in Brazil

Guest Post: REDD, Payments for Environmental Services, and Amazonian Spirituality

Michael Schmidlehner is a researcher, NGO founder and climate justice activist in Rio Branco, capital of the Brazilian state of Acre. He submitted this Guest Post about a forthcoming ayahuasca conference in Acre.

REDD, Payments for Environmental Services, and Amazonian Spirituality

By Michael F. Schmidlehner, October 2016

The Second World Ayahuasca Conference AYA2016 will be held in Rio Branco, capital of the Brazilian state of Acre between October 17 and 22. Ayahuasca is a decoction of specific Amazonian plants, that induces altered states of consciousness. It has been used for thousands of years by Amazonian indigenous people.

In Acre, all sixteen indigenous peoples, as well as many non-indigenous local communities make traditional shamanic use of ayahuasca. Since the 1950s, urban communities have also developed spiritual practices based on the ingestion of ayahuasca in the Amazon region.

Government of the Forest

The conference is being organised in close partnership with the Acre state government. Governor Sebastião Viana and his brother Jorge Viana, former Governor of Acre and currently president of the Brazilian senate, are expected to participate in the opening session.

Since 1998, when Jorge Viana was elected as Governor, the so-called “government of the forest” adopted a favorable attitude towards the traditional and religious use of ayahuasca. Since then, the Acre government has contributed to the recognition and legitimation of ayahuasca for religious use, a process that started on federal level in Brazil in the late 1980s, after a period of discrimination and prohibition during dictatorship.

The manifold religious doctrines and rituals that arose in Acre based of ayahuasca are now increasingly valued and considered a cultural heritage of Brazil. The governor tends to highlight the importance of spirituality in the context of his – as he considers it – ethical forest policy.

Ethical and spiritual issues

Acre is internationally renowned – even more than for its rich ayahuasca culture – for its pioneering efforts in implementing projects for Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) and Payments for Environmental Services (PES).

However, a growing number of people and organisations is questioning these projects precisely in regard to their ethical aspects. Amongst other things, critics point out the underlying “pay to pollute” logic as well as violation of rights and criminalisation of forest dependent communities.

By restricting traditional land use practices like cassava planting (which includes the use of fire on a small scale), hunting, fishing, and use of timber (for housing, canoes etc.) REDD type projects profoundly alter the community’s relations with the forest.

In this context, one must also ask: wasn’t it precisely due to their unrestrained relations with animals and plants, that indigenous people were able to preserve their resources and keep their shamanistic practices alive?

It was the close relationship that indigenous peoples in Amazonia have with the forest’s complex ecosystem that allowed them to discover ayahuasca in the first place and to preserve and cultivate it throughout millennia.

Modern ayahuasca users and researchers seem to be little aware of the immanent “spiritual threat” that REDD type projects pose to indigenous people.

Impacts of REDD type projects

Today, indigenous communities in Acre are deeply divided whether to reject or accept the polemical REDD project and payments for environmental services that are promoted by the government.

A report, published 2014 by a renowned rights organisation, documents severe rights violations as a result of the “Green Economy” projects in Acre.

Only a few weeks ago, cassava planting smallholders who live the area of the Purus REDD Project and whose dwellings during the last years have been regularly overflown by surveillance drones and ultralight aircraft, have been fined thousands of dollars by the Acre Environment Institute (IMAC). They now fear that these for them unaffordable fines may be a first step to criminalising them and finally evicting them from their land.

Discussion is urgently needed

The comprehensive programme of the AYA2016 congress foresees the discussion of many of the important issues that arise with the growing use and commercialisation of ayahuasca on a global scale, such as the environmental impacts of harvesting the plants and the socio-cultural impacts of the emergent ayahuasca tourism in indigenous communities.

However, a specific discussion of the growing impacts of REDD and payments for environmental services on the autonomy, food sovereignty and spirituality of forest people is not scheduled.

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