BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Among indigenous peoples from the upper Amazon in South America, views on outsiders participating in rituals involving ayahuasca — the medicinal plant and the hallucinogenic drink made from it — vary. But even those who are more welcoming believe some ayahuasca tourists diverge too far from tradition, putting themselves and others at risk.
In the region, in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, shamans administer the drink for physical and spiritual healing purposes. It can cause visions and purge the body, and indigenous communities believe the concoction has divinatory and healing powers. Users often report coming away from the experience with a sense of purpose. It is not uncommon for nonindigenous people from these countries and from abroad to visit the Amazon in search of the spiritual experience that ayahuasca promises.
Such is the case with Alberto José Varela, an Argentine who has become embroiled in a public feud with the Cofán (or A’i) indigenous people of southern Colombia. He has been commercializing ayahuasca (or yagé, as it’s more commonly known in the country) for about a decade and organizing tours for Europeans to partake in rituals involving the plant.
Varela runs various websites, grouped under an organization called Ayahuasca Internacional (legally constituted in Spain as Inner Mastery International), through which he sells the yagé plant and offers trips to Mocoa, in the Colombian Amazon, for people to try the beverage. The tours cost 150 euros ($170) per person per day and require a minimum stay of seven days. Varela also organizes other workshops and retreats around the world, which he says 4,000 people attend annually.
His is a popular, global operation. He said that he manages about 50 Facebook pages and websites, with a combined following of a million people. He also runs a school, known as Escuela Ayahuasquera or Escuela Consciente, which has chapters in Spain, Italy, Germany and Mexico, with about 2,000 students.
But the Cofanes — a small community of about 1,000 people — and their authorities published a letter in July denouncing Varela and his businesses, arguing that he is insulting their traditions and putting lives at risk.
Lorenzo Morales, the governor of the Ukumari Kankhe reservation, where most of the Colombian Cofanes live, said, “To truly understand the power of yagé and how to give it to others, you have to take it and be immersed in its culture since you are a kid.”
Morales sees Varela as a disrespectful and dangerous foreigner.
“His schools train shamans in under three months, and he doesn’t even take yagé,” Morales said. “To properly give this medicine, you have to drink more of it than your patient.”
Varela said he drinks yagé “one to four times a year.”
“I have done it hundreds of times, but for me, it is not a cultural act, merely a tool for self-recognition and healing,” he added. “Also, I am very sensitive, so a small dosage can last me for days, during which I channel infinite information, which is where most of my Web updates come from.”
Varela said he’s not trying to re-create sacred rituals. Rather, he organizes what he termed “psychotherapeutical sessions” using ayahuasca and other techniques. He believes the plant doesn’t belong only to indigenous people.
“We are not shamans. We don’t want to create shamans. We educate people on a new discipline of ayahuasca,” he said.
According to Varela, his students must pass three levels that take six months to complete to become eligible to work for Inner Mastery International and train how to use ayahuasca themselves and give it to others.
Yagé contains DMT, a psychedelic that can cause visions. The beverage is believed to cleanse the stomach, provoking vomiting and sometimes diarrhea. If it’s not done in a proper setting, the experience can go badly; Henry Miller, an English teenager, died last year in Colombia after consuming yagé twice, apparently without proper guidance.
Brian Anderson, a resident physician at the University of California at San Francisco, said he believes that the beverage “is not dangerous in terms of toxicology” but that drinking it “should be done by keeping the situation in a safe format and regulated socially by people who have experience with it.”
Charles Grob, a child psychiatrist from UCLA who has researched yagé in Brazil, has a similar opinion. “People who are relatively naive about yagé need supervision,” he said. “Otherwise, they might be vulnerable to psychological decompensation.”
There is also the legal issue. DMT is a Schedule I substance that is heavily regulated in many countries, including Spain, where the legal status of its trade remains ambiguous (although its consumption is explicitly allowed by the international 1971 U.N. Convention on Psychotropic Substances).
Because of this, Varela spent 14 months in prison in Spain, after 40 kilograms of the plant were found at his home in Madrid. Colombia has no legislation explicitly addressing yagé, but it has constitutional provisions ensuring the legality of most indigenous traditions. For decades, tourists have gone to participate in yagé rituals without legal issues.
As for his operations in Colombia, Varela says he was granted the right to work with yagé by taita Querubín Queta, the oldest member from the Cofán Ukumari Kankhe reservation. To prove this, he has two letters from Queta (from 2007 and 2014), in which the shaman apparently gave him and his organization the go-ahead to work with yagé and transport it internationally.
However, Queta spoke on a Colombian TV newscast last month and said that a letter was drafted by Varela’s team and that he had signed it without knowing what it read.
“This is an internal power struggle,” Varela responded in an interview with El Espectador newspaper. Varela published a video from May that apparently showed Queta giving him his support. But in the TV interview, Queta said the video was “out of context” and that he was speaking “to Cofán people, not to white people.”
In an interview with Colombian TV news Noticias Uno last month, Varela countered the accusations by saying Queta has repeatedly tried to blackmail him.
“[This] is part of the resentment the indigenous people have had with white people for 500 years,” Varela said in that interview. “Yagé doesn’t belong to them. It belongs to humanity.”
Varela told Al Jazeera America that he refused to pay the Cofanes and distanced himself from the community. “That’s when all of this came about,” he said.
Morales said that is nonsense and insisted that the Cofanes are happy to provide their sacred medicine to anyone — indigenous or not — who seeks it for healing but that they could never teach how to unleash the sacred powers of ayahuasca rituals to an outsider. “Its power is only given by God to the indigenous person that carries the culture of the plant,” he said.
Pressure is mounting on Varela. Earlier this month, the Cofán community received the support of 100 anthropologists, doctors and other experts on indigenous issues who published a letter denouncing him for what they consider a violation of a sacred institution. The experts — from top universities in Colombia, Brazil, the United States, the U.K. and other countries — feel he is a charlatan who is making money unethically and that his ayahuasca rituals are fraudulent, disrespectful and dangerous.
They also complain that he is merely pursuing monetary gains rather than helping people find spiritual enlightenment with yagé.
“Varela’s sites are well marketed, and they shouldn’t be the first place where people find information on yagé,” said anthropologist and law student Jesse Hudson, one of the letter’s signatories. “We wanted to counter that.”
Varela has temporarily shut down the websites through which he sold yagé, he said, “while some legal issues are resolved.” He maintains that he is being honest in not selling the plant as medicine and insists that the benefits of ayahuasca should be available to all.