A cry of alarm resounded throughout the online psychedelic communities with the publication of an article “We Are Harvesting the Ayahuasca Vine at an Alarming Rate” written by Carlos Suárez Álvarez, which discussed the “excessive” levels of vine harvesting due to increasing global demand.
The article claims in foreboding language:
“Over-harvesting ayahuasca is putting the sustainability of the medicine, the communities, and several branches of industry in question.”
How accurate is this claim? And, if there is truth in it, is ayahuasca sustainability being threatened throughout the Amazon, or is it a matter of limited scarcity found only in areas with high ayahuasca tourism? We decided to make some inquiries.
The Rise of Global Ayahuasca Commerce
Over the last decade, ayahuasca has reached a level of popularity which rivals and even surpasses that of most other widely used entheogens. Increasing numbers of people from all over the world are flocking to South America, most notably to the Peruvian Amazon, to try the legendary shamanic brew and experience its profound hallucinogenic and therapeutic effects.
The term ‘ayahuasca’ is used not only for the brew, but also for its core ingredient—the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. Although much of ayahuasca’s popularity can be attributed to the visionary aspect catalyzed by the DMT admixtures, the B. caapi vine itself has numerous purported therapeutic and spiritual benefits; throughout the Amazon, some indigenous communities are known to have drunk ayahuasca made only out of B. caapi.
In order to be able to receive healing from ayahuasca, many people who aren’t able to join ceremonies in South America or elsewhere, and some of those who have already communed with the Master Plant, are procuring the vine from the Amazon and using it for microdosing or preparing brews wherever they might be in the world.
Ayahuasca Microdosing Is Gaining Popularity in the Global North
Some of the most popular formats the vine can be purchased in are B. caapi extracts. Legal to ship to most countries, these tinctures are fast becoming a favorite of microdosers around the world. Many ayahuasca vine users have reported declines in depression and anxiety, as well as heightened abilities to process difficult emotions such as grief.
Aside from the tinctures, dried vine bark is also exported and sold by online ethnobotanical shops, as are concentrated ‘bricks’ of reduced and dehydrated resin containing B. caapi and often other plant medicine ingredients.
As valuable as the benefits of ayahuasca are, the steep rise in interest both by retreat-goers and those purchasing B. caapi products from abroad has put a strain on the wild resources of the vine in certain regions of the Amazon.
With some raising concerns about the sustainability of B. caapi, it’s worth taking a look at the current situation in areas where the vine is being harvested in large quantities.
The ‘Mecca’ of Plant Medicine Has a Supply Chain Problem
Without a doubt, Peru is the global epicenter of ayahuasca use, with the most heavily touristed ayahuasca hotspots found in the Loreto and Ucayali regions. Statistics reflect a steady annual rise in tourism to Peru of about 4-7% over the last several years, reaching almost five million visitors in 2018. Although no official statistics specific to ayahuasca tourism exist, it’s safe to say that the number of retreat goers is in the thousands, and likely tens of thousands each year.
With over seventy retreat centers and much of the world’s B. caapi extract and dried bark producers and exporters, the port town of Iquitos has become the epicenter of ayahuasca vine consumption in Peru, as well as the entire globe.
Within the span of a couple of decades, this once sleepy, remote jungle village has grown into the world’s largest city inaccessible by road. Much of this development is due to the commercialization of ayahuasca, and is spurred by the town’s remote location, which gives visitors a feeling of traveling to the uncharted, pristine, and authentic homeland of the legendary hallucinogenic brew.
After years of increasing numbers of retreat centers and ayahuasca processing facilities opened, reports are starting to surface disclosing the apparent scarcity of harvestable ayahuasca vine in the Iquitos wilderness.
A strong voice speaking out on this topic is that of ethnographer and author Carlos Suárez Álvarez. His field report from Iquitos includes interviews with several local ayahuasca vine processors and farmers, all of whom express concern about the unsustainability of the current B. caapi harvesting practices.
“It’s hard for me to get it. With every passing day it looks more like there’s no ayahuasca.” ~ Keymer Noriega
One of the people Suárez Álvarez has spoken to is local ayahuasca processor and exporter Keymer Noriega, who recalls: “I used to buy in my village or in nearby villages, but I bought everything that was there.” Now, he decries: “It’s hard for me to get it. With every passing day it looks more like there’s no ayahuasca.”
Others in the business echo Noriega’s concern. Dutch ayahuasca exporter Van der Kroon, who processes about a ton of the vine per month, says about his harvesters that “They have to go further and further. They find new places in the rivers, empty them and go to the next lot.” Elizabeth Bardales, the owner of Natural Chacruna, concurs: “They never brought to us thin ayahuasca, before they only brought thick ones, we used to just work with that.”
Many who produce ayahuasca on a mass scale in Iquitos also outline the steep rise in the price of harvested wild vine over the last several years. While the going rate in 2013 was 1-1.50 soles (30-45c) per kilogram, processors are now paying between 3.50 and 8 soles ($1-2.25) per kilo of vine.
This massive increase is, of course, partly a consequence of the growth of commercial competition between producers. However, it’s also largely the result of the sheer increase in work which harvesters need to put in to bring back the vine from its natural habitat.
Scarcity is Limited to the “Humanized Forest”
The thing is that B. caapi is harvested from the outer regions of the rainforest, what Suárez Álvarez refers to as the “humanized forest” – where the locals hunt and fish, collect wild fruits, and get the wood for their houses. He notes that “this forest is getting poorer and poorer due to extractive processes in which indigenous peoples are involved in order to meet the requirements of the market economy. And so the more they get into the market economy, the poorer the forest.”
It takes about five years for the vine to mature enough to be used for ayahuasca. If throughout this time the need exceeds the growth rate, harvesters have to venture deeper and deeper, away from the areas they are familiar with and into the thicker forests in order to find the vine.
Logistics start to become a serious problem when these laborers have to wade through dense vegetation carrying sacks of 25-30kg of cuttings for more than an hour. Additionally, the vine can not be found in all areas in the rainforest, so harvesters need to know where it grows in abundance for the trip to be worthwhile.
Frans Pangier, producer of ayahuasca vine and founder of Sage Extracts, outlines a similar situation in Acre, the Amazonian region of Brazil bordering Peru: “In some places where they start to harvest a lot and when new centers come, in the beginning it’s very easy to find, and, of course, after a while it gets harder because of the limitation on how far you can get it. So, there are some places, closer to the urban centers, for instance in Cruzeiro do Sul, where it’s definitely getting harder to find wild caapi.”
Outsourcing the Iquitos Vine Supply to Imiría
The diminishing resources of harvestable vine in the Iquitos region have brought this town to its current position of largely relying on ayahuasca vine shipments coming in from Pucallpa, a smaller town in the Amazon about five days south along the Ucayali River.
A short distance from Pucallpa lies the Imiría Conservation Reserve, home to exquisite biodiversity and much of the accessible wild ayahuasca resources Peru is currently consuming. Most of the major producers in Iquitos interviewed by Carlos Suárez Álvarez stated that they are sourcing their vine from this abundant region.
In Imiría, vines older than several decades are still commonly harvested, although finding them requires venturing deep into the jungle. As Chris Kilham recounts in his Ayahuasca Sustainability Field Report: “We hiked around the forest for a few hours and encountered an endless number of mature ayahuasca vines, most growing very closely to others. We rarely had to walk more than 10 meters to find another vine. Several vines were as large around as my arm, and a couple were double that thickness. Over the course of a few hours, we easily saw several hundred tons of living vine.”
But, while Kilham’s report suggests that there is plenty of vine to be found in Imiría, the same chain of increasing logistical challenges emerges as in Iquitos—the rising demand leads to increased harvesting, which leads to harvesters eventually depleting hotspots and having to venture further into the forest, which results in increasing costs and the escalation of commercial competition between major vine processors. This doesn’t appear to be a sustainable market growth model.
The Ayahuasca ‘Gold Rush’ in Imiría
It’s also no secret that the vine grows in abundance in this part of the Peruvian Amazon; many have had their eyes on them for years.
Over the last decade, Imiría has developed into the hub of a sprawling network of ayahuasca vine trade. Harvesters gather it from there, send it off to distributors in Pucallpa, who, in turn, ship it across Peru, mainly to Iquitos.
Indications already exist of accessible areas in Imiría suffering from the increasing harvest pressure. Although still ongoing, field research conducted by Michael Coe, ethnobotanist and PhD Candidate at the University of Hawai`i, recorded high levels of harvesting over six plots distributed throughout this land, in which 200 vine specimens were tagged. As Kilham noted in conversation with Coe’s research team, “More tagged vines were gone than remained” when they checked on them after a year after tagging them.
This empiric decline was anecdotally affirmed by Matteo Teco, a local large-scale vine supplier, who says that “more people are coming into the Lago Imiría area from outside, pulling out 60 or 70 loads at a time, and charging 30 soles per bundle. There is a gold rush mentality, and outside harvesters may not leave enough of each vine to regenerate.”
“There used to be plenty of ayahuasca around Caimito, but most of it was harvested and sold.” ~ Moises Arevalo
According to Kilham, the surrounding area of the once-abundant local ayahuasca hotspot, Caimito, had been completely depleted by the time his crew arrived. Moises Arevalo, the cousin of the famous local Shipibo shaman Guillermo Arevalo, told Kilham’s crew that “there used to be plenty of ayahuasca around Caimito, but […] most of it was harvested and sold.” He took them around Caimito, showed them some remaining vines, and explained that they were used only for local ceremonies.
Another well-known hotspot is the region around the nearby village of Junín Pablo, which was next in the sights of harvesters after Caimito had been dried up. Kilham reports that “buyers from Pucallpa started arriving in Junín Pablo in 2014, requesting ayahuasca. Around the same time, other people showed up from Pucallpa and began to harvest vine without permission from the local communities.”
So, what happens if the scale of harvesting wild B. caapi in Imiría eventually outpaces accessible vine availability, like what appears to have transpired in Iquitos? Will other abundant sources be found? Can they be found?
It’s impossible to determine how vast the vine reservoir in this region truly is, and it may well hold more than enough of B. caapi to last for the foreseeable future. However, if this is not the case, we have little idea of whether there are many such precious hotspots to be found throughout the accessible Amazon.
Carlos Suárez Álvarez is of the belief that abundant B. caapi sources exist mainly (if not entirely) in areas that either were, or still are, home to larger indigenous communities practicing ayahuasca shamanism. He asserts that “there is a theory that considers that there is not such a thing as wild ayahuasca, that all the ayahuasca was once planted, and therefore if we go deep into the forest (where less people used to live in the past), then maybe we don’t find ayahuasca at all, or very little compared to what has been found nearby the populated areas.”
So, what is the way out of this apparent spiral into scarcity?
The Path to Global Ayahuasca Sustainability
The obvious solution appears to be ayahuasca cultivation. Prompted by the increasing demand and diminishing availability of the vine, many centers and farmers in Iquitos and Pucallpa have started growing their own ayahuasca in large quantities, some up to a decade or so ago.
The reports of Kilham and Suárez Álvarez detail several such large farms with between 300 and 6,000 vines planted. The common theme among the growers who have reached a level of self-sustainability by cultivating a significant number of plants seems to be that, after several years, the yield becomes sufficient for running ceremonies and then starts creating an overhead which can be distributed further.
“It’s a cash crop—you plant it and it requires no maintenance at all.” ~ Alan Shoemaker
According to Alan Shoemaker, author of Ayahuasca Medicine: The Shamanic World of Amazonian Sacred Plant Healing and founder of the Amazonian Shamanism Conference in Iquitos, Peru, which is going on its 10th year, there’s plenty of vine available.
An exporter of ayahuasca vine paste himself, he points out that there are also countless smaller private farms in the jungles around Iquitos, Pucallpa, Tarapoto, and throughout the Amazon’s tributaries.
Shoemaker says that, for locals, growing ayahuasca is “more lucrative than planting yucca and bananas” and that “it’s a cash crop—you plant it and it requires no maintenance at all.” Most of these farmers do not use ayahuasca for ceremonies, but simply grow and supply it to those who need it in the nearby towns.
While many locals may be content with smaller-level vine trade, Abraham Guevara, who, according to Suárez Álvarez, has been growing B. caapi since 2010 and owns one of the largest plantations around Iquitos, can not produce enough to meet the demand of his main and almost only client, Jenny Bardales.
It is worth noting, though, that Bardales is reportedly “the biggest ayahuasca dealer in the region,” processing and distributing up to two tons of vine each month. It’s not entirely surprising, then, that one farm, even one with thousands of plants such as Guevara’s, cannot satisfy the demand of her production.
The COVID Pandemic Offers a Temporary Reprieve
These streams of information suggest that, although the last decade, and especially the last few years, have seen increases in ayahuasca extraction trending toward exploitation, cultivation efforts have begun which could someday lead to sustainable harvesting practices as a standard.
With global interest in ayahuasca ceremonies and vine products skyrocketing right up until the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the yield of many suppliers could be said to have still been behind the raging demand. Should the cultivation momentum continue, though, it seems likely that the production of B. caapi will, at some point, exceed the rate of consumption and re-create sustainability.
Aiding in this transition are likely the ripple effects of the pandemic itself. The cessation of international tourism has brought most ceremony activity in Peru to a standstill, while the globally recommended social distancing measures have likely led to a significant decline in export of B. caapi, at least the vine used for holding ceremonies.
According to Kilham, “The major consumption, harvesting, and trade in the plants that are used to make ayahuasca has come to a total grinding halt. And of the 123 or 126 ayahuasca centers functioning in the general Iquitos area, not one is open. Not one. Not one. Not one shaman is doing ceremonies there. Nobody’s making ayahuasca there. Nobody’s working there. That’s closed down. This has been devastating for the ayahuasca scene.”
“The major consumption, harvesting, and trade in the plants that are used to make ayahuasca has come to a total grinding halt.” ~ Chris Kilham
Viewed through the prism of ayahuasca sustainability, these effects can be interpreted as positive, seeing as they will likely significantly contribute to the regeneration of wild vine and create some space for pending ayahuasca cultivation efforts to advance. For the most part, the tons of vine that would have been extracted on a daily basis in the pre-pandemic times are now given a chance to grow, and we will likely be painting a much healthier picture once tourism and ceremonies resume.
It bears mention that, on the other hand, sadly, the COVID pandemic has also wreaked havoc on the lives of the local populations. Aside from the obvious medical complications this disease entails, and which can be especially dire in communities with poor healthcare such as many of those in the Amazon, the stoppage of tourism has also decimated the economic vitality of previously bustling ayahuasca retreat hotspots.
Like in many regions around the world whose income relies heavily on tourism, the sudden drop in visitors in places like Iquitos and Pucallpa means loss of jobs and livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people. For many, this economic depravity is likely just as difficult, or even more so than the risk to health and life this pandemic has brought forth.
Cultivation is Key to Ayahuasca Sustainability
Hopefully, 2021 will see the lessening of the COVID-19 pandemic and the gradual resumption of international tourism and local ceremony work. With more and more people cultivating the vine, optimism about achieving ayahuasca sustainability in the near future is appealing and at least somewhat merited. Keeping in mind that B. caapi takes about five years to mature, with some planting techniques such as successional poly-cropping catalyzing even greater efficiency, this moment of sustainability may not be that far ahead.
The model Peru can look up to is that of large Brazilian ayahuasca religions Santo Daime and União do Vegetal, as well as the much smaller Barquinha. The massive amounts of brew produced and consumed by these churches appear to be sustainably cultivated and harvested.
While Pangier has indeed observed B. caapi scarcity around populated areas in Acre with considerable ayahuasca activity, he also noted that “a lot of these main centers of the churches [which] produce the Daime or the Vegetal (ayahuasca) to send to their different subsidiaries around the country and the world have quite good plantations and management to not run out.” In correspondence, Carlos Suárez Álvarez additionally referenced a large-scale cultivar of B. caapi near Sao Paulo, far away from the Amazon.
Although the level of ayahuasca tourism in Brazil cannot compare to that of Peru, the countries could be said to have undergone similar processes in terms of ayahuasca extraction. Over time, growing member counts of Brazilian ayahuasca religions created increasing pressure on accessible vine resources, so starting up large-scale cultivars was a necessity in order to institute sustainability.
Brazil, however, also differs in that the export of ayahuasca vine is heavily restricted, so harvest for those purposes is insignificant compared to Peru. According to Kilham, the now large-scale export activities in Peru, responsible for the extraction of several tons of B. caapi each month, are a particularly strong factor in generating vine scarcity:
“Shipping ayahuasca out of Peru to other countries like Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States may serve the interests of people who wish to drink outside of Peru, but it puts significant pressure on the supply of vine. Demand for ayahuasca continues apace, and exports could well prove a big threat to sustainability.”
This is another reason why Peru will have to ramp up its cultivation efforts over the coming years.
There’s Still Plenty of Ayahuasca Left
All this said, as Kilham points out, “There are really only a few high-pressure areas in the (Peruvian) Amazon where ayahuasca has been quite seriously over-harvested. You are going to get that in Loreto and Ucayali provinces because you have the greatest number of ayahuasca centers there of any place on earth…
“But if you look at entities like Santo Daime or Uniao de Vegetal, who have hundreds of thousands of people drinking ayahuasca every single week, they don’t have a supply problem…
“Why? Because they cultivate it.
“Cultivation is something that is newer to Loreto and Ucayali provinces because they’ve always had so much wild vine available.”
In other Amazon countries with ayahuasca tourism, such as Colombia and Ecuador, there doesn’t seem to be any notable shortage of vine. These countries are home to fewer and generally smaller retreat centers, and they welcome only a fraction of ayahuasca tourists that Peru does.
“You know, the forest is so fucking big… the plant going extinct as a species is not really realistic.” ~ Frans Pangier
It’s also pertinent to outline that, no matter the rate of vine harvest in certain areas of the Amazon where ayahuasca tourism and production are booming, it doesn’t appear that the vine is nearing endangered status. The harvesting pressure really only strains the resources around spots with high ayahuasca activity, and temporary scarcity in these accessible areas during the transition to cultivation is to be expected.
However, the Amazon rainforest is vast and abundant, and we are unlikely to deplete its B. caapi supply, especially if proper steps are taken in the direction of sustainability. As Pangier evocatively puts it: “You know, the forest is so fucking big […] the plant going extinct as a species is really not realistic.”
A great example of the implementation of sustainable harvesting practices is the Ayahuasca Ayni project run by the Temple of the Way of Light, a retreat center already on its own path to ayahuasca self-sufficiency. The project aims to support local communities in sowing thousands of ayahuasca and chacruna plants with the objective to counter their overharvesting. Other organizations, such as the Tree of Light, have also been collaborating with indigenous communities on plant medicine cultivation projects.
So, while there is some reason for concern over ayahuasca resources on local levels, it’s important to be aware of the fact that B. caapi resources are not in danger throughout most of the Amazon (at least not from harvesting), as well as to focus on the efforts to navigate toward regeneration in the areas where it’s needed.
More than One Threat
Unfortunately, harvesting is not the only threat to ayahuasca sustainability. The increasing levels of deforestation in the Amazon as a result of outside interest in its wealth of resources (land, oil, timber, minerals, precious metals, etc) are causing much more damage to the rainforest than we could ever do with mere manual overharvesting of accessible areas.
The incredible biodiversity of the Amazon, with its unrivaled variety of flora and fauna, is suffering from the decades of decimation inflicted upon it by big, multinational mining and ranching industries. If anything is cause for concern, it should be the WWF’s estimate that 27% of the largest tropical rainforest in the world will be destroyed by 2030 should we continue at this pace.
All of this is why not only drinking ayahuasca but taking part in ecotourism and indigenous traditions of any sort entails an ethical obligation of reciprocity toward the local communities and their homelands.
If you’ve made it to the end of this text, I thank you for your interest in ayahuasca sustainability and invite you to consider donating to either the Ayahuasca Ayni fundraiser or to one of the organizations fighting for the conservation of Amazonian culture and biodiversity, which you can learn about in our Sacred Reciprocity Resources section.