The Asháninka are rainforest people, once hunter-gatherers, who number 70,000. They live between the border of Peru and the Brazilian jungle state of Acre, along tributaries of the winding Juruá river. They cluster in modest settlements near water, on small clearings where children play among the chickens and dogs, dotted with stilted houses shaded by palm-thatched roofs.
For hundreds of years, semi-nomadic communities intentionally incinerated swaths of forests, leaving behind dense black carpets of ash. In a few years, this charred matter transforms into fertile soil. These people, often indigenous communities, return to this land and temporarily settle, cultivating crops such as bananas, cacao, and peppers.
As loggers, miners and farmers expand into the forest, semi-nomadic communities lose the expansive territories they require to continue their traditional lifestyle. Tapirs, monkeys and deer vanish along with their predators, like jaguar, as once-pristine habitats are destroyed. In some cases, governments brutally force forest and riverine communities out of their ancestral lands. Other communities are edged out slowly, as new pressures accumulate around them. Formerly nomadic groups are forced to settle on plots of land where they must radically adapt, transitioning to an unfamiliar, sedentary way of life.
When groups like the Asháninka find their future uncertain, they do what they’ve done for generations: they consult ayahuasca, seeking spiritual guidance and wisdom. That is what the Piyãko bothers, Moisés and Benki, did when they realized the integrity of their community was threatened.
One morning at dawn, Moisés and Benki Piyãko strode into the forest,. They gathered the glossy leaves of Psychotria viridis, a bush of the Rubiaceae, or coffee family. They walked further into the jungle until they found a twisted vine, a woody liana, twirling in spirals up into the rainforest canopy, Banisteriopsis caapi.
The brothers carried the ingredients to a small solitary structure where a palm fibre hammock hung near a pile of ashes. Here, they prepared the ingredients to make what they call kamarãmpi – their term for ayahuasca – layering the leaves upon pulverized vines in a metal pot. For hours the leaves, the water and the vine cooked over a carefully-attended fire, until it boiled down to a brown frothy liquid by sundown.
Wearing their kushma tunics with their faces adorned with the red pigment from the seeds of the urucum plant, and woven-reed crowns punctuated with the long red plumes of a scarlet macaw, they sat upright in their hand-made chairs and drank the brown brew as their ancestors have for generations.
With eyes closed, they entered into the other realities. In his visions, Moisés walked by a river and heard a voice. A spirit being was waiting for him. “I want to show you something,” it said. He saw an unusual structure there; a spaceship hovering over the water. The voice spoke again: “There’s something I want to show you if you want to learn how to teach.”
He stepped into the light-craft and they floated to the samauma tree (Ceiba genus). Inside, Moisés saw a tiny buzzing metropolis where myriad small yellow creatures were moving about, absorbed in their tasks. He realized he was peering into the highly organized world of the “bee people”.
“Here you have an example of the world in harmony,” he was told. “He showed me all of these bee people working together for the same goal: They take care of our lives as they take care of each other. Everybody has to be the same.”
The spirit brought them back to the forest, where Moisés noticed how the bees work diligently to pollinate fruits and trees, then return to the hive to make honey. The bees care for each tree, every fruit, so it can bring nourishment and colour to this world, while taking care of their own community. “This was the lesson ayahuasca showed me,” said Moisés. “Each of us has to do our part, so that the world can be perfect.”
The vision told him that humanity could organize itself as a harmonious collective, much like bees do. But Moisés recognized another layer to the lesson: the bees had a gift to offer the Asháninka as they struggled with accelerating modernization and the dislocation it was bringing to their lives.
Since that time, the Asháninka have become beekeepers. They keep wooden boxes in trees to house colonies. The bees pollinate the local fruit trees, creating orchards in the jungle. With their new beekeeping initiative, the local jungle has become a luscious oasis again – a regenerative food forest – all thanks to Moisés’ ayahuasca vision.
It is a common belief in the global ayahuasca community that the medicine – “the vine of souls” – is intelligent. As one European-descended jet-set shaman, running ceremonies between London, Ibiza and Byron Bay, put it: “Ayahuasca represents the intelligence of nature coming out from the rainforest to transform human consciousness in this time of crisis.” According to this narrative, ayahuasca’s purpose in leaving the jungle is to communicate with modern civilization and offer us the opportunity to transform our perception and our way of being, in harmonic alignment with nature’s principles.
Over the past few decades, as ayahuasca snakes across the world and twines its way into the cosmopolitan centres of industrial civilization, increasingly it is embraced not just by rogue anthropologists, botanists and hippies, but by wealthy elites, software engineers, entrepreneurs seeking a competitive edge, and members of the creative class. Perhaps the message from the rainforest, transmitted by this ancient medicine, is that we need figure out how we coordinate our individual actions for the greater good, just as the bees do.
From When Plants Dream by Daniel Pinchbeck and Sophia Rokhlin (Watkins Books, 2019)