Chapter 4

In late 1986, I went home to rural Switzerland to write my dissertation. Two years later, after becoming a "doctor of anthropology," I felt compelled to put my ideas to practice. Under Ashaninca influence I had come to consider that practice was the most advanced form of theory. I was tired of doing research. Now I wanted to act.


So I turned my back on the enigma of plant communication.

I started working for Nouvelle Plančte, a small Swiss organization that promotes community development in Third World countries. In 1989, I traveled around the Amazon Basin, talking with indigenous organizations and collecting projects for the legal recognition of indigenous territories. Then I gathered funds for these projects in Europe.

This took up my time for four years. Most of the projects that I presented to individuals, communities, citizen groups, foundations, and even a governmental organization were funded and carried out siiccessfullv.1

Working hand in hand with indigenous organizations. South American topographers and anthropologists did the actual job of land titling. Each country has a different set of laws specifying the requirements for official recognition of indigenous territories.


In Peru, for example, topographers must visit and map in detail the rivers, forests, mountains, fields, and villages used by a given indigenous people, and anthropologists must account for the number of persons occupying the territory and describe their way of life; these documents are then registered with the Ministry of Agriculture, which processes them and issues official land titles in the names of the indigenous communities.


These titles guarantee the collective territorial ownership by people who have occupied the land for millennia, in many cases.

The funds that I raised served to pay the salaries of the anthropologists and topographies, their travel expenses in isolated parts of the rainforest, the materials needed for mapmaking. and the cost of following the documents through the bureaucratic process. The most successful project was carried out in Peru's Putumayo, Napo, and Ampiyacu regions by AIDESEP, the national federation of indigenous organizations of the Peruvian Amazon; they hired the topographers and anthropologists and managed to gain titles to close to one and a half million acres of land for only U.S.$21.525.

Part of my work consisted of flung to South America occasionally, visiting the areas that had been titled, and checking the accounts. Given the difficulties indigenous people often have learning accounting. I was surprised to find in most cases that things had been done according to the plans laid out in the initial projects.

Back in Europe, I would give talks explaining why it makes ecological sense to demarcate the territories of indigenous people in the Amazonian rainforest, saving that they alone know how to use it sustainably I would point out the rational nature of indigenous agricultural techniques such as polyculture and the use of small clearings. The more I talked, however, the more I realized that I was not telling the whole truth as I understood it.

I was not saying that these Amazonian people claim that their botanical knowledge comes from plant-induced hallucinations; I had tried these hallucinogens myself under their supervision, and my encounter with the fluorescent snakes had modified my way of looking at reality. In my hallucinations. I had learned important things - that I am just a human being, for example, and am intimately linked to other life forms and that true reality is more complex than our eyes lead us to believe.

I did not talk about these things, because I was afraid people would not take me seriously.

At this point, 'being taken seriously' had to do with effective fund-raising more than with the fear of disqualification from an academic career.

In June 1992, I went to Rio to attend the world conference on development and environment. At the "Earth Summit." as it was known, everybody had suddenly become aware of the ecological knowledge of indigenous people. The governments of the world mentioned it in every treaty they signed;2 personal care and pharmaceutical companies talked of marketing the natural products of indigenous people at "equitable" prices.3


Meanwhile, ethno-botanists and anthropologists advanced impressive numbers relative to the intellectual property rights of indigenous people: 74 percent of the modern pharmacopoeia's plant-based remedies were first discovered by "traditional" societies: to this day, less than 2 percent of all plant species have been fully tested in laboratories, and the great majority of the remaining 98 percent are in tropical forests; the Amazon contains half of all the plant species on Earth4; and so on.

In Rio the industrial and political worlds were just waking up to the economic potential of tropical plants. The biotechnology of the 1980s had opened up new possibilities for the exploitation of natural resources. The biodiversity of tropical forests suddenly represented a fabulous source of unexploited wealth, but without the botanical knowledge of indigenous people, biotechnicians would be reduced to testing blindly the medicinal properties of the worlds estimated 250,000 plant species.5

Indigenous people let their position on the matter we known during their own conference, held on the outskirts of Rio a week before the official summit. Following the lead of the Amazonian delegates, they declared their opposition to the Convention on Biodiversity that governments were about to sign, because it lacked a concrete mechanism to guarantee the compensation of their botanical knowledge.


The Amazonian representatives based their position on experience: Pharmaceutical companies have a history of going to the Amazon to sample indigenous plant remedies and then of returning to their laboratories to synthesize and patent the active ingredients without leaving anything for those who made the original discovery.

Curare is the best-known example of this kind of poaching. Several millennia ago, Amazonian hunters developed this muscle-paralyzing substance as a blow-gun poison. It kills tree-born animals without poisoning the meat while causing them to relax their grip and fall to the ground. Monkeys, when hit with an untreated arrow, tend to wrap their tails around branches and die out of the archer's reach. In the 1940s, scientists realized that curare could greatly facilitate surgery of the torso and of the vital organs.


Because it interrupts nerve impulses and relaxes all muscles, including breathing muscles. Chemists synthesized derivatives of the plant mixture by modifying the molecular structure of one of its active ingredients. Currently, anesthesiologists who "curarize" their patients use only synthetic compounds. In the entire process, everyone has received compensation for their work except the developers of the original product.'

Most of the time scientists balk at recognizing that "Stone Age Indians" could have developed anything. According to the usual theory. Indians stumbled on natures useful molecules by chance experimentation. In the case of curare, this explanation seems improbable. There are forty types of curares in the Amazon, made from seventy plant species.


The kind used in modern medicine comes from the Western Amazon. To produce it, it is necessary to combine several plants and boil them for seventy-two hours, while avoiding the fragrant but mortal vapors emitted by the broth. The final product is a paste that is inactive unless injected under the skin. If swallowed, it has no effect's. It is difficult to see how anybody could have stumbled on this recipe by chance experimentation.

Besides, how could hunters in the tropical forest, concerned with preserving the quality of the meat, have even imagined an intravenous solution? When one asks these people about the invention of curare, they almost invariably answer that it has a mythical origin. The Tukano of the Colombian Amazon say that the creator of the universe invented curare and gave it to them.9

In Rio, ethnobotanists often cited the example of curare to demonstrate that the knowledge of Amazonian people had already contributed significantly to the development of medical science.


They also discussed other plants of the indigenous pharmacopoeia that had only recently started to interest scientists: An extract of the Pilocarpus jaborandi bush used by the Kayapo and the Guajajara had recently been turned into a glaucoma remedy by Merck, the multinational pharmaceutical company, which was also devising a new anticoagulant based on the tikiuba plant of the Uru-eu-Wau-Wau.


The fruit of Couroupita guienensis used by the Achuar to treat fungal infections, and the leaves of the Aristolochia vine brewed into a tea by the Tirio for the relief of stomachache, also attracted interest, along with many other unidentified plants that indigenous Amazonians use to cure skin lesions, diarrhea, snakebite, and so on.10

At the Earth Summit, even body was talking about the ecological knowledge of indigenous people, but certainly no one was talking about the hallucinatory origin of some of it. as claimed by the indigenous people themselves. Admittedly, most anthropologists and ethnobotanists did not know about it. but even those who did said nothing, presumably because there is no way to do so and be taken seriously.


Colleagues might ask,

"You mean Indians claim they get molecularly verifiable information from their hallucinations? You don't take them literally, do you?"

What could one answer?

It is true that not all of the world's indigenous people use hallucinogenic plants. Even in the Amazon, there are forms of shamanism based on techniques other than the ingestion of hallucinogens; but in Western Amazonia, which includes the Peruvian, Ecuadorian, and Colombian part of the basin, it is hard to find a culture that does not use an entire panoply of psychoactive plants. According to one inventory, there are seventy-two ayahuasca-using cultures in Western Amazonia.

Richard Evans Schultes, the foremost ethnobotanist of the twentieth century, writes about the healers of a region in Colombia that he considers to be one of the centers of Western Amazonian shamanism:

"The medicine men of the Kamsá and Inga tribes of the Valley of Sibundoy have an unusually extensive knowledge of medicinal and toxic plants... One of the most renowned is Salvador Chindoy, who insists that his knowledge of the medicinal value of plants has been taught to him by the plants themselves through the hallucinations he has experienced in his long lifetime as a medicine man."12

Schultes does not say anything further about the hallucinatory origin of the botanical expertise of Amazonian people, because there is nothing one can say without contradicting two fundamental principles of Western knowledge.

First, hallucinations cannot be the source of real information, because to consider them as such is the definition of psychosis. Western knowledge considers hallucinations to be at best illusions, at worst morbid phenomena.13

Second, plants do not communicate like human beings. Scientific theories of communication consider that only human beings use abstract symbols like words and pictures and that plants do not relay information in the form of mental images.14


For science, the human brain is the source of hallucinations, which psychoactive plants merely trigger by way of the hallucinogenic molecules they contain.

It was in Rio that I realized the extent of the dilemma posed by the hallucinatory knowledge of indigenous people. On the one hand, its results are empirically confirmed and used by the pharmaceutical industry; on the other hand, its origin cannot be discussed scientifically because it contradicts the axioms of Western knowledge.

When I understood that the enigma of plant communication was a blind spot for science. I felt the call to conduct an in-depth investigation of the subject.


Furthermore, I had been carrying the mystery of plant communication around since my stay with the Ashaninca, and I knew that explorations of contradictions in science often yield fruitful results. Finally, it seemed to me that the establishment of a serious dialogue with indigenous people on ecology and botany required that this question be addressed.

After Rio, I knew that I wanted to write a book on the subject. My original intention was simply to name the enigma and to establish an exploratory map of the following cul-de-sac, or paradox: We can use their knowledge, but as soon as we reach the question of its origin, we must turn back.

By drinking ayahuasca in Quirishari, I had gone beyond the signs saying "you have reached the limits of science" and had found an irrational and subjective territory that was terrifying, yet filled with information. So I knew that the cul-de-sac had a passage that is normally hidden from the rational gaze and that leads to a world of surprising power.

However, I did not imagine for an instant that I could solve the enigma.


I was convinced that I was dealing with an essentially paradoxical phenomenon that was not subject to solution.

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