May 18, 2001 — For the first time, Amazonian medicine men have drawn up a code of ethics and established a union to police themselves, complete with membership cards. The union of Colombian shamans is trying to weed out people who are exploiting traditional ways for big profits and cheap thrills.
The Shamans — who prefer to be called “indigenous doctors” — stand at the gates of what could be a biomedical bonanza, as pharmaceutical companies engage in bioprospecting to seek out new cures for maladies ranging from diarrhea to cancer.
At the same time, the Amazon has become a destination for outsiders looking for a taste of the mystical yage (pronounced YA-hay), a hallucinogenic brew used in the shamans’ healing ceremonies. Travel agencies tout yage tours over the Internet, and some entrepreneurs sell bulk quantities of the ayahuasca plant, the “vision vine” from which yage is made.
The tug of war over the Amazon’s biological riches has sparked legal battles as well as million-dollar deals with outsiders. But the 50 shamans who established the Union of Yage Healers have taken a different approach, trying to get their own house in order first.
“This big black box that so many people have profited from and so many people have written about as whites ... they don’t want that anymore,” Liliana Madrigal, chief operating officer for the Virginia-based Amazon Conservation Team, told MSNBC.com.
The team’s president, ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin, emphasized that he and other outsiders simply helped guide the shamans as they went through the long process of creating a code of ethics.
“You can say it’s about 15,000 years in the making, you can say that it’s taken a year and a half,” he said.
In a way, the Union of Yage Healers would function like an American Medical Association for scores of shamans from seven tribes across an area the size of New England. The union’s code of ethics, which was formally presented to the Colombian government last month, lays out acceptable and unacceptable practices for shamans — as well as the beginnings of a system for designating who is a healer, who is an apprentice and “who fails to meet the requirements of this recognition.”
But the code also makes it clear that the shamans don’t want to become white-coated clones of Western physicians.
“We do not seek to use the language of modern medicine,” the code declares. “We are still far from embracing the concepts underlying words such as ‘medicine,’ ‘health,’ ‘disease’ and ‘patient,’ which do not always have direct equivalents in our own languages.”
Madrigal said three elders — ages 104, 90 and 87 — head the union, with five younger shamans serving as an operating committee. An elder had to visit each of the prospective members of the union, she said.
“They both had to drink yage to figure out who was a real shaman and who was not. ... They smell ’em, they just know. They have a special sense for identifying these people,” she explained.
Madrigal said the union would issue identification cards to its members, but probably not take any action against practitioners who were deemed unfit for membership.
The code declares that shamans should not demand a fee from people in their communities for their healing services, but may charge for the cost of procuring their medicinal plants. “For non-indigenous people, we will establish rates befitting the problem,” the code states.
It also bans the consumption of alcoholic beverages during healing ceremonies, as well as the sale of yage or medicinal plants to outsiders.
Madrigal said the code is aimed not only at unscrupulous outsiders, but also at fallen-away apprentices who are trying to make a profit through their familiarity with yage culture. The shamans fear that such people could irrevocably pervert the traditional ways — and even bring about a governmental crackdown on the use of yage.
“The union represents much more than a code of ethics,” she said. “It represents a union to save themselves.”
Vision of the future
Plotkin said his team has encouraged the shamans to set down a record of their practices — but in their indigenous languages rather than Spanish or English, to make it harder for outsiders to steal their intellectual property. The shamans are also working with Western-style physicians to teach classes at medical schools and set up joint clinics in Colombian villages, he said.
Madrigal said “the whole idea is to begin to incorporate shamanic medicine into academic circles instead of this bizarre, new-age, hippie stuff.”
“They hate that,” she said. “They have zero tolerance for that.”
Plotkin and Madrigal say shamans in Ecuador and Brazil have heard about the efforts in Colombia and might adapt the idea to their own cultures.
Charles Grob, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, has studied Brazil’s yage culture and says the Union of Yage Healers sounds like a good idea.
“If this is a group that has a long tradition of using yage, I would say it’s positive that they’re speaking up and expressing what they feel to be appropriate standards for its use,” he told MSNBC.com. “That would minimize the risks and put the attention back on the native practitioners, where it should be.”
Dennis McKenna, who specializes in the study of psychedelic drugs as director of ethnopharmacology for the Heffter Research Institute, also voiced his support for the idea of indigenous groups controlling their own shamanic heritage.
“Their knowledge is basically being ripped off by the First World, the pharmaceutical companies,” he said.
But he said associations such as the Union of Yage Healers could raise new dilemmas for indigenous cultures.
“Every time you try to introduce those institutional types of structures, it’s a form of control, and control tends to exclude groups that may be legitimate but aren’t part of the inner circle,” he said. “All of these things are fraught with difficulties. What qualifies you for membership? How do you be inclusive while maintaining your standards?”
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