Banisteriopsis caapi vine.
  • Traditional proponents of ayahuasca say the absence of meaningful environmental safeguards leaves the authorities powerless to act against the outside forces clearing rainforest for these increasingly rare and valuable plants.

“Where does your ayahuasca come from?” is a question many drinkers of the psychoactive Amazonian brew would just as soon not ask of their suppliers. But Thiago Martins e Silva, a devotee of Santo Daime, a religion whose rituals are based on the purifying power of this drink, and trained forester in Brazil’s northern Acre state, wants them to find out.

In a 2017 video posted to YouTube titled “Is your ayahuasca sustainable?”, Martins warns that vastly increased international demand for ayahuasca is motivating unsustainable harvesting of the vine and leaf used to make it, and that often it’s concocted for profit, and sometimes with stolen ingredients, made “any old way” by people who don’t even drink it themselves and who don’t care about the future of the forest.

As the scene jumps to a shot of a chainsaw-wielding man in the forest cutting down a tree to retrieve the vine growing on it, Martins warns viewers that they may be drinking ayahuasca with “good intentions,” but if its source is unknown, there’s a risk that it “wasn’t produced with good intentions,” and “that’s harmful for the forest.”

Accelerating deforestation in Acre, and in Brazil widely, and a growing international ayahuasca trade pose twin threats to Santo Daime’s century-old ayahuasca culture, despite efforts to protect it. For more than a decade, state regulations have governed the extraction of the plants used to make ayahuasca, and have banned its production for profit and tourism. But members of its oldest Santo Daime churches tell Mongabay the rules have done little to mitigate either threat. In response, adherents of Santo Daime say the churches have had to fight to sustain themselves, and to seek self-sufficiency by increasing their own plantings of the vine and leaf.

Jair Facundes tells of helping make ayahuasca for his church as a child in Acre’s capital, Rio Branco, in the late 1970s. “When the adults would bring the leaves from the forest,” he told Mongabay in a video interview, “they’d have detritus in them — twigs, spiderwebs — and so they’d spread them out on a table and the kids would clean them up.” Once cleaned, the leaves — from the shrub Psychotria viridis, a relative of the coffee plant — are added to mashed pieces of the vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, to be boiled in large pots for hours over a raging hardwood fire. While these two plants are the staple ingredients of all ayahuasca drinks found throughout the Amazon, different communities have their own variations; for the Santo Daime devotees, their particular blend of ayahuasca is called simply daime.

A cultivated Psychotria viridis shrub in fruit in Rio Branco, Acre state. A relative of the coffee plant, its leaves can be harvested every six months without harming the plant. Image by Matthew Meyer for Mongabay.
A cultivated Banisteriopsis caapi vine twining around a tree in Rio Branco, Acre state. If left to regrow, the vine can be harvested again in about five years, making its sustainable use more pressing. Image by Matthew Meyer for Mongabay.

Traditional daime production is a process involving the whole community. Women and children could help with the leaves, but harvesting the vine, pounding it, and cooking the daime were strictly men’s work, this reporter learned from past fieldwork in the region. For their part, the men must harvest the vine within three days of the new moon, and prepare the drink in a special building at the forest’s edge while observing strict dietary and sexual taboos. When the daime is consumed — in folk Catholic rituals centered either on dancing and hymn-singing or seated meditation — its suitability for spiritual “work” is understood to depend on the purity of intention instilled in it by this sacred production process.

Facundes, who is now a federal judge, helps run the Forest Queen Center, one of a number of Santo Daime churches in Rio Branco’s outlying Irineu Serra neighborhood, named after the faith’s founder. For Facundes, an outspoken critic of ayahuasca’s commercialization, insisting on volunteer labor and transparent accounting of church expenses — down to toilet paper and cleaning supplies — are keys to staying true to “Mestre” (Master) Irineu’s commitment never to charge for his spiritual work. That commitment, he says, is why “it’s called daime [‘give me’] not vendaime [‘sell me’].”

For the first several decades of Santo Daime’s existence, it was a strictly regional practice, and with towering forests throughout Acre, its adherents faced little difficulty acquiring the plants to make the ayahuasca. Mestre Irineu, a native of northeastern Maranhão state, arrived in the area as a young man around 1910, part of a wave of rubber boom-era migration, according to research on Santo Daime’s origins. He learned to make and use ayahuasca in the border area between Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, and by the 1920s had brought the practice to Rio Branco.

Indigenous people across the Upper Amazon had used ayahuasca for centuries, if not millennia; in bringing it to the city, Mestre Irineu placed it in a new context, as part of a reportedly Christian mission received, according to church lore, from the Virgin Mary, who appeared to him as the “Forest Queen.” At the time of his death, in 1971, the congregation numbered in the hundreds.

The number of people flocking to the Amazon grew quickly in the 1970s as it became a focus of the military regime’s land reform, development, and national security policies. For Santo Daime, it was a momentous time, attracting itinerant southern spiritual seekers, who soon established the first Santo Daime churches outside the Amazon, most notably in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, thereby beginning the expansion process that accounts for much of today’s global demand for ayahuasca.

Mashed vine and leaf await the addition of water before being cooked over a fire at the Forest Queen Center in Rio Branco, Acre state. Image by Matthew Meyer for Mongabay.
In the Santo Daime tradition, the vine is pounded with hardwood mallets in preparation for being cooked with the leaves at the Forest Queen Center in Rio Branco, Acre state. Image by Matthew Meyer for Mongabay.

The Forest Queen Center, with its several adjoining hectares of forest, is able to meet its need for daime with cultivated plants, but it’s a small group, with just a few dozen members, Facundes says. Trucks ferry large loads of B. caapi vines along the highways here, he adds, but they’re rarely stopped by officials. “Just one of these trucks would provide enough vine to supply the oldest Daime centers for five years,” Facundes says. “The situation today is worse than it’s ever been. It’s sad.”

Saturnino Brito administers Fortaleza, a Santo Daime church located on a couple of hundred hectares of an old rubber camp in the municipality of Capixaba, about 60 kilometers (38 miles) from Rio Branco. He describes seeing a typical pattern of deforestation unfold on neighboring properties in last 20 years since the religious center was founded: smallholders in resettlement projects clear the forest to farm, then sell their plots to larger ranchers when it gets difficult to make a living from them. The ranchers then consolidate several small plots into a larger one and convert it all to pasture, Brito adds in a phone interview. “Sometimes they’ll leave a small patch of forest, and you go into it and find all kinds of vine and leaf. It makes you sad for what was lost in the rest of the forest that was cut down.”

Acre’s current rules on harvesting the vine and the leaf were outlined in 2010 to preserve the plants as a means of ensuring the sustainability of its rubber-boom-era ayahuasca culture, which was formally recognized as state cultural heritage in 2006. The regulations mostly duplicate those put in place by IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency, in 2003, requiring ayahuasca centers to register with the state, to keep track of their production and consumption of ayahuasca, and to limit the quantities of vine and leaf they harvest. On paper, the rules are demanding, says Martins, the forester, in a recent video call. In practice, the state’s environmental agency, IMAC, “lacks legs” to enforce them, he adds. As a result, Martins says, the regulations compel responsible ayahuasca centers to play by the rules, but do little to stop those that serve the commercial market.

Lax enforcement, growing demand for ayahuasca, and rising rates of deforestation have combined to make the drink’s ingredients increasingly scarce, especially the slow-growing B. caapi vine, Martins says. With about 80% of its forest canopy still intact, Acre is one of Brazil’s least-deforested Amazonian states. But the areas around Rio Branco and other municipalities have been cleared much more extensively, and in 2021, three of those towns — Feijó, Tarauacá and Sena Madureira — ranked among the top 10 Amazonian cities in terms of total area deforested.

At the same time, IMAC, the state environmental regulator, is stretched thin watching over everything “from gas stations to general forest management,” according to Cristiane Souza, a forester at the agency. Complaints about unauthorized ayahuasca production are rare, she tells Mongabay in a phone interview, and it’s been “three or four years” since IMAC has received any. Facundes, the federal judge, and Cosmo Lima, a prosecutor of Acre’s State Public Ministry, who is also an adherent of Santo Daime, say that, to their knowledge, there have been no prosecutions for unauthorized harvesting of the regulated plants during this time.

This period coincides with the administrations of both Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Acre Governor Gladson Cameli, both notorious for their anti-environment policies. Cameli, the scion of a powerful family from the north of the state and a Bolsonaro ally, broke the 20-year hold on the Acre governorship by the Workers’ Party (PT) with his election in 2018. Since then, he’s worked to undo the PT legacy that favored environmental and cultural causes. This legacy, summed up in the concept of florestania (a neologism evoking “forest citizenship”), was what helped move the discussion around ayahuasca from being an issue of drug policy to one of cultural heritage, Santo Daime adherents say.

A Santo Daime ceremony in Boca do Acre, in Amazonas state, 2017.                                Image by Karla Mendes/Mongabay.

Toinho Alves is the spokesperson at the church established by Mestre Irineu, today known as CICLU-Alto Santo and headed by Serra’s widow, Peregrina Gomes Serra. He was also a key architect of the PT’s policies in Acre during its 20-year rule. For Alves, deforestation and commercialization are aspects of the “outside pressures” the church is facing. As urban growth threatens to envelop the Irineu Serra neighborhood, he says, the church has found an important tool in the area’s 2005 designation as an environmental protection area (APA), giving it a voice in projects — like a bypass highway and high-voltage power lines — that threaten its quality of life.

With its church surrounded by one of the largest unbroken areas of forest in Rio Branco, CICLU-Alto Santo is well positioned to sustain its 300 members with cultivated vine and leaf to make daime. But the stresses on the natural resources are symptoms of a deeper malaise that’s part of what gives the church grist for its spiritual work, Alves says: a tension between dominion over nature and belonging to it. Buying ayahuasca expresses the desire for dominion, he says, in contrast to the relationship to the natural world that Santo Daime is about.

After two decades of progress that made it possible to treat Acre’s ayahuasca churches as a matter of cultural heritage instead of drug use, the churches seem caught up in a new wave of extractivism fed by weakened environmental policy.

Martins, the forester, doesn’t put much faith in environmental regulations to make the difference for Acre’s ayahuasca culture. He points to a fire that burned a large portion of a popular park in Rio Branco a couple of weeks earlier. The fire, which he says was an act of arson, threatened the municipal environmental secretariat, whose headquarters are in the park. “If they can start a fire right under the nose of the environmental authorities and not get caught,” Martins says, “how is the state going to do anything about somebody out in the forest at night making ayahuasca for sale?”

Banner image: Straining ayahuasca at the Forest Queen Center in Rio Branco, Acre state. The unfinished liquid is strained several times and added to fresh plant material to strengthen the brew. Image by Matthew Meyer for Mongabay.

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