An international organization has completed the first of two phases necessary to bring the medicinal plant iboga to the West legally for the first time under the Nagoya Protocol, an international treaty which went into effect in 2014.
Nagoya calls for establishing fair and equitable “access to” and “benefit sharing” of genetic resources such as plants, as well as the indigenous knowledge associated with those resources. The protocol has two phases: first, locals grant access to the resource, then companies agree to share benefits through payments and other support.
In what could be an important, precedent-setting arrangement, Gabon’s Ministry of Forests is joining with a number of Gabonese villages that farm iboga, as well as a North American iboga therapy center operator, and the NGO Blessings of the Forest to take the first step toward a legal distribution channel for iboga grown in participating villages, according to spokespeople from Blessings of the Forest.
Iboga has become an increasingly popular treatment for addiction and other ailments, particularly among those with opioid dependency. Under the plan, 40 kilos of iboga will be harvested and analyzed to determine its market value. The Western operators will then determine how best to sell the iboga.
Following the sale comes the second phase, with a focus on benefit sharing. As part of the proposed agreement, a percentage of iboga clinic revenues will be paid to the villages that have used iboga for ceremonial and medicinal purposes for countless generations. Many ibogaine clinics follow therapeutic practices drawn from Bwiti rituals. Nagoya calls for the recognition of the true value of indigenous traditional knowledge, and arranges for Africans to be paid adequately for the use of their cultural resources.
Almost All Iboga Is Illegal
Unfortunately, almost all iboga bought in the West today is harvested illegally from Gabon, making most ibogaine clinics and companies complicit in breaking Gabonese law and international treaties, advocates say. Blessings of the Forest co-director David Nassim calls ibogaine the “blood diamond” of the psychedelic world.
The new agreement, which is being spearheaded by Blessings of the Forest, is intended to create a source for the shrub that is traceable and sustainable.
Marie Lou Miboka, president of Blessings of the Forest, is a Gabonese iboga healer in the Bwiti tradition. She calls the moves an “important step.”
“Iboga serves us not only as medicine but also as a central sacrament in traditional ceremonies,” Miboka said via email (translated from French). “Used for its curative, preventive and spiritual effects, it has been part of our traditional therapeutic and mystical-spiritual traditions since time immemorial.”
Blessings of the Forest is registered in Gabon as an Non-Governmental Organization and in Britain as a Community Interest Company, which are companies that intend to use their profits to support local communities. The group has labored for years, often in the face of steep, uphill odds, to build sustainable agriculture practices in small villages, like installing beehives that shoo elephants away from iboga plants.
“This agreement,” Miboka said, helps in the “international recognition of the value of our cultural and natural resources, but above all to put an end to the illegal trade in Gabon’s ‘Sacred Wood’ and finally be able to allow traditional communities to also benefit equitably from the economic benefits of this ancestral national heritage.”
Gabon’s History with Iboga
The Western health industry has historically been predicated on third world exploitation, and stolen iboga plants are just one part of 500 years of colonization, advocates say. Few psychedelic companies—there are now hundreds—have acknowledged this history by giving back to the indigenous cultures that helped shape the modern psychedelic renaissance.
That may be changing. A number of newer psychedelic companies have built into their business model the idea of partnering with the indigenous. Usually called indigenous reciprocity, it has become a hot topic in the psychedelic industry. If a company lacks an indigenous reciprocity component, activists will ask why.
Companies that use iboga are under special scrutiny, since it is well known that more than 90 percent of iboga comes from the black market. While magic mushrooms grow in many locations around the world, iboga grows almost entirely in Gabon. Without the Gabonese people, and the knowledge of their tribal lineage holders, a promising new treatment for addiction would never have been found.
Applying the Nagoya Protocol to Iboga
Blessings of the Forest is the first organization to apply the Nagoya Protocol to a psychedelic substance.
Gabon was the first country to sign the Nagoya Protocol, in large part to protect its iboga. More than 100 countries have now signed the treaty, which mandates that when a country uses the resources of another country, it must share the benefits.
In 2019, the Gabonese government outlawed iboga exports until they could comply with Nagoya. In 2020, Blessings of the Forest signed a five-year agreement with the Gabonese Ministry of Forests to establish a pilot program for the exportation of iboga and other forest products, especially medicinal plants, following the Nagoya rules.
This January, representatives of Blessings of the Forest and the Ministry of Forests traveled to iboga farms located inside of a huge community forest in the country’s northeast, near Ivindo national park. Traveling with them was a Western operator of ibogaine clinics who intends to be a customer for the iboga. (The clinic operator asked not to be named in order to not jeopardize sensitive negotiations.)
The envoy met with representatives of the villages Adoue, Minkouala, and Ebyeng. The NGO A2E, which represents the villages, held a vote and agreed to grant Bessings of the Forest access to the iboga.
The program will give Blessings of the Forest access to 40 kilos, or 90 pounds, of iboga. In the Western black market, a kilo of poached iboga can sell for $2,000 with little of that money making it back to the iboga farmers. Under Nagoya, the villagers would receive payment for their knowledge about iboga’s use, in addition to the plants themselves. Yann Guignon, founder of Blessings of the Forests, expects clinics will pay a portion of the proceeds from iboga sessions, which can cost thousands of dollars, to the villagers.
Western Centers Welcome Ethical Iboga
Iboga centers are a growing business in the West. Most centers today operate in Mexico and Costa Rica, where use of the drug is not restricted. For some retreat operators, Nagoya-compliant iboga would be more than welcome.
Tom Feegel, CEO of Beond, a company opening a chain of iboga clinics, says his clinics in Mexico plan to buy Nagoya-compliant iboga as soon as it becomes available. In compliance with Nagoya, Beond plans to contribute a portion of their proceeds from treatments to projects that develop local communities and support indigenous leaders in Gabon. “Treating one community without attempting to treat all communities is a partial solution,” says Feegel.
Tricia Eastman, who has held iboga retreats in Costa Rica, says Nagoya-compliant iboga is a great first step.
“It’s the most powerful medicine on the planet,” says Eastman, who has trained with Gabonese practitioners. Eastman would like to see a vetting process for guides to ensure iboga isn’t put in the hands of those who could do harm. (Iboga has been theorized, in rare cases, to cause cardiac arrhythmias, which can be fatal.) Western novices trying to use iboga, Eastman says, are “like a 13 year old trying to drive a Lamborghini.”
Iboga as a Model for Gabon Exports
If Blessings of the Forest can complete the second phase of their Nagoya agreement and successfully export iboga to the West, other forest products in Gabon could follow the path of iboga, and be exported in a way that follows the treaty. Nagoya allows the Gabonese to control “access” to their plants, and forces Westerners to “share benefits.” Gabon is covered in forests, and advocates see the potential of the Nagoya Protocol to provide the resources necessary to maintain them.
In a video on Blessings of the Forest’s website, Lee White, Gabon’s minister of forests, said, “I hope iboga can be an example, a test,” of how to ethically and sustainably export forest products of all kinds from African countries.
Main Image: Iboga plantation under forest cover at Saint Martin des Apindji. Courtesy of Blessings of the Forest.