food / travel

A Hallucinogenic Plant, Two Indigenous Tribes And A Trip To Remember

A meeting with shamans in Colombia allows El Espectador's Pablo Correa to experience an "indescribable" ritual.

Colombian shaman serving a yage-based drink
Colombian shaman serving a yage-based drink
Pablo Correa

BOGOTÁ â€" The Siona and the Quillacinga, two indigenous groups of southern Colombia that are fighting to protect their land and traditions from the depredations of the modern world, sealed their friendship with a sacred plant in the Amazon.

Six Siona elders and shamans called taitas recently made their way to a Quillacinga community at La Cocha, a lake located a chilly 2,600 meters above sea level in southern Colombia. They carried a plant with hallucinogenic properties called yagé (also known as "ayahuasca") in a school satchel as they steered a boat up the Putumayo river that flows toward the Brazilian Amazon.

About a decade ago, the Quillacinga people living around the La Concha lake decided to act against the steady decline of their traditions in the modern world, and found in the Siona an ally and collaborator. Both ethnic groups share the rainwater that feeds La Cocha lake, which trickles down the hills into the Putumayo river where the Siona sail and fish.

After a couple of hours on the river, the party arrived at a city close to Ecuador's border. From there, they took a bus. It was a slow trip and the Quillacinga waited patiently for their guests. Delayed by a mudslide, the Siona elders finally arrived at La Concha at nightfall. They were led to the house of Roberto, a Quillacinga farmer, who in 1998, decided to adopt the lifestyle of his ancestors and turned into a shaman.

The guests were driven along the lakeside to a nearby hamlet, El Romerillo, where 30 peasants awaited the start of a certain ceremony.

First Night

The Siona shamans wore sleeveless tunics and necklaces made of boar teeth and seeds. Exhaustion abandoned their faces as tobacco smoke, chants and prayers filled the house they had entered. The men were given a potion of the yagé plant in a small vessel ringed with specks of sugar to counter the plant's bitterness. They then retreated to sit on benches at the edge of the house. After them, it was the women’s turn.

As the shamans chanted litanies, the only lit bulb is turned off and this seemed to enhance the sound. Two youngsters moved around with incense while those seated in the room, cloaked in ponchos, were still as rocks.

I was concerned: Why hadn't I brought a camera or a notebook? One of the Siona shamans, Sandro, told me the only picture I should take with me should be in my heart. I closed my eyes. When I opened them, everything around me seemed to have changed its consistency. The universe seemed to be made up of a different material. Time had stopped. I remember seeing the moon edge a little to the right, like a clock hand.

One poncho-clad youngster appeared to be in a bad dream. The others were still, each on their own trip. I felt warmth. My lost memories returned and I was reminded of all the decisions I had taken or would have to take. The experience the plant provoked was indescribable. Any attempt to use language to explain it is useless.

A tenuous, fuzzy sunrise suggested the night had ended and smiling faces emerged from the fog and cold. The experience had been a healing one. The village soon resumed its daily routines â€" women peeled potatoes, cooked, and attended a baptism at noon. A downpour began.

Second Night

That night the shamanic rite was repeated. It was a ceremony that is learned and passed on through generations, and perfected over centuries. The ancestors "are not the past," said one of the shamans, "because they are ahead in time. They have already moved on and we are the ones walking behind them."

Necklaces rattled and sounds of prayer and healing resumed. Incense filled the house. Men filed past the shamans and received a second shot of the "remedy." The women followed. Again, they disappeared into the night's darkness, each person alone and intoxicated with visions.

Sunday was a holiday in the hamlet. There was a barbecue of guinea pig and homemade wine. The Siona and Quillacinga sang all afternoon.

I was concerned that I hadn't jotted down or filmed any of the native rites. I wrote nothing about how and when the Siona and Quillacingas became friends. I seemed to be returning to El Espectador empty-handed. But now, I understand, the experience could not be filmed. I had initially sought out the shamans to ask what they thought of mental illness and wellbeing in Colombia, about modern and traditional medicines and the government’s health services. Their response had been to invite me to the ceremony, so unrelated to our medicine and culture.

The plant and ceremony were their "remedy," and I could see why. While our pharmaceutical products limit or alter neuronal activity to control psychotic states, this plant expands the user's view of life. Our treatments are personalized and selfish. This plant helps the Siona to remember fundamental values of life, which is a part of their defense against modernity's brutal advances. Everything we do, on the other hand, is to distract ourselves and avoid introspection.

The Siona started their trip home the next day laden with food and presents the Quillacinga had given them to thank them for sharing their remedy. Before they left, they told me an oil firm had arrived on their land. "There is no inner peace without peace with nature," said one of the shamans. But the Siona were not sad. They had suffered worse over the centuries and the plant would show them a way to overcome this ordeal too.

On April 21, Siona authorities issued a resolution explaining their opposition to seismic studies slated to be carried out on a strip of land inside the Buenavista reserve where they live. In keeping with the guarantees provided to them by Colombian laws, the Siona declared the whole reserve to be sacred.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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