Surreal Scenes as Ayahuasca Goes Global

An official letter, signed by over 100 prominent academics from around the world in the fields of law, anthropology, social science and medicine, has been published today in support of a Colombian indigenous community called Ukumary Kankhe and their struggle against an alleged ‘fake shaman’ by the name of Alberto Varela and his international organisation known as Ayahuasca International.

Indigenous reserve of Ukumary Kankhe.
Indigenous reserve of Ukumary Kankhe.

Ukumary Kankhe is located in the lower-Putumayo region of southern Colombia and is part of the Cofan indigenous group for whom the ceremonial use of Yage or Ayahuasca has been central to their culture for centuries. The letter of support comes one month after Ukumary Kankhe themselves issued an official statement on the 28th July (English translation from page 5) in which they declared that Alberto Varela (alias Antonio Maino) and Ayahuasca international (aka Inner Mastery International) had been using a ‘letter of authorisation’ supposedly signed by their tribal elder, Taita Querubin Queta Alvarado, to market Ayahuasca sessions in Europe for which they charge their customers large sums of money.

The declaration, signed by Taita Querubin, his son David Queta and the Governor of Ukumary Kankhe, Lorenzo Morales, made it very clear that any authorisation by the community or Taita Querubin for Mr. Varela to use their name in the marketing of his business in Europe was ‘completely false’, ‘fraudulent and misleading’. The declaration goes on to accuse Mr. Varela of contradicting and violating Cofan principles and values while putting at risk the lives and health of his customers, warning anyone considering a session with Ayahuasca International that it would be dangerous and irresponsible to do so. According to the document neither Mr. Varela nor any member of his organisation have been trained to provide the medicine or even ‘understand the science of YAGE (Ayahuasca)’ and the Cofan deny any responsibility for injuries, damages or death resulting from such irresponsible practices. They also take the opportunity to clarify that Ayahuasca International is not a community-based project and ‘has never carried out any type of investment or aid’ on their behalf but rather ‘directly threatens’ their traditions and culture.

The rise of Ayahuasca International

According to Mr. Varela he first visited Ukumary Kankhe fifteen years ago and his first letter of authorisation signed by Taita Querubin is dated 2007. Since 2007 he’s been developing his business, peddling Ayahuasca to anyone who is interested in drinking the medicine but doesn’t know where to go.  Using aggressive marketing campaigns never before seen in the world of Ayahuasca, Mr. Varela has grown his outfit, opening branches in numerous countries around the world. In 2007 he founded the ‘Putumayo Association for the help of the Indigenous People of the Amazon’ with the apparent objective of providing economic assistance to the indigenous groups of Putumayo and through which in 2008 he purchased 5 hectares of land.

In 2014 Mr. Varela went back to Ukumary Kankhe and obtained a second letter of authorisation signed by Taita Querubin that he would use in conjunction with the first in order to justify his business. On the land owned by the ‘Putumayo Association’ Ayahuasca is made and sent to his facilitators who are contracted through ‘Inner Mastery International’ to lead Ayahuasca sessions as part of the ‘European Ayahuasca School’. He has also bought a traveller’s hostel in Putumayo and begun offering expensive tourist packages which are marketed through ‘Ayahuasca Travels’ and, up until very recently, the direct sale of small, vacuum-packed sachets of Ayahuasca was carried out through his website ‘Ayahuasca Planet’ which, after Ukumary Kankhe’s official declaration, has since been taken down.

'Ayahuasca Planet'
‘Ayahuasca Planet’
The seeds are sown
Ancestral Seeds with Taita Querubin
Ancestral Seeds with Taita Querubin

In March of this year Ancestral Seeds went to visit Ukumary Kankhe to do some filming as part of a documentary about the Cofan and other Yage drinking indigenous groups of Putumayo. During our time at the community we filmed interviews with Taita Querubin, his sister Maria Manesita and Governor Lorenzo Morales all of whom stated on camera that any letter of authorisation signed by Taita Querubin had been obtained through deception and that Mr. Varela didn’t have the authorisation of the community to sell Ayahuasca in Europe.

While we were in Putumayo we were contacted by Danny Nemu, British author and Ayahuasca researcher, who had, in the past, written critically about Mr. Varela’s activities. An old friend of Danny’s had become involved in Mr. Varela’s UK-based operation and he was sceptical as to whether this was the best way for them to go about healing themselves with the medicine. When his friend decided to leave Ayahuasca International, on account of the abusive practices they had witnessed rather than any persuasion on Danny’s part, other members left with them.

One of these other members eventually got in touch with us and told us at length about their involvement which had lasted for almost a year. Apparently the person in question had met Taita Querubin and visited Ukumary Kankhe years before having met Mr. Varela and later went on to join Ayahuasca International, going as far as to lead sessions at their HQ in Madrid despite having received no training whatsoever in this regard. Soon after our meeting, the ex-member started posting highly critical rants on Facebook directed at the seemingly fraudulent activities of Ayahuasca International and their online sale of the medicine. In response to these attacks the person in question received a text message from Mr. Varela in which he said the following:

“Destiny, created by conditioning, comes to everyone like a lethal and murderous executioner so that they carry out their own sentence of death, suffering and the definitive end to their own evolution. It is part of the game of natural selection that imposes itself mercilessly on those who attempt to work with, through and for the evolution of consciousness. To all those I wish the best, with a great shame in my heart that they have been beaten in this battle of thought in that which they had the possibility of achieving inner conquest. I’m leaving them with their asses in the air. Exposed to their stinkiest shit so that they can see immediately who they are. Cruel destiny has come looking for you. There isn’t anyone who can save you from the curse that you have created for yourself and for all that you love. The tragedy is now ready to treat you with the same energy that guides your actions. You will see for yourself. Then once more you will remember me fondly :D”

This was followed a few days later by the official declaration of Ukumary Kankhe which was shared on Facebook and Twitter by numerous other individuals and organisations.

A breakdown of the key events

28th July – Official declaration against Mr. Varela and Ayahuasca International published by Ukumary Kankhe and shared on Facebook and other social media.

29th July – Claims made by Ayahuasca International that the community has repeatedly demanded bribes so that they may continue using the letter of authorisation and that the real reason for the public denunciation is that they refuse to be blackmailed any longer.

29th July – Video published on Facebook by Ayahuasca International in which Taita Querubin appears to be accusing Mr. Varela’s detractors of jealousy and that he does in fact grant him his authorisation to sell ayahuasca in Europe.

30th July – Story picked up by a Colombian national newspaper and radio station and Mr. Varela is quoted as accusing the Ukumary Kankhe authorities of forcing Taita Querubin to sign their declaration against his organisation. Governor Lorenzo Morales is also interviewed and dismisses the video published the previous day as being the product of editorial manipulation.

6th August – Mr. Varela fails to attend a meeting at Ukumary Kankhe with Taita Querubin and 21 other Cofan respresentatives and another meeting was set for the 11th August.

7th AugustColombian news channel reports the story including a slightly troubled-looking Taita Querubin with his sister, his wife and Governor Lorenzo Morales who reiterates the claims made in the declaration. The report also includes a telephone interview with Mr. Varela who again accuses Taita Querubin of repeatedly demanding bribes so that he could continue using the letter of authorisation.

11th August – Mr. Varela again fails to attend the meeting previously set by Ukumary Kankhe and there has since been no further communication to date.

The signatories of today’s letter denounce Mr. Varela’s alegedly fraudulent activities, aggressive marketing tactics and direct sale of Ayahuasca over the internet with the charge that his commercialization of the medicine is creating an artificial demand based on a manipulation of what it means to drink Ayahuasca and is taking advantage of the ignorance, trust, good faith and vulnerability of many people. They also repeat the warning made by Ukumary Kankhe that anyone taking part in a session organised by Ayahuasca International could be putting their physical and mental health at serious risk.

Vine of the soul
Vine of the soul

The controversy is far from over and has aroused vehement commentary from various self-appointed social media pundits from both sides and everywhere in between, not least from Mr. Varela himself. But as Dennis McKenna, the well-known ethnobotanist, has often been heard saying, perhaps we’re all just talking monkeys who only think we’re in control and that in fact it is all part of something so much bigger than any of us could possible imagine. The trauma of the birthing process may well be truly under way and, judging by recent events, it seems there will be blood (metaphorically speaking of course!). But maybe by the end of it all the ancestral seeds of these ancient Amazonian medicines will have spread their cleansing vines into the crumbling ruins of a barren and broken world, blossoming out into the majestic flora of a wise, just and noble humanity where the grass-roots international Ayahuasca community may be legally allowed to openly regulate itself in the name of ethical conduct, indigenous rights and the health and safety of the wider public.

Maybe the only real solution is for Mr. Varela to go back down to Ukumary Kankhe with anyone else who has thought it necessary to offer their opinion one way or the other, meet up with Taita Querubin and drink Yage, ‘harto Yage’, and keep drinking until there are no more words that need to be spoken or written by anyone. Whether Mr. Varela agrees or not, most of us consider this medicine to be sacred and so it might be an idea that we all start treating it as such.

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