Descrição de chapéu Planeta em Transe

Anthropologist Learns with Ashaninkas about Plants Being a Source of Knowledge

Jeremy Narby's most recent book, Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca and Tobacco, was written with the traditional healer Rafael Chanchari

'I didn't think I had "really" become a jaguar in any measurable way. It was more as if I had an intense physical memory of the idea of "being a cat", which I could summon at will, and use as a source of strength and courage.' Jeremy Narby, a Canadian anthropologist based in Switzerland, heard this description from a Peruvian healer, Carlos Perez, and initially took it with a pinch of salt, as he writes in his latest book.

Firstly, because of his previous disenchanted and materialistic scientific background. Secondly, because Perez narrated a change in consciousness triggered by tobacco, and not by the plants commonly used to prepare ayahuasca (chacrona and soul vine). Ayahuasca is a psychoactive tea recognized by mainstream neuroscience as a powerful psychedelic.

Such a strong effect from ingesting tobacco is something unknown to Westerners who smoke it. It was one of several clues that convinced Narby — after being in contact with the Ashaninka for decades — that this and other Amazon peoples had much to teach our scientists.

Indeed, there is much to be learned not only from Indigenous peoples, but also from "plant teachers", such as tobacco. Some Indigenous groups believe that plants are endowed with spirit and intelligence, and that they are subjects of life, and not mere objects to be used and exploited.

'Indigenous societies show us different ways of living on Earth: they show us that it is possible to be human and, at the same time, have a different approach. They show us how to move away from the idea that nature is something that we can use and deplete endlessly, which seems to be right at the heart of our current biodiversity crisis.'

'I wanted to show the world that they used their resources rationally, and that they had all sorts of knowledge about the rainforest, and its plants and animals', says Narby in this interview. One day, the Ashaninka told him that he would only reach a true understanding of this knowledge after taking Ayahuasca — and he agreed.

'My worldview collapsed before my eyes. I started to see things that I thought didn't exist', says Narby, who, in October 2022, took part in an event in Rio de Janeiro, which also had the participation of the Brazilian Indigenous thinker Ailton Krenak and other Indigenous leaders.

At the risk of losing credibility as a social scientist, since that experience Narby has been working with a Swiss organization named Nouvelle Planète (New Planet). They raise funds to support Indigenous projects and protect their lands. Over three decades, they managed to raise enough to preserve 60,000 km2, which is equivalent to 1% of the Amazon Forest.

It is a rather sizable contribution to curbing carbon emissions and thus fighting global warming and the climate crisis. By comparison, during the Bolsonaro government, around45,000 km2 of forest were destroyed in the Amazon alone, not considering the Cerrado and other biomes.

At the same time, Narby continued publishing articles and books, including The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. His most recent work translated into Portuguese, cowritten with Rafael Chanchari Pizuri, is titled Plant Teachers: Ayahuasca, Tobacco, and the Pursuit of Knowledge (published in Brazil by Dantes Editora). His next book will focus on cannabis and try to address 'all the misunderstandings surrounding this plant and its potential'.

Foto preto e branca de home em área de floresta
Canadian anthropologist Jeremy Narby - Pauline Deschamps/Acervo Selvagem Ciclo de Estudos/Divulgação

I would like to start by asking you, why are tobacco and Ayuasha considered plant teachers by Amazon Indigenous peoples? The idea of a plant teacher, as Amazonian people have explained it to me and to people from outside the Amazon, is what scientists might call psychoactive plants, like a tobacco or ayahuasca. These plants can become a teacher when you ingest it, and then pay attention to the experience that your body and mind have once you've ingested it. When you ingest these plants, you have certain experiences that scientists would call a modified consciousness or altered states of consciousness. Indigenous Amazonian people consider that plants and animals have a form of intelligence. And if you look at the plants that can be found in the rainforest, there are plants that communicate more than others. Some plants are more talkative, let's say, and the plants that communicate the most are the teacher plants.

And you have said that your experience with the Ashaninka community Quirishari has changed your life. Why is that? And how has this experience and Ayahuasca changed your worldview or how you think about the environment? I lived with Ashaninka people in the community called Quirishari in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon in the 1980s, and at that time I was just a fairly ordinary Western fellow. The World Bank and different International development agencies were funding the confiscation of Indigenous territories in the name of development, arguing that these people didn't know how to use their resources rationally. I wanted to show that they did use their resources rationally and had all kinds of knowledge about the rainforest.

I was studying the rational uses of the rainforest by Ashaninka people, but they told me right at the heart of their knowledge system: ‘Brother Jeremy, if you want to understand all these questions you're asking about how we know what we know about plants, you have to drink ayahuasca. It's the television of the forest. It'll show you images and you will learn things".

I knew that taking Indigenous hallucinogens too seriously was dangerous for an anthropological career. Carlos Castaneda, Michael Harner and so forth had been somewhat excommunicated from the profession. But still, I thought that it was just basic intercultural politeness. 10 minutes into the experience, my worldview collapsed in front of my eyes because I began seeing things that I didn't think existed. Enormous fluorescent serpents that began explaining things to me. Starting with the fact that I was just a tiny human being. And I realized looking at these very stunning, powerful, frightening serpents. Hallucinations, perhaps, but so detailed and powerful that it made ordinary reality seem distant and unimportant. I could see that my whole understanding of the world had bottomless arrogance, so rational, humanist, materialist. That kind of view of the world that's what I've been taught at school. The world is made of atoms and molecules. And these things are known and can be verified and that all the rest is, doesn't really exist, plants don't have spirits. But the experience was like taking off one's glasses and looking at them and realizing that when one has an ordinary way of looking at things and that it is limited because my eyes were showing me a realm of reality that seemed at least as real as ordinary reality. I'm not going to spend the whole interview talking about my ayahuasca experience, but the next day I went down to the river and, and I felt reconciled with all of life, with plants, with animals. So the importance of ayahuasca with Ashaninka people almost 40 years ago helped me become aware of my own limitations and the limitations of my culture and has encouraged me to cultivate knowing about not just humans but about non humans as well.

In practical terms, Jeremy, what can we learn from Indigenous peoples in order to prevent the worst outcomes of the climate crisis? I think that Indigenous societies show different ways of inhabiting the earth, that it at least show that it's possible to be human and to have a different approach to the whole idea of that nature is this thing that you can just endlessly take from, which seems to be right at the heart of the biodiversity crisis. Some will argue they can do that because they're small scale. That's possible. Still where I think the real deep value of Indigenous cultures is, and this is trying to answer your question is precisely in that different understanding of nature. You go to the Amazon and you ask people, how do you say everything that is not human in your language? They say we don't have a concept like that. In fact, in our view, all the other species are people like us. And it's important, at this point, to start thinking about how to have relations with the other species. If you define the whole world as just a bunch of objects, obviously it's easy to exploit them, but it's more difficult to have relations with them. What can Indigenous cultures show us? Is how to treat the rest of the world like your family, how to have relations with them, how to treat them like people.

You also claim that Western science and Indigenous knowledge are not incompatible and here in Brazil some initiatives are starting to include Indigenous scientists and we also have a growing number of Indigenous people at universities as you might know in your view, how a positive cross pollination of these knowledge systems would look like. That's what I think is so exciting about Brazil. When you talk to an audience in France about something like that, it's a bit of an abstract proposition because they don't have Indigenous people in Paris, they have intellectuals. But in Brazil, I've noticed that that subject actually hits home a lot more quickly because Brazil has advanced science and Brazil has real live Indigenous people. The confluence between science and Indigenous knowledge ceases to be abstract. It's also somewhat true in a country like Canada. In Canada, it sometimes is about concrete questions like the health of a river. How can we make this river cleaner and more livable for humans and all the other species? So they bring ecologists in and they bring Indigenous elders in and then they start working together on that particular project. So these are things that are just beginning to happen. Just to put things in perspective, there was a study that was done in the 1990s by a European team in the Peruvian Amazon and these folks established A10 meter by 2 meter plot in the rainforest. So they choose someplace in the rainforest and delimit this 20 square meter plot. And then they would invite different Ashaninka people to walk through those 20 square meters and identify plants. They could identify like 97% of the plants.They have names in their language for just about every species of plant, and they ascribe uses to about half of them. A phenomenal local plant knowledge. So getting dialogues going just makes basic sense, really.

The connection between environmental crimes and organized crime is growing and becoming a very serious problem in the Amazon Basin. How is it affecting the Ashaninka people that you just mentioned in Peru and how to best respond to this issue? That's a tough one. In Colombia, in Brazil, there have been assassinations of Indigenous leaders for quite a long time. In Peru, it's a relatively recent phenomenon.I didn't know about that in the last 10 or 15 years, but it started to happen. Ashaninka leaders have been assassinated. Shipibo leaders have been assassinated. It's been happening and increasingly so. And it's extremely unfortunate and deplorable, actually, if you've been following the news. They feel that they are not taken into account by the state, by authorities, by oil companies and the criminals who come and kill them by loggers, by gold extractors, and that there's a whole kind of system against them and there is a serious lack of accountability. It’s not just a question of Ashaninka people and an area where some illegal logging happened. It's about how the entire country is run. It's such a deep problem and then of course it has roots in colonial history, so just blaming the modern Peruvian state is not getting at the roots of the problem. I do think that one of the ways forward is to put a value on the knowledge of Indigenous people, on indigenous people themselves, on the places they live.

I'd like to know how you have been connecting your work, the NGO Nouvelle Planète, with the topics that we have been talking about in this interview? Local people are specialists in their own reality and know better than most what is good for them and so Indigenous Amazonian people know the rainforest and their initiatives. Our job is to listen to Indigenous people and back their initiatives. I've been raising funds for the demarcation and land titling of Indigenous territories for the last 33 years.The argument for raising funds here in Europe for doing that is saying if you want to protect the rainforest, the best way to do that is to entrust it to its Indigenous inhabitants who know how to use it without destroying it. The same is true with bilingual and intercultural education programs. Indigenous people say we need to teach our children in our mother tongue and in Spanish or Portuguese. We need to teach them indigenous knowledge and science. And if our cultures are going to survive, we need bilingual and intercultural education programs. So that's one thing that we've been raising funds for and backing for 27 years sometimes. This small NGO has funded the demarcation of 6 million hectares to this day. That's 1 1/2 times the size of Switzerland. That probably doesn't say much to your readers, but it's 1% of the overall Amazonian rainforest.


Jeremy Narby, 63

Canadian anthropologist, who has been working in the last 33 years as the Director of Amazonian projects for the Swiss NGO Nouvelle Planète (New Planet), raising funds for projects for Indigenous peoples, mainly in the Peruvian Amazon. His latest book "Plantas Mestras: Tabaco e Ayahuasca", written with the traditional healer Rafael Chanchari Pizuri, was published in Brazil by Dantes Editora.


Planeta em Transe (Entranced Planet) is a series of reports and interviews with new players and experts on climate change in Brazil and around the world. This special coverage also focus on the responses to the climate crisis during the 2022 general elections in Brazil and at COP27 (UN Climate Conference in Egypt, in November 2022). This project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.