As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads through the Amazon basin, indigenous communities are at risk of losing older generations who are the repositories of knowledge for traditional spiritual and medicinal practices.
The Union of Yagé Medics of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC), an indigenous organization that includes traditional healers from the Siona, Cofán, Inga, Coreguaje and Kamentsá peoples, took action this summer and launched a crowdfunding campaign to help preserve their culture.
The campaign supports the work of elderly ceremonial leaders in southwestern Colombia who use ayahuasca, also known as yagé in some regions. It also funds training for women from tribal communities who study the use of medicinal plants.
The UMIYAC crowdfunding campaign concluded in October after raising just more than half of its $50,000 goal. The UMIYAC continues to raise funds to help defend endangered indigenous knowledge and ecosystems. The organization has set a fundraising goal of $200,000 for 2021.
The UMIYAC noted on their crowdfunding page that indigenous people have historically been excluded from the “privatized, bankrupt, and inefficient national Colombian health system.” Tribal peoples, says the UMIYAC, must “rely on our medicinal knowledge and traditions to protect our communities.”
“In the face of the current pandemic, we have closed-off access to our territories to prevent the spread of the virus,” read the crowdfunding site. “Simultaneously, we are working to strengthen our own botanical/medicinal practices based on knowledge of the Amazon rainforest: the greatest pharmacy in the world.”
UMIYAC’s technical coordinator and environmental engineer Miguel Evanjuanoy posted a message on the group’s crowdfunding page thanking the 152 contributors who joined the UMIYAC “on this path of struggle and love.” “We are a great community without borders and our united voices are the song of Mother Earth,” wrote Evanjuanoy.
Founded in 1999, the UMIYAC is seeking to defend and conserve Amazon territories, strengthen autonomy for tribal groups, revitalize traditional cultures, protect ancestral knowledge and support indigenous healing practices.
Dr. Riccardo Vitale, an anthropologist and advisor for the UMIYAC, notes that it is sometimes challenging for smaller organizations to raise funds for projects that reflect the ongoing needs of indigenous communities. He says it is important for donors to understand long term goals and hear directly from people who are impacted.
“UMIYAC is a grassroots organization which lacks the costly machinery available to the big professional fundraisers who for years now have monopolized Amazonian aid,” says Vitale. “Moreover, UMIYAC’s programs are aimed at strengthening indigenous, cultural processes, autonomy and self-determination, things that are not as easily marketable, as putting out fires and delivering food packages.”
Despite the ongoing impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the Colombian armed conflict, an asymmetrical, low-intensity war that began in 1960, also continues to threaten indigenous communities that the UMIYAC represents.
Conflict and Destruction
According to the Unit for the Attention and Integral Reparation of Victims, the conflict has killed more than nine million throughout Colombia, including 231,799 indigenous people. During the most recent Minga for Life, Territory, Democracy and Peace gatherings held in October, indigenous leaders pointed to the destructive policies perpetrated by the government of Colombian president Iván Duque Márquez. In 2020, more than 172 activists have been assassinated in Colombia including indigenous leaders.
“It is our duty to demonstrate against the intensification of the war that is unleashed in our territories, the systematic and selective assassination of our leaders, the precariousness of access and legal security of our ancestral territories, discrimination, exploitation of our mother earth, and the abandonment of the State,” indigenous leaders told local media during the gathering.
The home territory of people represented by the UMIYAC includes vital rivers such as the Caquetá and Putumayo, tributaries of the Amazon River. After the 2010-2014 Colombian National Development Plan determined, however, that these areas were no longer part of the Amazon region, these regions suffered environmental and social impacts that threatened critical ecosystems.
“It is very hard to see that human beings harm Mother Earth without looking at the consequences for future generations,” says UMIYAC president Ernesto Evanjuanoy, who adds that he wants to awaken the world to the value of respecting the land.
Every year, 240,000 hectares of forest in the Amazon is destroyed and deforestation has reached its highest level in a decade. This destruction erases both species and ancient knowledge. “We are staring in the face of physical and cultural extermination,” reads the UMIYAC crowdfunding page.
In 2009, the Colombian Constitutional Court reported that oil drilling, illegal mining, monoculture farming, cattle ranching, land seizures, and the presence of legal and illegal armed groups on ancestral lands all put indigenous communities at risk of annihilation and have forced people off their land.
“The Colombian conflict caused massive and systemic human rights violations against the civilian population, generating over 8.5 million internally displaced people,” says Vitale.
According to 2007 figures from the UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than half a million people fled Colombia because of the armed conflict, “From then until now, a very small part has returned to the country, but there are still many who continue to emigrate, which is why we say that there are more than half a million people outside the country due to the armed conflict,” Spanish doctor, psychologist and Colombian Truth Commission member Carlos Martin Beristáin told DW.com.
Healing With Traditional Medicines
The UMIYAC was launched during a gathering of traditional healers in Yurayaco (Caquetá). This region of the Andean-Amazonian Piedmont contains the greatest diversity of fauna and flora species in Colombia. Located in the Colombian regions of Putumayo and Caquetá, at the confluence of the Andean Mountains and the Amazon Basin, the preservation of these ecosystems safeguard ancestral wisdom that has the potential to heal modern societies.
“In this region of Piedmont and the Amazon we still survive, several indigenous peoples, who received as a heritage from our ancestor’s great wisdom through medicinal plants, knowledge of the rainforest and the sacred management of yagé. We consider yagé and other medicinal plants to be a gift from God, of great benefit to the health of humanity,” says the UMIYAC in a YouTube video.
Yagé is an admixture made from the combination of two plants; one containing betacarbolines which act as inhibitors of the monoamine oxidase (MAOI) and a second one containing N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT or N,N-DMT), a functional and structural analogue of other tryptamines such as bufotenin (5-HO-DMT) or psilocybin (4-PO-DMT). Evidence of the use of yagé dates back at least one thousand years, as demonstrated in 2010 by several archeological remains found in a cave in southwestern Bolivia.
Indigenous community elders, called “curacas,” cure possession by malignant spirits and recognize diseases using their knowledge of yagé and other medicinal plants. With nature as their textbook, they seek to heal the entire person, including his or her relationship with others, with nature and with the spiritual world.
“Yagé medicine,” writes the UMIYAC on their crowdfunding page, “is our collective and individual spiritual healing process. The ceremonies are sacred and social. During yagé ceremonies we forge unity, we laugh, we analyse the problems and we find the solutions, we share knowledge and experiences. With the spiritual strength provided by yagé medicine, we resist the pressures of war and protect the territories from environmental devastation. During the long nights of the rituals, the fire and the yagé, sacred and powerful plant of our ancestors, illuminate the thoughts and clear our vision.”
UMIYAC members have shared their knowledge at congresses, conferences and events around the world. This includes the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, which UMIYAC attended with the support of ICEERS and the Colombian-Swiss NGO Maloca Internationale.
One of UMIYAC’s first achievements was the publication of The Beliefs of the Elders, a code of medical ethics created in September 2000 with the aim of establishing guidelines for the proper use of these teacher plants.
“The simple fact that a Union has been formed does not mean that everyone will work in the same way. But there is agreement on the importance of setting some basic rules of discipline, behaviour, seriousness, and mutual respect for our communities, for ourselves, and for those who seek us out as healers,” reads the UMIYAC document.
Defending Cultural Traditions
While defending their ancestral lands and healing practices, UMIYAC members are also confronting the historical devaluing of their culture. UMIYAC president Ernesto Evanjuanoy observed in a talk at the 2019 World Ayahuasca Conference that there are 102 indigenous groups living in Colombia, 64 of them in the Amazon. He says that until very recently, religious dogmas denigrated indigenous people. People around the world, says Evanjuanoy, are now recognizing that tribal communities preserve essential wisdom.
“Governments have an interest in plundering, but not in contributing,” says Evanjuanoy. “We are not owners of the Earth, it is just a loan… The Amazon is a living library. We are the guardians of Mother Nature.”
In November 2019, a decade after their first proclamation, the UMIYAC released a Declaration about cultural appropriation from the spiritual authorities, representatives and indigenous organizations of the Amazon region. In this document, UMIYAC leaders assert that they are “the original people that have inhabited these ancient lands of the Amazon, cultivating medicinal plants and practicing the knowledge and wisdom of our grandmothers and grandfathers to live in peace and harmony with Mother Earth.”
UMIYAC leaders noted that while non-indigenous people were beginning to recognize the importance of their wisdom and the value of our medicinal plants, some were attempting to falsely commercialize this knowledge.
“However, many of them are desecrating our culture and our territories, trading with yagé and other plants, dressing up as indigenous when in fact they are charlatans. We see with concern that a new form of tourism is being promoted to deceive foreigners with supposed taita or shaman services. Even many of our own indigenous brothers and sisters do not respect the value of traditional medicine and walk around towns and cities negotiating with our symbols and misleading people,” says the UMIYAC in a YouTube video.
Miguel Evanjuanoy notes that commercial exploitation and commodification of ancestral medicinal knowledge held by UMIYAC members have led to medicalization, cultural appropriation and other abuses.
“So called healing centers have opened all over the Amazon regions and our spiritual leaders and youth are induced to participate in this new and lucrative market, backed by foreign capitals,” says Miguel Evanjuanoy. “These dynamics weaken our communities, causing fractures and divisions, which increase our vulnerability and exacerbate the process of physical and cultural extermination. We are talking of a huge market that continues to blossom in evident violation of international treaties, such as International Labor Organization, Covenant 169 of 1989 and the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007.”
Colombian indigenous leaders have denounced the fact that the national government has not complied with the 34 agreements signed between the Minga de Resistencia and government entities in May 2019. Vitale notes that the governments of Peru, Brazil and Colombia are not passive spectators, but have actively promoted a development model that fosters biocultural genocide and ecocide.
“Over 500 years ago our lands were invaded in order to extract the resources and wealth in the territories where we lived in communion with Mother Nature,” reads a statement on the UMIYAC website. “With the arrival of colonization, also came the religions that caused irreparable damage; by imposing the Bible and the word of God outside of our spiritual and millenary cultures. They wanted to erase our sacred connections with nature, criminalize our spiritual ceremonies and mocked our botanical science.”
At the 2019 ICEERS World Ayahuasca Conference, UMIYAC member Rubiela Mojomboy Jojoa declared that indigenous communities will continue to resist, seek resources for traditional healing, and join together to defend their cultures against the pandemic and destruction of their lands. “We are going to defend our people’s life,” says Mojomboy Jojoa. “We are in resistance together with all brother and neighbor nations from Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, [and] Ecuador.”
As indigenous healers seek support to defend their people and their culture in a time of pandemic, there is a growing awareness that traditional knowledge, and deep connection to the natural world, plays an essential role in supporting the future health of the planet. Nature will never surrender.
Image: Traditional healing in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. UMIYAC.