Sacred Plants in the Americas Congress: A Multicolor Experience


The International Congress Sacred Plants in the Americas was held in Ajijic, a town in the municipality of Chapala in the state of Jalisco, between February 23 – 25, 2018. With a total of 150 speakers and more than 1,500 attendees, it was undoubtedly the largest conference on psychoactive substances thus far in Mexico, and which was possible thanks to the efforts of academic institutions and citizens: The Center for Research and Post Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) Western headquarters; as well as the Drugs, Politics and Culture Collective, and the Brazilian organization Chacruna, all under the coordination of the anthropologist, Bia Labate.

Photo: Aldo Contró

For three days, representatives of the wixarika, shipibos, mazatecos, rarámuris, inga, camentsa, nahua, huni kuin, kogi, o’dam, as well as specialists and interested participants, shared their knowledge and opinions within the conference. Ethnic diversity was a fundamental part of the many approaches that converged in the four rooms that held simultaneous sessions for two days, and two rooms during the third day. Outside, informational tables were located in an open space in front of Lake Chapala , where the Xapawiyemetá Island is located, one of the five sacred geographical points in the wixárika cosmology, and which represented an important coexistence and linkage between the people and the diverse approaches from dozens of countries.

On the first panel, Diana Negrín da Silva, Santos Rentería, Lisbeth Bonilla, Matsiwa (Baudelio) de la Cruz Carrillo & Aukwe García Mijarez, spoke about the contextual aspects related to peyote, its multiplicity of uses, as well as the challenges presented in the context of overexploitation in the medium and long-term future.  From the beginning, the congress showed its particularities including the relevance of the indigenous vision which was a primary focus of the conference.

Among the topics discussed, the traditional representatives’ approaches to sacred plants, their contemporary uses and the impacts on their communities were highlighted. Anthropological research on the traditional uses of psychoactive plants was also widely represented during the course of the congress, from plants of known ancestral use such as peyote and psilocybin fungi, to others whose use is in the process of globalization such as ayahuasca, and even those which are still poorly understood in terms of their historical use, such as salvia divinorum. It should be noted that among the topics, not everything was about plants, there were also presentations on substances such as MDMA and its therapeutic potentials and even the 5 MeO DMT from the Bufo alvarius toad.

Sacred Plants in the Americas also included panels on drug policy. The main topics were related to the plants whose regulation is most discussed today, particularly in the Americas region: cannabis, coca and poppy. The speakers during these panels generally agreed on the shortcomings of the current control systems, both national and international, their repercussions on safety, health, as well as the environment and the need to think about new models that are respectful of the rights of people, and more fitting to the needs of the communities that are currently suffering from the attacks of criminal markets and from the authorities harassing them.

Photo: Aldo Contró

Prior to the closing ceremony, there was a panel in which Nidia Olvera and Aldo Contró, both members of the Drug, Politics and Culture collective, were accompanied by the iconic American ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison, and presented the Collective in front of the conference audience. They talked about the relevance of the organization, and plans for the future, while presenting the other members of the group, most of whom were in the room at that time and thanked everyone for the support received during the conference. A prize for the best article published on the blog was awarded to Pedro Nájera and Lisbeth Bonilla, for their paper “Let’s talk about híkuri: a dialogue between the Wixárika cosmology and the abuse of peyote”.

Undoubtedly, the climax of the conference was the closing ceremony. A powerful closing with a bursting audience, standing-room only, cascades of applause and indigenous chants and songs. Cultural, ethnic and generational diversity with common objectives and sharing space was the picture that best summarizes Sacred Plants in the Americas. More than a conference, it was a multicultural experience, full of color in a mystical space, away from the noise of big cities, in which the variety of information on psychoactive topics flowed in the best possible way. By the end of the night, everyone was together, mingling and dancing in the center of the magical town of Ajijic, which made the street look like carnival on a Sunday night.

Photo: Nidia Olvera

Thanks to the institutions, to the organizing team, to the important collaborators, to all the speakers, moderators and of course, the participants for having contributed the best energy and having made this more than just a congress, but also a pleasant and constructive experience.

Photo: Rebeca Calzada

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Aldo Contro López

Es etnohistoriador por la Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. Su investigación académica abordó lo procesos de restricción y prohibición de los mercados de drogas en la Ciudad de México en las primeras décadas del siglo XX. Desde el 2011 colabora con el Colectivo por una Política Integral Hacia las Drogas (CUPIHD AC) en donde ha realizado actividades de investigación en proyectos sobre centros de tratamiento y encuestas de consumo, así como en temas de reducción de daños. Es parte del Movimiento Cannábico Mexicano, red de organizaciones y activistas formada en el 2016 y dedicada a impulsar la reforma cannábica.

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