Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Okay, Here's an Answer I Gave Someone

Here's an answer I gave someone who asked what I felt the impact of ayahuasca tourism has been, and when it started, in Iquitos, Peru. It's not impossible that I've had a couple of glasses of wine with ginger ale right now and when I wrote this, so if the spelling is off in places, tough luck. HA!

I'm here and noticed your thread. I'm just under the gun with story deadlines and so have not responded yet. But I mean to.
I can tell you that in 1984 there were 2 very major and successful tour outfits in Iquitos, neither of which offered ayahuasca, as well as Carlos Grande, Moises Torres Vienna and a few other good jungle guides.
By 1990, Paul Wright and Peter Jensen, who had the two most successful outfits, came to me to say "thank you" because they claimed that my stories on ayahuasca had added more than 10 percent volume to their tour groups. And by 1993, when Shoemaker came and began his current tour of duty, they both claimed that their groups had gone up by 20 percent.
And once that ball started rolling, there was no stopping it.
The biggest single mark was Alan Shoemaker starting the Shamanism Conference, but there were other marks: The National Geo article on Blue Morpho, a couple of movies, and so forth.
And most of it has been a mixed blessing. There might be 30 places out on the road from Iquitos to Nauta, each of which has cut down primary jungle to make a lodge type place for gringos. That's tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of trees cut down, thousands of bands of monkeys displaced in the name of saving the rainforest. And each of those require probably thousands of more trees next year.
The first big time operator out there that I know of was Don Francisco Montes. He is from a great line of Shipibo healers and was basically kicked out of Pucallpa in about 1993 and sent to live in Iquitos by his family, who bought him a 20 hectare spread. He organized himself, took his work seriously and I love the guy. He is terrific. And his place, Sachamama, is certainly the most beautiful place anywhere. I think Alan S, was the first to get him a grant of $500 from a woman who was a client of his. And that money was the seed money for the Sachamama plant identification work. Francisco has earned his stripes in the years since.
During the last 4 years we have seen an unprecedented number of newbies come to Iquitos with a few bucks, fall for a curandero, and build them a place on the road to Nauta. Most of those places will disappear because of the costs. But they will have killed wildlife, stunted vegetation and done a host of harms in the name of good. The one constant in the third world is that all of the bad men have never done near the harm of those who meant well,. That's just life, and it stinks but that's the way it is. Bringing curanderos out of their river villages hurts those villages. Bringing gringos in large numbers into those villages hurts those villages. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Better to just get healed and walk away.
HA! This from one of the people who accidently promulgated the whole thing. But I saw early on, in 1987-1988 that my teacher Julio Llerena's (Jerena) only true apprentice, Salis Navarro, when hired by Peter Jensen's outfit to give ayahuasca to gringos once a week let it go to his head and was subsequently killed by a Matses man, my friend Antonio, after he seduced one of Antonio's wives while Antionio was out hunting. The alarm bells went off that I was doing something wrong. I knew it was important to write about ayahuasca, to bring or help bring it to the world, but I also knew I would have to hide the people I worked with better, so that they would be protected, from themselves and others.
So what's with aya tourism? Well, it's brought enough gringos to Iquitos to keep several gringos making money in gringo restaurants. It's brought enough money to take a dozen legit curanderos off the rivers where they worked and bring them into the city to work with gringos, or into lodges to work with foreigners to the detriment of their own people. It's brought enough money to cut down thousands of hectares of primary forest in the name of making aya retreats that are aimed at making gringos money and to share the knowledge. It's brought enough money to have at least two dozen people who never even drank ayahuasca three years ago into the realm of being "curanderos" because they've learned a few songs and have sycophantic acolytes. And it's brought enough seekers to have obscured the value of the true ayahuasca experience, what with the rules, regulations, and so forth that many of the curanderos now put forth.
So, end result? Do gooders should stay the heck out because they spawn other do gooders. Evil men are identifiable and therefore not much of a threat.
There are, seriously, many many good people out there working their hearts to the n'th degree. To denigrate them would be wrong. They're doing good, important work. But there are also people who do not understand the culture, people who mean well, but who do not have the experience with the culture to know where and how to encourage legit growth, and therefore are unwittingly encouraging non-legit growth.
Which is which I am not going to get into. But there is certainly a part of me that is sorry for having unwittingly encouraged it all. Iquitos and the northwest Amazon was fine the way it was. It didn't need help. And all the help we've meant to bring has not been a real help at all, I don't think.


Dr. Grossman said...

Profound insight, Peter.

A question/comment: I've seen what roads have done in other parts of the Amazon basin. It seems to me that the road to Nauta being completed pretty much has doomed any non-protected primary forest between Iquitos and Nauta just by it's being there. A lot more jungle has been cut down for chicken farms, villages, carbon production, etc. than the tourist lodges would ever accomplish. And might it be true that the lodges at least protect the jungle not cut down for building on their property from such things better than would the options?

Peter Gorman said...

Richard: Of course you are right. Perfect.

Gritter said...

And had you not done exactly as you have done so many of us that make our brief sojourns with Ms Aya would have never known the wonders , healing, and life chsnging experiences that you have introduced - through aya - into our lives. Everything in life is a trade off. We don't usually like it but that's the way it is.....with everything-everywhere.

Dr. Grossman said...

Yes. Always a trade off.

One of the other things that I believe that the gringo influx to Iquitos has done (being an occasional one of them, I'm a bit bias) is that possibly the profession of the curandero is being socially elevated for the first time in a long while. Rather than being seen as some sort of village witch doctor by the people seeking modernity, perhaps the curandero is now being seen with a bit more respect since actual white people are traveling thousands of miles and spending absurd amounts of money to learn from them.

That said, I was one of those gringos who was planning on setting up an alberge on the road to Nauta. I do occasionally bend down and kiss the ground in gratitude that I didn't do so. I've not seen a lot of good that has come out of gringos doing this and have seen and heard of some pretty negative events at various gringo owned establishments.

And it is really nice to have some good restaurants open in Iquitos, though it does further the separation between the gringos and the Iquitenas.

Unknown said...

Like to think I'm that "someone"! :) Finished my PhD, working on articles. I thanked you in my acknowledgements and I thank you here.

Jenny said...

If "curandera" were a degree I could get - particularly in the US, I'd have done that ages ago. I think Dr. Grossman is right in that the elevation in status for native healers could eventually mean returning the power they deserve. With that, perhaps many more children would decide to apprentice the shamans in their villages. I think what Peter has done will play out nobly.

Unknown said...

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