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