Despite rising popularity, ayahuasca supplies not imperiled as yet, expert finds

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

A woman from a local tribe brews an ayahuasca preparation in Peru. Photo courtesy of Chris Kilham/Medicine Hunter
A woman from a local tribe brews an ayahuasca preparation in Peru. Photo courtesy of Chris Kilham/Medicine Hunter
The meteoric rise in the popularity of ayahuasca, a potent brew from the Amazon, has not yet imperiled supplies of the botanical raw materials, according to a report from a noted herbal expert.

Ayahuasca and its ingredients are among the botanical constituents that, like hemp/CBD, kava and kratom, hover at the edges of the dietary supplement industry.  But, like the story with CBD, those statuses can change more quickly than people thought possible even ten years ago.  And the question of the pressure the popularity of ayahuasca puts on supplies of the raw materials holds lessons for all botanical ingredients

First report of its kind

Botanical ingredient expert Chris Kilham, who bills himself as the Medicine Hunter, has published his first Ayahuasca Sustainability Field Report​, which takes a boots-on-the-ground look at raw material supplies that support this trade.  Kilham said with the rising popularity of the beverage made from these constituents, questions had been raised about that status of supplies.  He said it has been easy to assume that supplies would run out, but up to now there was almost no data of any kind to support the notion one way or the other.

“Thus far—all things subject to change—the supply seems to be holding,”​ Kilham told NutraIngredients-USA.

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive beverage made from two major constituents. They are the stems of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi​), a climbing vine common to certain areas of the Amazon rain forest, and the leaves of chakruna (Psychotria viridis​), a shrub species that is also widely distributed.  Kilham notes that certain recipes can also include huambisa (Diplopterys cabrerana​) or other additional constituents.

The pounded stems of the ayahuasca vine and the leaves of the other plants are brewed in open pots in a process that can take many days. The recipes and production methods vary among brewers in what still amounts to a cottage industry in Peru, Brazil and other areas. 

Thriving ecotourism trade

The resulting brew had powerful psychedelic properties and is used in religious and shamanistic ceremonies.  The reported mind expanding results have given rise to a thriving ecotourism (psychotourism?) trade, with many dozens of ‘retreat centers’ cropping up in the Peruvian cities of Iquitos and Pucallpa and elsewhere.

“The traffic going down to South America has become very significant. That’s why there have been so many people making comments about the sustainability of the source,”​ Kilham said.

Kilham spent a couple of years making expeditions into the area to assess where the center operators are getting their raw materials, how much they are using and what they are paying for them. He then traveled upriver into the forest to seek out collection and cultivation operations to get a first hand look at the question of whether the raw materials are disappearing from the wild.

The ayahuasca vine is the more potentially imperiled of the brew’s constituents in that a vine, which can live for many years, needs to be at least five years old to contain enough of the active ingredients.  And, since the stalks/trunks are what is used, harvesting them will significantly damage or more likely kill the plant. 

Travel issues, potential violence complicate data collection

Kilham emphasized in his report that he only knows what he saw, and his data is limited by the areas he was able to access via the limited transportation options such as poor and few roads or motorized boat travel.  

And the data collection was complicated by local political conditions, with narco traffickers controlling certain areas. This necessitated the hiring of an armed guard for a stretch of one of Kilham’s trips.  Kilham said the national government in Peru seems to have ceded control of certain stretches of rivers to the traffickers, if the absence of law enforcement personnel and riverine patrols is any measure.

Also lacking is a comprehensive picture of where the vine grew originally. Ayahuasca has been part of the region’s herbal medicinal tradition for many hundreds of years, Kilham said.  So places where the vine is abundant in the wild might have already been the work of man as people took the plant with them when they moved into new areas, he said.

“Like a lot of tree or bush species you’ll find greater population density of this plant in some places than others. You may have a lot of ayahuasca vine in areas where previous communities exited,”​ he said.

Even with those caveats, the report was seen by American Botanical Council founder Mark Blumenthal as an important first step in looking at the abundance of these plants. “[I]t is reasonable and necessary to raise questions regarding the impact that increased demand has on [this] native plant population. To our knowledge, no previous research has yet been published on this issue. The American Botanical Council is deeply grateful to Chris Kilham for his pioneering efforts to initiate an inquiry on the sustainability of harvesting of wild ayahuasca in its native habitat,” ​Blumenthal said.

Cultivation seen as long term answer

Kilham found that while the vine seems to have been depleted in some areas there are plenty of vines elsewhere, and traders do not seem as yet to have difficulty finding adequate supplies. And Kilham also found signs of a nascent cultivation industry.  The vines are fairly easily cultivated and thrive in new growing regions as has been seen by the presence of many vines now growing in Hawaii after having been transported there by early ayahuasca pioneers.

“I think long term cultivation is the answer, as it is for so many botanicals,” ​Kilham said.

“Take the example of ashwagandha. When that first started to become so popular is was being collected in the wild in India and about 15 years ago it was endangered. Now ashwagandha is being cultivated in many places,”​ he said.