Plants & Pathways: More-than-Human Worlds of Power, Knowledge, and Healing
This dissertation investigates the pathways and consequences of the commodification of ayahuasca, an Indigenous psychoactive and medicinal Amazonian plant brew, and the Shipibo healing rituals associated with its use. The “ayahuasca complex” is an assemblage of socionatural boundary beings, more-than-human relations, and interspecies and Indigenous practices that produce ayahuasca as a global commodity. I argue that the ayahuasca complex produces worlds in which both plant beings and humans participate, and which create ontological openings toward life. Providing healing services to outsiders is one way that Shipibo communities in the Ucayali region of the Peruvian Amazon have responded to the conditions of globalization and regional histories of colonial violence, racism, and resource extractivism; but these communities are still living in great poverty.
This dissertation unfolds in response to four guiding research questions: (1) how does the commodification of ayahuasca differ, if at all, from the socioeconomic and socioecological relations that have defined the extraction of other resources in Ucayali?; (2) how do Shipibo communities and healers benefit from ayahuasca tourism and what are the limitations on their ability to benefit?; (3) how does the adoption of Shipibo healing practices by outsiders affect relationships between humans and plant beings?; and (4) how can outsiders and researchers like myself work in Shipibo communities in ways that are not exploitative and extractive?
My findings are based on fourteen months of ethnographic research in Ucayali, Peru (over five years), in which I conducted interviews, ecological studies, focus groups, and participant-observation of practices associated with ayahuasca, including harvesting, cooking, and healing. I also lived and worked in Shipibo communities and became involved in NGO projects and a community-based forest management project. My work dwells at the intersection of political ecology, STS (Science, Technology, and Society), environmental history, and environmental anthropology while also emphasizing decolonial approaches and introducing feminist and multispecies lenses to this topic.
I use a political ecology framework to show that although the ayahuasca boom may appear similar to other extractive frontiers, the plants used to make ayahuasca also resist commodification in certain ways and create their own particular economic pathways that do not conform to usual commodity circuits. Nonetheless, as with other extractive economies, resources flow northward to rich countries through the growing ayahuasca commodity web. Although the commodification of ayahuasca does open up channels for resources to flow back to Shipibo communities, benefits and power continue to be concentrated in the North, and Shipibo communities are constrained by ongoing structural racism from capitalizing on the commodification of ayahuasca.
I find that a legacy of colonial exploitation and extractivism still structures racialized hierarchies in Ucayali and globally, which constrain Shipibo healers’ ability to benefit from capitalist/colonial systems of power. However, ayahuasca’s particular relationships with humans, both material and cultural, causes it to behave unusually as a commodity. This dissertation reveals that plants themselves are important actors in commodity networks. I argue that as the ayahuasca complex moves through capitalist and reductionist frameworks, plant-human relations are altered in such a way that plant agency is constricted. My work draws from the literature on political ontology to understand relational practices as constitutive of worlds. Ayahuasca’s relationship with humans, therefore, is constituted through specific practices that shift as they move through different ontological framings and take on new meanings, values, and configurations of power. I focus on power, knowledge, and healing, as three attributes that are associated with ayahuasca, and use this as an analytic to show that these attributes become unraveled and humanized as ayahuasca is recontextualized. However, new articulations and openings are also created as plants and humans, Shipibo healers and outsiders engage in new types of collaborative worldmaking practices.