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‘To Heal and to Care for’: Protecting Iboga and Indigenous Voices in the Face of Corporatisation

Lack of involvement of Indigenous communities & leaders risks further colonial exploitation of their lands and cultural heritage.

From volteface by Editorial June 30 2022

Almost a decade ago, Elizabeth’s husband Chor experienced what she now calls a “healing crisis”: an opiate relapse after a 13 year stretch of sobriety. Little did they know back then that soon their lives would be changed forever.

“I was afraid for his life. I didn’t know what to do. On that night, the first thoughts were ‘okay, well, this is over’. I just knew how hard it was to actually recover from something like that.”

Elizabeth decided to venture out into nature to help her collect her thoughts and clear her mind as she listened to the trees dancing in the wind and the sun comforting her skin. In hindsight, this is where “iboga hit her like a thunderbolt”: Even though she knew very little about it, besides the fact that it was an African medicine highly effective for treating addiction, she went down a rabbit hole of research and suggested Chor tried it to heal himself. 

“It’s actually really scary trying to do research on iboga because of the adverse events that happen when people don’t know how to handle that medicine. So at first, there was some hesitation. But the more I learned about it, the more I learned it was also good for trauma, for PTSD.”

Iboga is a West African plant species whose alkaloid ibogaine is recognised as one of the most potent psychedelics known to us, for good reason receiving the nickname ‘Mt. Everest of psychedelics’. The name iboga can also be translated as ‘to care for/to heal’ in some tribal dialects of the Congo Basin.

Although Elizabeth had been in the health and wellness field for over 20 years, studying yoga, meditation, bodywork and other medicines, alongside attending therapy, she discovered that iboga might not only be a healing solution for her husband Chor, but also help her process residual trauma. 

Fast forward several years and Elizabeth and Chor Boogie find themselves at the forefront of iboga advocacy and preservation, working with the Bwiti community in Gabon to protect their culture and spread wisdom around the plant medicine. 

Iboga plays an integral role for the Indigenous Bwiti community in Gabon where it’s been used for spiritual initiation, healing, community celebrations, nurturing their connection with nature, and many other uses for centuries. But as the western world has started to wake up to the benefits of the psychedelic compound ibogaine for treating addiction, the plant is threatened with overharvesting and neo-colonial and capitalist practices which enable companies with a corporate interest to extract ibogaine for profit alone. 

Chor and Elizabeth want to change that: “After we did our first iboga ceremony, we ended up going to Africa six months later to do an initiation, a rite of passage, and getting married at the same time,” Chor tells me.

“I’ve now been working with this medicine traditionally for the past 10 years. So the community is very strong with this when it comes to Africa and the western world, and combining the modalities together. But you shouldn’t work with any medicine without learning and knowing the traditional path for what it is for, the truth of what it is, and receiving permission from their elders.” 

Today, Chor is an award-winning spray-paint fine artist and muralist, who integrates elements of his iboga visions into his art, visually transmitting the medicine to viewers. He has also been recognised as a traditional N’ganga, a shaman in the Bwiti community, granted by their ordained elders. Chor seeks to elevate the voice of Indigenous healers and spread iboga’s message in the west, particularly now that psychedelics are becoming more integrated into western medicine, and the Bwiti themselves are fighting for support from their own government against illegal poaching and persecution.

Some of the ways in which this might work in practice is remaining in constant dialogue with the community when they return back to their home in Costa Rica: “We’re on the phone with them all the time, about all kinds of things. What we’ve learned is that community is so important,” Elizabeth tells me.

“We tell them when we’re giving a big talk and they’re in a ceremony at the same time. They always know what our plans are. Chor also brings people back to Africa every year, and we want to be able to bring them here to Costa Rica and the states eventually for education and building cultural bridges.”

Staying connected to the community is at the heart of Indigenous reciprocity. Instead of manifesting as financial compensation or other short-term transactions, they point out that reciprocity is based on nurturing an intimate relationship and understanding the needs they might help the Indigenous community meet:

“There are things we can give that aren’t always accessible to them because of socio-economic challenges, such as prescription glasses, or Chor getting one of the community members her own bank account,” Elizabeth explains.

“We’re also helping to organise with philanthropists to build better, safer structures in buildings in the village, and potentially dig a well. We’d like to put in a bat house eventually, which helps eat mosquitoes to lower the risk of malaria. Sometimes there’s medical procedures that they need that they can’t afford, so sometimes that’s part of our gifts from the western or industrialised world.”

Indigenous reciprocity at the intersection of climate justice and neocolonialism 

One aspect of Indigenous reciprocity that might be overlooked but is crucial to the sustainability of the plant medicine is being in reciprocity with nature as much as its inhabitants.

“Reciprocity is the way of nature. Reciprocity is how everything lives and survives and thrives,” Elizabeth tells me. 

Being in reciprocity with nature simultaneously supports the culture of the Bwiti, as Gabon currently faces massive rates of industrial expansion where ancient and sacred Okoumé trees are being felled for investors’ profit at the cost of our climate crisis. Gabon’s communities who nurture the plants in their areas are intrinsic to the sustainability of iboga, as the protection of iboga is connected to the ecological protection of the jungle. 

To ensure that iboga is sustainably and ceremonially harvested, Chor and Elizabeth tell me that the community only permits taking as much of the resource as they need. To honour this principle, they perform a permission ritual which involves music, singing to the plant, and putting the soil back after taking out what they need so that the plant can continue to grow. This is particularly important for ‘the Mother Tree’, which is the name of the oldest plants which feed their younger plant members through the mycorrhizal network, the transport routes for carbon and nitrogen which help increase seedling survival. One Mother Tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees in a single forest.

“If you take out those really old plants, you’re destroying a community’s fulfilment in their potential,” Elizabeth explains. “Now we know this scientifically, but the Bwiti knew this for a long time.”

Some argue that one way to promote the growth of the iboga plant is to allow seeds to leave the Congo basin and spread to other parts of the world. However, lack of involvement with Indigenous communities and leaders would risk further colonial exploitation of their land and cultural heritage.

“If we can keep bringing people back there to be students of the tradition, that’s a whole other way to protect the environment and to protect their communities and give them political power.”

One organisation leading the fight for Gabon’s cultural heritage and iboga sustainability on the ground is Blessings of The Forest

“They are the only organisation out there that really cares for anything and everything that happens with this plant and with the Bwiti community,” Chor tells me. 

“Blessing of The Forest is also putting in play the Nagoya Protocol, which is going to put a large stronghold on biopiracy [the appropriation and commercialisation of Indigenous technologies without adequate permission, acknowledgement, or compensation] and protect iboga from a variety of threats: even poachers who go after elephants which eat and mingle with the iboga trees. Because after they kill these animals, they also take the iboga trees and harvest them outside of Gabon, Cameroon, countries surrounding Gabon.” 

A big chunk of iboga harvests are transported outside of Gabon to iboga and ibogaine clinics across Costa Rica, Colombia, the Caribbean, Mexico, and even the EU. Most of iboga(ine) sold online reportedly stems from trees poached from the Gabonese public domain and protected national parks. The Nagoya Protocol is meant to reserve Indigenous resources, including iboga, for local traditional Bwiti practitioners. Since 2004, Blessings of The Forest have dedicated much of their work towards this goal to strengthen support from the Gabonese government. 

Indigenous intellectual property and the commercialisation of iboga(ine)

The commercialisation of iboga and ibogaine by western drug developers is well under way: Life sciences companies in particular are trying to turn ibogaine into a medical commodity by for example submitting patents on methods of synthesising the psychedelic compound. The same company, MindCure, has now completed the first stage of manufacturing pharmaceutical-grade ibogaine to be used in clinical research, meaning they found a way to synthesise ibogaine without the need for the iboga plant. Publicly traded psychedelic company ATAI Life Science has also added ibogaine and its metabolite noribogaine to its portfolio

“When it comes to biopiracies and these other industries, they’re basically just looking at it from a financial perspective. You’ve got some trying to control it, and others trying to make synthetics of it. They even want to take the visionary experience out of it,” Chor explains.

“The whole truth is, they don’t care about the tradition. So how is this going to affect the iboga industry? Like they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. But is that something that should be done? If that were the case, that both industries have to come to an agreement, the agreement should be that if anybody is going to go through the ibogaine industry for healing, or they’re going to use synthetics for healing, first off, it has to be done in a clinical setting.”

“But second, it has to be done in a way that contributes to the traditional path. So it’s almost like it has to come full circle. The person that goes in for iboga or ibogaine healing is going to end up walking down the traditional path. And then once they do the full medicine, there’s reciprocity happening towards Gabon because we’re all working hand in hand instead of separating ourselves from each other. There’s a lot of people that will not go down the traditional path, okay, so be it. But as long as the suggestion is put in there, as long as the seed is planted, things might work out to the benefit of reciprocity.”

Elizabeth points out that companies turning ibogaine into a pharmaceutical product which doesn’t come from iboga still means they’re treading on Indigenous intellectual property (IP), based on Indigenous research and technologies. Now, companies are finally witnessing Indigenous people fighting back.

“I feel that these companies synthesising ibogaine, or in some cases, growing these plantations of iboga, need to be in intelligent reciprocity from the get-go with Indigenous leaders, because eventually, they’re going to get sued. So there has to be some deep, political, cultural involvement there.” 

Part of Chor and Elizabeth’s iboga advocacy is working with clinics like Beond, an ibogaine treatment centre in Cancún, Mexico that also supports Blessing of The Forest, to teach them about the importance of sourcing the medicine sustainably and ethically, and being in reciprocity with the Bwiti to avoid getting sued for Indigenous IP.

“It’s something I brought up to a psychedelic investment platform recently,” Elizabeth tells me. “There’s a lot of people rising up that aren’t going to take this anymore, and you may as well start being involved in reciprocity before it takes down your company. Sometimes it takes that kind of motivation to deal with people who are in just a profit mindset.”

Although Chor hopes to find common ground with companies showing an interest in iboga and ibogaine, as they will ultimately have the corporate and financial backing, it’s this pharmaceutical profit mindset which is in direct conflict with iboga.

“Scientists extract what’s needed from the medicine and just give them the medicine, throw them in a room with some headphones on, and they’re healed. And in reality, it does not work like that, not unless you want people to come in to repeat, and repeat, and repeat. We don’t want people to repeat, we want people to come in, be healed and to the best of their ability help themselves, heal themselves. And if they need support, we can give it to them.”

Increased interest just to turn a profit through iboga(ine) also puts patients at risk: Not only do newcomers to the plant medicine lack sufficient experience to administer it, but many also operate outside of the law in unregulated settings and without accountability frameworks. Unsafe practices without proper screening methods, medical monitoring and adherence to clinical safety protocols can lead to consequences as severe as cardiac arrest and even death. 

“There’s a lot of cowboys out there serving medicine and hurting people,” Elizabeth tells me.  “This medicine especially is the most medically sensitive, most psychologically sensitive and complex medicine. This is something that we really need to look into deeply.”

Centring Indigenous wisdom in iboga(ine) treatment

While some psychedelic research institutions, including non-profit institute Usona, find more ethical ways to spread the benefits of psychedelic substances through open source science, it’s important to make space for Indigenous wisdom and support professional practitioners with deep relationships to iboga and ibogaine as we learn more about them.

“What the Bwiti know about counselling, human psychology, integration, and community medicine has blown my mind as I’ve learned from them in the past 10 years. How the Bwiti understand this medicine is so deep,” Elizabeth recounts. 

“We have this western psychology framework emerging from Freud, which is such a limited perspective. Sometimes everything is based on a western, colonial way of thinking and people don’t understand there’s an unconscious bias around traditional frameworks for healing. But this is thousands and thousands of years of studying the human mind. And even though there’s definitely certain cultural differences, it’s like they can see us in the west better than we can sometimes see ourselves in our own pathology.”

As the field of western medicine is discovering knowledge long recognised by Indigenous communities, Elizabeth and Chor try getting more people in touch with iboga’s origins and Indigenous practices. Their iboga retreat in Costa Rica aims to set ethical precedents for using the plant in medical and therapeutic settings, and inviting visitors to learn from experienced medical professionals. One of those precedents involves sourcing iboga sustainably and ceremonially, something which Elizabeth calls “sacred sourcing”. 

“We also ensure everyone has the same vision of the fact that we’re working on a piece of sacred land here. We intend to be servants of this land. Having a pre-tox centre where people can come for longer term stays is where we start to see the worlds coming together of the western allopathic, medical world and the traditional world where we have found that the cleaner someone comes to the medicine, the more profound experiences they have.”

On the list of western medicines which Elizabeth says can produce more fruitful and better long term outcomes is IV nutrient therapy, ozone therapy, sweat lodges, yoga, body work, and sometimes even preparations with San Pedro or other psychedelic plants that might be gentler than iboga. 

“The Bwiti are in full support of what we do,” Chor assures me. “They know exactly what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”

Every summer, Chor brings groups to West Africa to undergo a rite of passage or initiation. One of the requirements of their Bwiti elders is for everyone expressing an interest in Africa to first go through Chor and Elizabeth’s centre to be introduced to the medicine. It’s part of the programme and ensures their work remains in touch with reciprocity. Other projects in the pipeline also include their support to build a village, which will be tied to Costa Rica, working on iboga plantations, and making sure everything they do is part of a full circle of reciprocity in collaboration with Blessing of The Forest.

– – – 

The fight to protect iboga and the cultural heritage of the Bwiti lies at the intersection of several global issues, from neocolonialism, capitalism, and climate justice. While iboga remains relatively low on the list of popular psychedelics for healing, the psychedelic world has an opportunity to set better and more ethical precedents to spread the public health benefits of a plant with such high potency. 

“Nature is the missing perspective and the missing balance of what’s really going on here. Because like I said, the medical and science model has taken over and they want to ignore the traditional path that’s been running and shaping this earth for aeons,” Chor says.

“The planet is fine. It’s the humans that need to be worked on. So we need to help ourselves; we need to help each other.”

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