Photo by Zoe Helene

Lessons from the Forests
Organic Authority
by Jill Ettinger

From a young age, Chris Kilham has been drawn to the world of shamans, crediting the Carlos Castaneda books among other triggers. He's recognized nowadays as a chief among the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, a "Maxipe" or "black vulture" by Macuxi Indians, and spends most of his time with native tribes in the threatened forests of the Amazon. He's one of the world's leading experts when it comes to superfoods like maca, kava and schisandra, and is one of the foremost authorities on spiritual plant medicines including ayahuasca, san pedro and peyote.

We caught up with Chris in anticipation of his upcoming appearance in Los Angeles on July 29th. The following interview is condensed and edited for clarity.

OA: Do tribal cultures understand the impact the developed world is having on the planet?

CK: It depends entirely on where the people live, and what kind of access they enjoy in terms of information. But mostly, native people are only too well aware that things are going terribly wrong, that climate is changing, the environment is imperiled, and that nature is in tremendous upheaval at this time. The signs are all around, in all directions.

OA: It seems there are lots of healthful plants found in rainforests and other far away places, which is great, but is extracting this stuff, let's say, like acai berries, which comes out of the Amazon by the ton, is that really a sustainable move?

CK: In sustainability, there are loads of checks and balances. If harvesting acai means that the same land won’t be logged, then in my mind that’s an environmental net gain. Ideally, we should simply wake up one day and stop destroying the rainforests of the world. But since that isn’t happening, the idea is to create economies that are more sustainable than timber-cutting, petroleum-drilling, grazing cattle, mining or GMO soybeans.

OA: You've worked with a lot of psychospiritual medicines like ayahuasca, peyote and san pedro. Many Americans would look at these no differently than cocaine or heroin. What makes them so different than street drugs?

CK: Street drugs do not promote healing. True healing puts order into the body, mind and spirit with the past, present and future. The visionary plants enable people to experience nature and spiritual states in profound ways. They heal persistent disorders of both physical and mental nature. Properly employed, they can open up new ways of perception, and enable a person to live a more integrated, fulfilled life. These plants are not for everybody, but they are for many.

OA: Are these cultures being exploited by Western "spiritual seekers" who can afford to visit the jungles of Peru to drink ayahuasca? Does it erode the tribal culture or is it happening in what many predict to be a major awakening of sorts slated for December 2012?

CK: This is a balancing act. Without so many people traveling to the Amazon to participate in ceremonies with psychoactive plants, the economies of those areas would not be so good, and people would have to rely more on logging to survive. But with the flourishing of this interest, the native people have a new way to maintain some of their tradition and earn a living. Even if you go down to the Amazon on spring break because you want to say you did it, once you drink ayahuasca in the proper way, you are going to have an experience, and that experience may rock your world. As far as 2012 goes, we’ll find out, won’t we?

OA: What's the best thing all of us can do to help preserve the planet, especially its indigenous cultures and lands?

CK: Each of us can be active in not using Amazon hard woods, utilizing Amazon medicines and fruits, writing politicians with demands to stop the deforestation, and keeping the topic alive and out front. You never know when there is sufficient enough push to make some profound positive changes. I would like to see that.

July 2011