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The Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund Works to Preserve Five Keystone Medicines and Their Stewards

Indigenous communities are not a monolith—and trust takes time

DoubleBlind Mag

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Updated February 9, 2023

In 2016, the Union of Indigenous Yagé Doctors of the Colombian Amazon (UMIYAC) found itself in trouble. Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict continued to affect the five Indigenous pueblos (or “peoples”) who comprise the organization, complicating their mission to conserve their cultures and the ancestral plant medicine, yagé (better known as ayahuasca), that is central to them all. 

Rivers within these pueblos’ territories were exempted from environmental protections, opening them to desecration. A grassroots coalition, UMIYAC struggled to compete with the international conservation NGOS who increasingly monopolized aid to the Amazon, depending on a single international organization—one that compromised UMIYAC’s autonomy—for funds. This all happened in the context of a genocide against Indigenous peoples throughout the so-called “New World,” which European settlers began more than 500 years ago and still hasn’t ended today.

Miguel Evanjuanoy Chindoy, an environmental activist from an Inga community in Putumayo, Colombia, joined UMIYAC in these troubled times. With his brother Ernesto, the group’s new president, he traveled to various international events in search of new funders and allies. At the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Canada, Evanjuanoy and Riccardo Vitale, an anthropologist and UMIYAC advisor, met Miriam Volat and T. Cody Swift, co-directors of the RiverStyx Foundation, which had a history of supporting Indigenous conservation projects around the globe. In RiverStyx, UMIYAC found a partner willing to honor its new methodology, which refused to sacrifice autonomy in exchange for funding. 

READ: The Peyote Plot: The Indigenous Fight to Conserve the Sacred Plant and the Spiritual Medicine it Contains

people planting iboga
Iboga Plantation in Ebyeng, Gabon, courtesy Ricard Faura & Blessings of the Forest

The two groups worked with Dr. Bronner’s—the soap company—and other partners to form the nonprofit Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, which launched in 2022 to support bio-cultural preservation efforts around not only yagé, but also mushrooms, peyote, iboga, and Incilius alvarius, the toad from which 5-MeO-DMT is derived. 

“We are part of the fund,” Evanjuanoy tells DoubleBlind. “We are inside the direction of the organization. We are on the conservation committee. [And] this has been an important step in the right direction.”

Made up of specialists and traditional knowledge keepers with a mix of Western and Indigenous expertise, the IMC Fund’s Conservation Committee is at the heart of its governance structure, which also includes an Operations Committee and a committee of Spiritual Leaders. This Indigenous-led “whole systems approach” drew the interest of Sutton King, an Afro-Indigenous activist of the Menominee and Oneida Nation who became the Program Manager of Engagement and Benefit sharing at the fund.

three men
UMIYAC intergenerational participants in healing brigade in Putamayo Colombia. Multi-generational exchange is fundamental to cultural conservation. 

“A lot of allies let ego center their work, and don’t step aside to let Indigenous voices lead,” says King. In contrast, she says, the IMC Fund recognizes that Indigenous peoples are “unequivocally the experts” and “have the solutions to the issues we’re dealing with, but face barriers to the capital and resources we need to implement those solutions.” By focusing on reducing those barriers, “​​we are trying to create infrastructure change so we have a process for preserving [Indigenous] medicines for time to come.”

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The need for bio-cultural preservation is increasingly urgent. The booming psychedelics industry has limited access to traditional medicines for the Indigenous peoples who have long depended on them (and in many cases actively cultivated their healing properties); UMIYAC published a declaration condemning such “appropriation” in 2019. Indigenous peoples are less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but the lands they steward—such as parts of the Amazon, which is under attack by mining, logging, and other extractive industries—are home to 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. This is no coincidence, says UNESCO/the UN. By centering reciprocity and other aspects of “right relationship” with the earth, Indigenous cultures have protected, preserved, and nurtured entire ecosystems. 

READ: Native Tribes Should Have More Say in the Pschedelic Movement

people standing outside
Ni Eshe Vanay Yawanawa Agroforestry Training Program

The IMC Fund names ayahuasca, mushrooms, peyote, iboga, and the Incilius alvarius toad as its five “keystone medicines,” not only because they are central to many lifeways and spiritual practices, but because they are the most at-risk. In addition to funding projects that conserve these medicines in places like Colombia, Brazil, Gabon, Mexico, and Peru, the IMC Fund educates Western psychedelic practitioners and companies about why conservation is integral to Indigenous peoples’ cultural and physical survival. 

In its first year, the IMC Fund supported more than twenty conservation projects and assessments, including a clinic that provides culturally-tailored healthcare for Yaqui people in Mexico’s Sonoran Desert, using modern approaches to traditional medicines like ayahuasca and peyote. (The Yaqui are also at the forefront of toad conservation efforts.) In Gabon, an organization called Blessings of the Forest empowers Bwiti people to plant and protect iboga in the face of poaching, as interest in the shrub grows as a promise for substance dependence.

In one example of the fund’s community-based assessments, Shipibo youth in the Peruvian rainforest acquired riverboats to reach remote communities where they’ve learned from elders about ayahuasca-based traditions and collaborated on conservation strategies. And to address the dangerously short supply of peyote in southern Texas and northern Mexico, where it is common in Indigenous healing rituals and threatened by mining and poaching, the Fund supported efforts to transplant several hundred heads of peyote from a garden to Canada to lands stewarded by the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, which prioritizes Indigenous sovereignty and access to land.

While some of its projects are novel and ambitious, the Fund also supports the simple need to compensate people who have long been engaged in preserving medicines and cultures. “We want to pay Indigenous people for doing work that is often unpaid, so we can support ourselves and avoid burnout,” says King.

people walking up hill in forest
Mushroom Assessment in the Sierra Mazateca

Part of what makes the IMC Fund unique is its willingness to move at an intentionally slower pace than most philanthropies in the global north. Foundations often pressure nonprofits to produce easily quantifiable results with a quick turnaround, but as Volat told Forbes, “the speed of Silicon Valley–type capital and the speed of doing something properly in an Indigenous community are very different.” To operate in “right relationship,” respecting Indigenous protocols and boundaries, “you can only move at the speed of trust,” says King. The tribes and territories that steward sacred plant medicines are “not a monolith,” she adds, “so you’re going to have to have a lot of conversations and consultations.” 

Before accepting a donation, the Fund looks into where the money comes from: Has the donor exploited Indigenous lands? Does the company follow frameworks like the Nagoya Protocol—legally binding in Gabon, Mexico, and more than 100 other countries—which requires companies that profit off Indigenous resources to first gain their Free Prior and Informed Consent and share both monetary and non-monetary benefits?

The question of free, prior, and informed consent is central to any discussion of relationships between Indigenous peoples and their would-be partners, says King. Too often, funders rush to offer “reciprocity,” giving money and thinking they will get something back, like access to Indigenous ceremonies or a photo-op for their marketing materials. They don’t stop to consider whether an Indigenous group even wanted a relationship in the first place. 

people planting toad habitat
Toad habitat construction in Yaqui Territory

“We know what reciprocity is, of course. We practice it in our territories and with Mother Earth,” says Evanjuanoy. “However, this is not a concept we can discuss with people in the global north. There can be no reciprocity while the genocide continues and companies are feeding themselves with Amazonian resources. In this unequal relationship, we’d rather talk of restorative justice, reparation, and the re-establishment of rights.”

In 2022, Evanjuanoy’s organization UMIYAC leveraged their alliance with the IMC Fund to improve their advocacy and fundraising capabilities. They had more resources to defend the Amazon rainforest, says UMIYAC advisor Riccardo Vitale. IMC helped support “spiritual health brigades,” as well as a youth program and direct financial support for female sabedoras, the grandmothers known for carrying and passing on ancestral practices, who lead expeditions into the forest, classify plants, and prepare traditional remedies. In these ways, the work of UMIYAC and the IMC Fund is much bigger than simply preserving specific plants and fungi. “It’s all about making sure that our resilient knowledge is not lost,” says Evanjuanoy.

“We are under threat of physical and cultural extermination,” he adds. “Colonization has not stopped, and what is happening in Colombia is also happening in Brazil and Peru. We reach out to allies and share our voices [in order to] continue moving forward with protecting our territories and forming alliances, to help each other’s communities resist.”

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