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15th November 2016

Review: Yage Is Our Life

An insightful and poignant look into the effect that the commericialistion of yage is having on the indigenous people of Putumayo, Colombia

Yage Is Our Life is a thought-provoking short documentary on the relationship between the indigenous people of Putumayo, Colombia, and the traditional medicine yage. The documentary first came to my attention when I received an e-mail from the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Being of half Colombian descent, I hold a magnificent amount of pride for my country and relish the opportunity to learn more about my own culture. On top of this, I had heard a fair amount about the drug ayahuasca (more commonly known as DMT in the western world) and was eager to find out about its significance to the indigenous people and the effect the commercialisation of it has had on these deeply spiritual people.

Although Yage Is Our Life is only twenty five minutes long, the filmmakers were present at the screening and spoke about the content after. Lesly Vela White, one of the principal researchers for the documentary, was born and raised in Colombia and went into this with the aim of wanting to gain a deeper insight into the indigenous perspective. Admittedly, before having seen this film I thought ayahuasca was simply a very potent natural psychedelic that was grown in the rainforest. However, the reality of this is very, very different. For the people of Putumayo, this traditional medicine is used to cleanse, heal and guide people towards the right path in life. From their perspective, it is a spiritual drug, only to be used by the Taitas (a traditional doctor). The documentary emphasises the grievance felt by many in the tribe. The recent spark in interest within the western world means that there has been an increase in the number of fake Taitas performing rituals involving yage, which is not only dangerous, as proven by the death of an English teen, but also clearly being used for the entirely wrong reasons.

Something that really struck me about the documentary was the sincerity and pain felt by those interviewed. I really got the sense that this medicine was something that held a lot of meaning for them and when the Taitas and indigenous people spoke, you really felt the passion for the ayahuasca. For them, yage is not about being used solely for their tribe, they do not want to be selfish with it. They want to share their knowledge and experience of this with the world. The only thing is, they want the world to experience it safely and with a more spiritual intention, rather than just as a means to feel something, for example the intense hallucinations it can induce.

Reverting back to the point I made about the sorrow they felt about the spread of the drug in the western world, the people of Putumayo are unhappy that because of this, their earth is being tainted. Not only in an emotional sense but also in a literal sense, as people invade their territory in an attempt to keep up with the demand for DMT.

In a way, the misuse of ayahuasca reminds me of cultural appropriation, an issue that currently dominates the media. To a certain extent, this traditional medicine is an integral part of someone’s culture, in the same way that someone’s clothes or hair are representative of another’s culture. Although having said this, it is clearly not entirely the same thing but there are very similar elements that prevail.

Although I had no desire to take yage before, after having seen this poignant documentary, I feel even less inclined to do so now, knowing its significance and importance to the people of Putumayo. Give it a watch and hopefully you too can see their point of view and if you are thinking of taking it, bare in mind the dominance it has on these people’s lives and how dangerous it can be when not done by experts on the drug.


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