The concoction used and named „Ayahuasca“ in the Newage scene is a tea prepared from the South American Ayahuasca liana to which other plants of various pharmaceutical effects will be added. Mostly, this will be the so-called Chacruna, botanical name Psychotria viridis. Due to the diverse range of possible mixtures, a broad variety of effects on the human organism is achieved. Ayahuasca is a drug used traditionally by several indigenous ethnic groups in South America, where its use is restricted to medicine persons employing it to diagnose the cause of an illness in a patient.
Use of Ayahuasca beyond an indigenous Context
Since several decades, Ayahuasca is being used by recent religious movements in Brazil who meanwhile founded branches in Europe and in the USA. Additionally, more and more trips to predominantly Peruvian Plastic Shamans are offered in the USA and Europe. One decisive difference of the use of Ayahuasca outside of an indigenous context is who consumes the drug: while in indigenous ethnic groups, use is restricted to medicine persons, in new religious movements as well as in Newage circles, the drug will be consumed by believers resp. by the paying clients. Contrary to indigenous use, the retreats offered in a Newage context will have clients take Ayahuasca as often as every other day.
There are several recent religious movements in Brazil which employ Ayahuasca as a sacrament. The eldest of these churches is Santo Daime which was founded in the 1930ies by Raimundo Irineu Serre who blended information obtained from a Peruvian Ayahuascero with components of the Christian faith, combined with his own revelations.
Likewise, União do Vegetal (UDV) blends Ayahuasca with Christian topics. UDV came into being during the 1960ies but claims roots from the 10th century B.P. This church was founded by José Gabriel da Costa.
Europe and USA
Meanwhile, these Ayahuasca churches have established branches in Europe and in the USA, although in most countries, at least one of the substances used in Ayahuasca is illegal under the respective Dangerous Drugs Laws. On the other hand, more recent court verdicts in several countries have ruled that religious use of Ayahuasca (due to legal loopholes) was permitted.
Furthermore, Ayahuasca has been popularised within the Newage scene and promoted as a cure for a multitude of diseases, establishing a tourism to alleged shamans, some of whom are also actively touring various Newage congresses and fairs to promote their services.
It must be pointed out that these persons do not happen to be genuine indigenous medicine persons and the vast majority are no member of any indigenous ethnic group. Therefore, they were never trained by indigenous medicine persons and often have a rather limited knowledge about the plants they administer or about the possible effects and cross-effects these may cause, nor do they have much of a knowledge of the indigenous ceremonies they imitate. It is even voiced within the Newage scene that the „shamans“ aiming at a European/US clientele use completely different songs than indigenous medicine persons do.
This already becomes apparent from the biographical information provided on websites promoting plastic shamans using Ayahuasca on their clients: one „shaman“ is introduced as a „fisher, sculptor, and researcher of the Moche culture“, another one as a „musician, sculptor, and curandero (healer) in the tradition of several tribe of Amazonia“, with the mere mention of the traditions of several ethnic groups being a clear indicator the person is a plastic shaman. Still another vendor's father is said to have been abducted by „savages“ who raised him; the son is said to have inherited „the savageness“ and to have „survived live-or-death fights in the jungle and in the slums of Iquitos and Lima“. The latter information presumably far more appropriately reflects the real biography. The websites promoting this „shaman“ are particularly characterised by a use of racist stereotypes on indigenous peoples and their alleged savageness and dangerousness and e.g. claim the „shaman“ was „more of an Indian than a mestizo“. The racism inherent in these claims apparently is not being noticed by site owners and clients, or probably taken for a proof of particular „authenticity“.
Another „shaman“ is US-based Erick Gonzalez who also administers further substances like Mescaline and Peyote to his clients. He is also active in Canada, where he is being promoted by Ngystle Society and also seems to cooperate with Psychology of Vision. Canadian RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) already in September 2013 issued a warning regarding Gonzalez' various activities. Gonzalez claims to be a Maya shaman but his family migrated from Guatemala to California when he was only 11 years of age. The apprenticeship resp. shamanic initiation he claims must therefore rather be seen as a sales pitch; Gonzalez however claims to have been adopted by another plastic shaman by the name of Francisco Jimenez aka Tlakaelel who claimed to be a Toltec (the Toltec have not been around as an ethnic entity for some 800 years, i.e. since pre-Columbian times). Although Gonzalez claims to be Maya, it is assumed that he is of a very distant ancestry or has no ancestry at all. Furthermore, the substances employed by Gonzalez, although known by indigenous medicine persons, are not domestic in Guatemala, therefore his having had access to traditional knowledge and use in this respect is to be highly doubted.
Claims of Healing of Disease by Ayahuasca
While in an indigenous context, Ayahuasca is used as a diagnostic tool by medicine persons, its use in the Newage scene undergoes a rededication to become a remedy consumed by the client which is quite congruent with the non-indigenous domestic use of these substances in the respective South American countries. Although part of the Newage scene does mention the use of substances by indigenous ethnic groups, the completely different handling by Newage vendors does not get addressed.
Ayahuasca is thus promoted as a cure for a broad variety of diseases, including particularly serious conditions, by the Newage scene. Most often it is propagated as a cure for cancer and abuse of substances (drugs, alcohol), which means that a potent hallucinogenic drug is expected to cause detoxification. Other diseases mentioned are Parkinson's Syndrome, mental disorders, and AIDS.
A plastic shaman established in the German language market characterises Ayahuasca more or less as a cure-all: “With this ceremony, myriads of persons have been healed, even from serious diseases like Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, leucemia, breast cancer, liver cancer, thyroid cancer, depression etc.“ Another vendor claims: “In Peru, we specialise in the following diseases: anxieties, alcoholism, arthritis, arthrosis, asthma, auto-immune diseases, high blood pressure, borreliosis, high cholesterine levels, fatigue, depression, diabetes, drug abuse, gastritis, inflammation of joints, abscesses, various skin diseases, heart diseases, hormone problems, dropsy, impotence, infections, inner pressure, cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, menopause, migraine, kidney diseases, rheumatism, thyroid diseases, sterility, stress, problems of substance abuse, insomnia, tumours, tuberculosis.“ Other vendors are more reluctant about naming precise diseases which, however, tends to make the claims sound even more ambitious: “Since Ayahuasca works on all levels, it is possible to heal rare and serious diseases which cannot be cured by conventional remedies.“
„Sein“, a German-language Newage magazine, published an article promoting a Peruvian plastic shaman whose approach reminds of the views of antisemite Ryke Geerd Hamer and his Germanic New Medicine: “Don Pedro specialises on psychosomatic medicine and also has clients diagnosed with cancer who reject conventional chemotherapy, trusting him instead. I did not witness resp. could not check actual healing successes, but a woman from Austria told me her serious liver tumour, in the final stage, was treated in the jungle and was found not to be detectable any longer a year later. Don Pedro views disease foremost as the expression of psychological conflicts, thus his views is not much different from Western psychosomatic approaches“.
Vendors and their Prices
Many of the vendors are of Peruvian nationality and run so-called „retreats“ in their home country. In some cases, a relative is living in Europe, directing clientele towards the family enterprise via an occupation as an alleged shaman. Other vendors are Europeans organising travels to Peru; still others mention Ayahuasca ceremonies conducted in the Netherlands. Only a small number of vendors dare to openly publish on their websites they are doing Ayahuasca ceremonies. With other vendors, it remains unclear whether ceremonies are taking place in German-language regions or in South America. Another strategy is the cover-up: the brew is not given its appropriate name but gets offered by the moniker „Ayaruna“, and respective seminars in Germany and Austria including the consumption of Ayahuasca by participants are being promoted in this way.
A good part of the mentioned retreats is situated in the northeast of Peru in the Iquitos region. Another centre of retreats seems to be the city of Cusco; however, Ayahuasca does not belong to the traditionally known cures in the Cusco region, so these vendors most probably are likewise uninformed plastic shamans. This becomes evident when one of these vendors offers an allegedly traditional medicine plant for internal cleansing which he spells „Laxitiwe“ in imitation of the spelling of Quechua language.
Pricing assumes a high level. Stays in retreats are sold from two and three weeks upwards, but sojourns of one week or of one or several months are possible, too. The daily fees range between € 60 and € 170. With longer sojourns booked, daily prices decrease, with one vendor asking a daily fee of € 40 when the client books a four-months stay or longer. A usual trip of about three weeks results in „treatment costs“ between € 1,700 and € 2,700. These prices, with the exception of but a few vendors, exclude costs of air travel from Europe/USA to Peru and from Lima to Iquitos; the prices cover accomodation, food, „treatment“, and the consumption of Ayahuasca and other so-called medicine plants.
Vendors marketing seminars in Europe sell events of a restricted duration. In one case, retreats of two, three, or five days are offered in Austria; the costs vary between € 490, € 690, and € 1,050 including accomodation and food (uncooked vegetarian or vegan). The same vendor, in 2009, asked € 270 for the first Ayahuasca ritual, € 243 for the second, and € 216 for the third and following rituals, including accomodation and breakfast. Another vendor organises two-day seminars in Austria and Germany which include the consumption of Ayahuasca at a price of € 200 per participant, excluding accomodation, food, and rental cost of the so-called ceremonial centre.
A possibility to put these prices in perspective is offered on the site of Marburg University: “The price for about 500 ml of Ayahuasca is approximately 20 Nuevos Soles (app. € 4). Depending on the number of participants, the potency of the Ayahuasca brew, and personal habits of the shaman, such a bottle will last several sessions“; this information refers to the usual market price in a domestic Peruvian, non-indigenous context.
Fatalities in Retreats resp. following Ayahuasca consumption
In most retreats, clients will not only be served Ayahuasca, but also other concoctions to prepare them for the Ayahuasca trip. Fatalities have occured both after the consumption of Ayahuasca as well as after that of so-called "tobacco tea" prior to the Ayahuasca experience.
Deaths due to Ayahuasca
In August 2012, a US tourist died after having taken the Ayahuasca brew. The case caused quite some commotion, since the plastic shaman attempted to cover up the death and dumped the body. The efforts of the deceased person's family resulted in the shaman eventually admitting to have disposed the body. In contradiction to claims made in advertisements for his premises, the „shaman“ did not closely monitor the client after the consumption of Ayahuasca, but had left him alone in a hut; when the man was found the next morning, he had been dead for some time already. The tourist had paid the amount of US$ 1,200 to consume Ayahuasca.
Shortly afterwards, there were accounts on websites claiming that it was a regular practice for this shaman to leave clients alone during trips, since the shaman claimed to be able to telepathically monitor clients while watching TV. Further absurd claims made by this shaman were also published, so e.g. he claimed to be a descendant of Marsians who settled the continents of Atlantis and Lemuria. Other reports said the shaman did not prepare the Ayahuasca brew himself but bought it in the local market, so that he did not know its exact consistency and potency.
Deaths from preparatory concoctions
Two more fatalities occured in 2015, apparently not due to the consumption of Ayahuasca, but of a so-called "tobacco tea" served in preparation for the Ayahuasca brew. Matthew Dawson-Clarke, aged 24, was served tobacco tea at the Kapitari Ayahuasca Retreat in Iquitos, Peru, and died of cardiac arrest. According to newspaper reports, he had consumed the tea in the morning and remained ill all day, with cardiac arrest occuring at 6.30 p.m. Only when first aid measures did not provide any result, Dawson-Clarke eventually was taken to an Iquitos hospital but proclaimed dead there.
Canadian citizen Jennifer Logan, 32, likewise took ill after consuming tobacco tea "in a ceremony with a shaman". Logan, too, had to be transported to a hospital by boat and motorcycle but was beyond help upon arrival. An autopsy established Logan died of pulmonary edema. She had booked a fortnight's retreat at Canto Luz Centre outside Puerto Maldonado.
Canto Luz is a retreat operated by a white European with a Peruvian person functioning as a "shaman". Canto Luz is owned by one Mariya Garnet, a Russian who migrated to Canada in 2000 and claims to have taken up "healing shamanism" already in Siberia. The retreat's shaman Reyna Luz Edery Flores is described as "the main mestizo ayahuascquera"[sic}. Since the term "mestizo" is applied to characterise Edery Flores, she does not seem to have any tribal affiliation. Canto Luz offers retreats for seven and 14 days at prices of USD 950 resp. USD 1,850. They publish several videos on YouTube to attract customers and seem a rather recently addition on the market, as a fundraising appeal set up in order to provide Garnet with finances to buy the premises was published in early 2013, with the additional information the retreat was going to open April 1, 2013. The fundraising campaign had a goal of USD 20,000 and managed to raise USD 31,665 from 133 persons in about one month.
Kapitari Center, where the other fatality occured, claims to be run by a Peruvian shaman by the name of Luis Culquiton aka Don Lucho, and there is no information whether these premises are owned by Culquiton or whether he, too, serves as a front man. Culquiton, quite in line with usual advertisement, gets portrayed as coming "from a long line of natural healers", still the website claims "he discovered the healing qualities of plants himself, at a very early age", "an established, self-educated shaman", and "he never underwent a formal apprenticeship under another shaman". Instead of being seen as positive, these phrases should be taken as a severe warning by clients that booking may mean their participation in a large experiment of "trial and error".
Kapitari, too, offers seven and 14 day retreats, with a seven-day retreat amounting to USD 650 and including four Ayahuasca trips and a "purge with tobacco juice". The site further advises: "The journey takes about 1 hour 30 minutes and involves a 45 minute walk so you must be able bodied." The death of one Kapitari client reveals plainly that this distance is a further danger to clients in case medical help is needed.
Another interesting aspect is the information the Kapitari website provides regarding where cash receipts will end up:
- "Of the $650 that you pay us:
- $300 goes to Kapitari and Don Lucho. A portion of which pays for the running of Kapitari and anything left over is spent on Don Lucho’s permaculture and community projects.
- $300 is split between the retreat facilitators & Outer Travels Inner Journeys.
- $50 is given as an additional bonus to the Peruvian staff at Kapitari who work hard all week to look after the guests."
The largest part of receipts are split between the "shaman", the "retreat facilitators" and the travel agency, and the description of "retreat facilitators" is ambiguous and does not necessarily mean the retreat staff. If this was the case, a far more plain way for website maintainers were to say: USD 200 go to the Peruvian staff and USD 150 to Outer Travels. So while this information creates the impression of transparency, the vagueness and scarcity of details provided indeed will rather obfuscate than explain.
Consequences for the Indigenous Population
The indigenous population often oppose the abuse of plants they use, as well as their being commercialised, and taking the plants out of their traditional context. Furthermore, a reckless exploitation of indigenous medicinal plants is taking place, by persons also exploiting indigenous ceremonies and cultures in order to sell them to tourists. Another aspect criticised is the approach of entitlement held by Newage-affine tourists who mean to buy access to experience and medicine.
Some websites promoting travels to South American plastic shamans explicitly describe that only a small part of the population, if any, will profit from the sale of ceremonies. Since the Newage tourists will do an Ayahuasca trip every other day, resulting in a recreation period during the following day, the domestic economy is left out of this form of tourism. Additionally, the retreats are situated in remote regions, and travelers are dependant on the means of transport provided by retreat operators.
Another important aspect is that apparently a fair number of retreats are not in domestic ownership, but are operated with a local plastic shaman employed as a front man by the European or US owner of the premises. This means that, same as with multi-national tourist business, the respective domestic economies do in no way benefit from profits obtained from these activities. Only few websites make this as apparent as the one maintained by an Austrian psychologist who is also mentioned in the site's imprint. Since the psychologist describes himself as a resident of Austrian St. Valentin but also claims to be a resident of Peru, it is not clear whether he will be on the premises during the sojourns sold to tourists. More quite interesting reading material is provided with the exemption clauses mentioned on his website. Furthermore, the above mentioned retreat where a US tourist died after consuming Ayahuasca is also said not to be in the ownership of the local plastic shaman but is owned by a US citizen.
- http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychotria_viridis accessed 11/02/2012
- http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santo_Daime accessed 11/02/2012
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniao_do_Vegetal accessed 11/02/2012
- http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barquinha accessed 11/02/2012
- e. g. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santo_Daime accessed 11/02/2012
- http://www.christian-raetsch.de/Artikel/Artikel/Ayahuasca.html accessed 11/04/2012
- http://www.tingan.info/unsere_projekte_files/indi-pro.htm accessed 11/02/2012
- http://www.don-pedro-guerra.net accessed 11/02/2012
- http://www.thenorthernview.com/news/169704226.html accessed 03/20/2014
- http://www.newagefraud.org/smf/index.php?topic=3420.0 accessed 03/20/2014
- see e. g. http://www.christian-raetsch.de/Artikel/Artikel/Ayahuasca.html accessed 11/04/2012
- e. g. http://www.lonewolfadventure.net/LWA/?p=1137&language=de accessed 11/02/2012
- e. g. http://www.jaii.de/index.php?view=details&id=845%3Aayahuasca-rituale-in-wienoesterreich&option=com_eventlist&Itemid=98 accessed 11/02/2012
- http://www.jaii.de/index.php?view=details&id=845%3Aayahuasca-rituale-in-wienoesterreich&option=com_eventlist&Itemid=98 accessed 11/02/2012
- http://www.lonewolfadventure.net/LWA/?p=1137&language=de accessed 11/02/2012
- http://www.indianerpfad.de/seite74.html accessed 04.11.2012
- http://www.joven-murayari.de/krankheiten-heilpflanzen/ accessed 11/06/2012
- http://www.sankenowe.com/ayahuasca-de.html accessed 11/04/2012
- http://www.sein.de/archiv/2005/mai-2005/der-curandero-der-meisterpflanzen--heilung-durch-schamanismus.html accessed 11/02/2012
- http://www.otorongo.net/ accessed 04.11.2012
- http://www.schamanismus-tantra.at/ayahuasca.html accessed 11/06/2012
- http://tatatonga.ch/zeremonialreisen/ecuador-panacocha/index.php accessed 11/06/2012; this website promotes „ceremonies“ taking place in Switzerland as well as travels to Ecuador
- http://joven-murayari.de/reisen-nach-peru/ accessed 11/02/2012
- http://schamanischeszentrumperu.yolasite.com/laxitiwe.php accessed 11/06/2012
- see e. g. http://www.otorongo.net accessed 11/04/2012, http://www.schamanischreisen.de/36.html and http://www.joven-murayari.de/reisen-nach-peru/ accessed 11/06/2012
- http://www.newagefraud.org/smf/index.php?topic=2372.0 accessed 06.11.2012
- http://joven-murayari.de/termine/ accessed 11/06/2012
- http://www.uni-marburg.de/fb03/ivk/vk/titelseiten/ayahuasca accessed 11/04/2012
- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2202459/Kyle-Joseph-Nolan-death-Peruvian-shaman-confesses-buried-body-U-S-teen-spiritual-retreat.html accessed 11/04/2012
- http://www.rpp.com.pe/2012-09-11-madre-de-dios-curandero-confeso-que-enterro-a-joven-norteamericano-noticia_520815.html accessed 11/04/2012
- http://latina-press.com/news/134978-nach-tod-von-us-buerger-bekaempfung-der-scharlatanerie-in-peru/ accessed 11/06/2012