|Saving the 'Vine of the Soul'
6/9/01 - by Maria Jimenez, National Post, Canada
National Post's Marina Jiménez, while observing Colombia's billion-dollar, U.S.-backed effort to wipe out the crops that produce cocaine, discovered the measures are inadvertently destroying another, more mysterious and exotic plant on the margins of the coca fields.
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NARINAL, Colombia - Putumayo state in the northwest Amazon region of Colombia is dense, green and humid. Its lush rivers and jungles are a vision of a tropical paradise, home to untold species of fauna and flora still awaiting discovery. They are also perfect cover for underground fighters, as well as the peasant farmers who toil in labs hidden under leafy canopies, turning coca leaves into the white paste that will be processed into cocaine.
But it was not coca farmers we were going to meet. It was a group of Kofan Indians who for centuries have been tending another, even more exotic plant that grows on the margins of the coca fields and in the dense rain forests beyond.
The Kofan are the custodians of what some consider the most potent plant in the jungle apothecary, a twisted vine with tiny pink flowers called Banisteriopsis caapi, more commonly known as yage (ya-hey). Holy and mysterious, yage is said to have telepathic and medicinal properties so powerful an American drug company spent 15 years trying to patent it.
Those who ingest yage tea, prepared with secondary plants to enhance the effects, say they are transported through fields of light on epic journeys to grand cities past and future. Many under its influence feel they are witnessing the origins of humankind and compare the plant to an umbilical cord linking human beings to their primordial beginnings.
"Yage is an internal voice that speaks all languages. I see what will happen and what has happened," said Alejandro Paitecudo, a Huitoto Indian and respected shaman from Caqueta, in Colombia's Amazon.
Rumours of the plant's powers and tremendous pharmacological potential have filtered out of these jungles for years. Some consider it the world's next miracle drug. Others are tempted by the promise of mystical and telepathic experiences. The poet Allen Ginsberg experimented with yage, as has the musician Sting, and followers of the religious cult Santo Daime use yage as a sacrament.
Loren Miller, director of the International Plant Medicine Corporation, of California, is convinced his strain of the psychotropic vine could be used in psychotherapy, or in treating cancer or angina pectoria. After years of legal wrangling, Mr. Miller was finally awarded a patent for his specimen early this year, to the horror of the Indians, who say patenting yage is akin to patenting holy water.
The appropriation of yage by outsiders threatens to further undermine the fragile culture of the Putumayo region, already devastated by 37 years of civil war. Colombia's billion-dollar U.S.-backed campaign to rid the country of its coca fields and end narco-terrorism has already wreaked enormous havoc on the Indians' lives.
Villagers and Indians gathered recently to protest the government's defoliation efforts, which have destroyed 50,000 hectares of coca. They complain the anti-narcotics battalions spraying glysophate on coca fields are killing legitimate crops, including yucca, corn -- and yage.
For these people, the claim on yage by an American is perhaps the final indignity. "Everyone in this zone of violence suffers, and we take yage to try and help us understand," said a shaman from Putumayo. "We are the king of the yage. And we don't want it to be in the hands of the narcos or the U.S."
To learn about yage's secret powers, I needed the sanction of a shaman. Nelson Quintero, a Kofan Indian I met in La Dorada, a tiny town in the south of Putumayo, had agreed to take me to meet his.
The 4x4 careened to Narinal along an unpaved road so rough the driver's teeth clattered as his head hit the roof. The humidity covered us like a damp towel. Nelson spoke in broken Spanish to me, putting off my questions about yage for his shaman to answer. "Just a few more minutes and we'll be there," he assured me again and again, smiling.
The 1,300 Kofan and hundreds of other Indians in the region are wary travellers. Half the country's coca crop grows here, and the villagers, innocent bystanders in the narco-war, have witnessed some of the worst battles in the country. Entire towns have been kidnapped at gunpoint, and there have been many bombings as leftist guerrillas have vied with paramilitaries for control of the trade. Last year, the roads were closed for months.
The driver persevered. After a half-hour, the road narrowed, and Nelson decided to abandon the vehicle at the side of the road, apparently unconcerned it might be stolen. Instead, he hitched a ride for us in a far less robust-looking transport, an open-ended minivan weighed down with live chickens and farmers hauling sacks of provisions. The rickety vehicle took us deeper into the dense tropical forest.
The van finished its run at the end of the road, and we continued on foot, following a crude pathway cut into the jungle. We walked for an hour under a dense canopy, accompanied only by the sound of birds and insects overhead and the fluttering of giant sky-blue butterflies. Creeping vines and plants clogged the red earth trail, parts of which were submerged in ankle-deep water.
I reviewed what I'd learned about yage.
The Ecuadorian geographer Villavicencio was one of the earliest explorers to write about yage, in 1858: "The beverage appears to excite the nervous system ... I've experienced dizziness, then an aerial journey in which I recall perceiving the most gorgeous views, great cities, lofty towers, beautiful parks and other extremely attractive objects; then I imagined myself to be alone in a forest and assaulted by a number of terrible beings from which I defended myself."
A century later, the testimony was similar. When the American writer William S. Burroughs tried yage in 1953, he encountered "larval beings" that passed before his eyes in a blue haze, "each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk." After rolling about vomiting, he was later transported to what he termed a "composite city" of all human potential.
The vine contains the psychedelic dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Yage is usually combined with the leaves of a relative of the coffee plant called psychotria viridis, which contains chemicals that heighten the strength and duration of the intoxication. Purging, a common reaction to yage, is considered a necessary part of the experience, cleansing initiates' minds and spirits of evil.
Those under yage's influence say the experience is deeply introspective. Some relive treasured childhood memories -- or come to terms with past transgressions. Others hear music and see jaguars, waterfalls and heavenly scenes.
But the greatest power attributed to yage is telepathy. Olga Criollo, a 29-year-old woman who carried her baby in a large, coloured scarf tied to her back, says she once derided claims of the plant's potency until she drank the yage liquid as a teenager.
"I laughed at yage, and then I had a powerful vision," she said. "I saw a large party of men in the street, dressed in elegant suits. Standing on the edge, covered in dirt, was a man I'd never seen before. I was told, 'You will marry this man.' Days later, I met him. He arrived at my house, this time dressed very nicely, and he later proposed."
One man told me he had seen cities of the world while on yage, among them the wide boulevards and backlit buildings of Madrid, which he had never visited.
Not all the visions are reassuring, as one shaman related: "I have seen the violence of our country. There will be recriminations. There will be more killings and death. This ground will be burnt," he said, pointing to the earth at his feet.
After an hour of trekking in the oppressive jungle heat, we arrived at last at a languid brown river where children cavorted and Kofan mothers bathed their infants. A woman slid into one of the dugout canoes tied to the riverbank and ferried us 15 metres to the other bank.
When we reached the shore, a guide directed us to the village school. Sitting in a semi-circle, talking in hushed tones, the Kofan elders awaited us. Nelson and I stood before them as the elders listened to my request to view their yage vines.
We paddled across, then walked again through the forest, leaping from puddles to loose wooden planks laid out on a path, swatting at sandflies all around. Finally we arrived at a clearing where a house on stilts stood in a field of mango trees and palms, a small plot of coca behind it.
By this time, yage had taken on Triffid-like qualities in my mind. I had read with wide eyes about its mythical properties, its description as the "vine of the soul;" "flesh of the Gods;" "rope of death."
I scanned the coca plot, but could make out no "rope of death" among the short, squat coca plants.
Then the shaman pointed.
There, barely discernable under a tree, was a spindly green plant about three feet tall. With its triangular, floppy leaves, this infant yage plant could have been mistaken for a garden weed, the kind that appears overnight after a rain and can be nimbly plucked away.
And yet Mr. Queta was sombre, almost reverential, when he spoke of the forlorn specimen before us: "Yage is very sacred, very mystical and very jealous," he warned.
Only male shamans are permitted to scrape the plant's bark, he explained, after which it is mashed and boiled into an oily, phosphorescent liquid, while the shamans recite prayers.
Mr. Queta said he and another shaman drink the brew once every 10 days, and use it often for spiritual inspiration as well as to divine remedies for stomach ailments, parasites and headaches.
"We talk to God. We find out how to have a peaceful life, how to live better," he said. "You need a lot of spiritual concentration to be able to communicate with ancient doctors and spirits."
He said yage also induces visions that show him how to treat illnesses that are magical or psychosomatic in origin. He determines the roots of evil spells, then neutralizes them, dispelling the symptoms.
Alejandro Paitecudo, the Huitoto shaman, spoke of similar qualities. "I hear songs that tell me where to construct our maloca, our sacred communal house. It tells me the location, what wood to use, what day to build it and how to construct it," he said, silver rings glinting on his stained fingers.
"We mix yage with as many as 12 different plants. Sometimes we use plant to understand if someone is causing the illness, like a spell.
"Yage is the strength of the Indian people, its power."
Women and children as young as 10 are allowed to sip the brew -- so long as a shaman is present to control the visions and administer an antidote if the child becomes unwell.
But women who are menstruating or pregnant are banned from yage ceremonies. And if a woman so much as looks at a yage plant, its mystical power evaporates -- at least according to Mr. Queta's tribe, which, I was assured, would not use the plant shown to me.
Loren Miller thought he had an easy victory in 1986, when the U.S. patent office declared his strain of yage, called Da Vine, officially his. Since finding the specimen in a domestic garden in the Amazon rain forest, Mr. Miller, who is the sole director of International Plant Medicine Corporation, had made it his life's mission to patent yage. On his application, he wrote that the plant could be used to treat everything from post-encephalitic Parkinsonism to angina. But in the 15 years since his first patent was granted, Mr. Miller has yet to discover any miraculous cure. He did on one occasion make plans to build a drug-processing laboratory in Bolivia, but in the end nothing came of it.
When native groups discovered the patent in the mid-1990s, they were furious. "To obtain a patent for a Colombian plant is ridiculous," said Augusto Perez, director of the Colombian government's anti-drug program.
The natives argued it was sacrilegious for an outsider to obtain intellectual property rights over a plant that is at the center of a religion, culture and traditional medicine.
The Coordinating Body for the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), an umbrella group of 100 leaders from nine South American countries, hired a Washington lobby group to argue their case. COICA denounced Mr. Miller as an "enemy of indigenous peoples" and banished him from aboriginal territory.
The battle began in earnest as internationally renowned botanists debated the flower petal colour and herbarium specimens, signed affidavits and testified at patent hearings. In 1998, COICA appeared to have won when, in an unusual move, the U.S. patent office revoked Mr. Miller's patent, not for reasons of cultural appropriation but on the grounds Da Vine was not an original species.
Mr. Miller, however, filed a request for reconsideration, producing an affidavit from a botanist showing his strain of yage was indeed unique. This time, the PTO agreed and quietly restored the patent in January. (The patent covers only his particular species of the Caapi vine -- not all yage hybrids.)
"The indigenous people feel this is an insult to their way of life to patent such a holy product," Glenn Wiser, a lawyer with the Centre for International Environmental Law, said recently. "The indigenous people are now fearful that if they share their plants and medicinal products with outsiders, they will figure out ways to make millions of dollars and remove their control over the product."
With Thermoses of yage tea tucked into their woven wool shoulder bags, the medicine men light candles and incense in urban living rooms and administer the brew to poor Indian migrants and rich suburban housewives alike. (Some wealthy Colombians have taken to hiring shamans to host yage ceremonies at luxurious fincas in the hills of Bogota. On occasion, clients from New York or California fly in to join them.)
There is now a periodical, Nuevo Shamanismo, and yage conferences, such as one held recently in Bogota that attracted traditional healers from around the country. Mr. Paitecudo, the Huitoto shaman, was among them, using the occasion to visit several patients, including one with hepatitis and another with abdominal pain. "When we use yage, we become part of the Father-Creator, and nothing is hidden. Yage takes care of you," he explained. He claims to have treated many other illnesses, such as AIDS and hemorrhoids.
Bogota's intellectuals, artists and professionals have embraced the yage tradition, as have some physicians who, convinced of the plant's medicinal benefits, are referring patients to shamans.
Fernando Libreros, a Bogota businessman who is writing a book on yage, plans to establish a non-profit centre in the city where shamans can come and treat patients. "I will help to bring yage to the people. I believe it is the best and least well-known of all the medicinal plants," Mr. Libreros said. "This sacred plant has been misunderstood."
The Colombian government has hired Carlos Alberto Uribe, a professor of anthropology at the University of Los Andes, in Bogota, to study these so-called "magical pathways" or networks of shamans travelling from the jungle to the city. "Yage has caught the imagination of all sorts of sufferers," Mr. Uribe noted. "People feel their minds are clarified. Their existential dilemmas, their misfortunes, their sorrow, their pains. The drug illuminates all these things."
Of course, yage's medicinal potential is as yet unproved. Dr. William Anderson, a botanist at the University of Michigan, and the world's foremost expert on the B. caapi family, agrees the psychoactive properties of the plant can have a strong effect on the mind. "But to establish that something can cure boils or cancer is a big job. Lots of folk remedies have been put to trial and found not to be effective," he said. "On the other hand, any plants with these kinds of chemicals may well be."
Still, the anecdotal evidence is captivating enough to interest not just Mr. Miller but U.S. government officials. According to the Indians, they have taken away samples of the vine to study.
So, apparently, have some narco-traffickers. Which gives rise to another, darker concern: that yage could be processed as an illicit drug and bring shame on those who use it for healing and enlightenment.
Experts point out, however, that the potential street value of non-addictive yage cannot be compared to the ravenously addictive cocaine. "When you can make millions of dollars from cocaine, why would you get involved in yage? We are more worried about our society," Mr. Perez, of the anti-drug program, confided.
Yage may yet survive the assault on the coca crops, and elude control by U.S. corporate concerns. But if it is inevitable that yage should leave its traditional home, then it is fitting that those in charge be not drug traffickers or gringo businessmen but the kings of the yage, who have revered and guarded its secrets for centuries. Without them, the plant's mysterious powers will be lost.