How corporations can do justice to the Mazatec, stewards of divine mushrooms

Mazatec historian Inti García Flores calls on business to start a dialogue with tribe in the Mexican state of Oaxaca


The Mazatec, an Indigenous people in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, have a long tradition of using so-called magic mushrooms. Photo by Alexander Volkov/iStock/Getty Images Plus.


“On the night of June 29-30, 1955, in a Mexican Indian village so remote from the world…”

And so R. Gordon Wasson began his account that revealed to the western world the secret about a psychedelic substance.

As the then New York banker wrote in 1957, he and a friend shared with “Indian friends a celebration”.

It was a “holy communion”, where “divine” mushrooms were “first adored and then consumed”.

“The mushrooms were of a species with hallucinogenic powers,” Wasson reported in LIFE Magazine.

“That is,” he continued, “they cause the eater to see visions.”

Hence, with Wasson’s report “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”, the wider world came to know about the Mazatec’s ancient rituals.

The Mazatec are an Indigenous people in the Oaxaca state of Mexico. They have a long tradition of using psychedelic mushrooms for medicinal and spiritual purposes.

These mushrooms contain the psychoactive substance psilocybin. The compound is now the subject of ongoing research and trials for different pharmaceutical and therapeutic uses.

Rewards from Indigenous knowledge

Corporations stand to make billions of dollars from psilocybin. However, the world has largely forgotten the Mazatec.

Inti García Flores, a Mazatec and a historian, has one question.

“I ask, as a Mazatec,” Flores told CannCentral by correspondence, “has there ever been some benefit for the Mazatecs, when Westerners first arrived to document the mushroom ritual?”

Flores answered his own query, saying there “never has been”.

“I think the benefit is always for the large corporations that do business with the essence of the things that are sacred to native communities,” Flores said.

Further, Flores has collaborated with authors from the Brazil, Switzerland, and U.S. in exploring this issue in a paper.

The ACS Pharmacology & Translational Science published the piece in January 2021. ACS stands for the American Chemical Society.

The mushrooms Wasson brought from his trip to Mexico are the “basis of the current commodification of psilocybin”, the authors note.

As those in the Western world acquire patents over psilocybin developments, they face important questions.

For one, “Why is the so-called psychedelic renaissance, including commodification, almost exclusively benefiting nonindigenous Western businessmen?”

Additionally, “Is there any restitution or reparation to be done in this case?”

According to them, developments in psilocybin science and research and “the Mazatec intangible cultural heritage” are “intimately intertwined”.

Hence, “concerns about harms caused by intellectual property regimes”.

“Aiming for justice, the Mazatec must benefit for their centuries-long stewardship of these sacred rituals and knowledge,” the authors assert.

Moreover, they observe that since Wasson wrote about the Mazatec rituals in 1957, “no one has sought reparation or reciprocity with the communities in a fair manner”.

“This implies extraction in all aspects and meanings, including abuse of the Mazatec people’s hospitality,” they state.

Story of colonial extraction

Eduardo Schenberg is a Brazilian neuroscientist. He contributed to the paper titled ‘Ethical Concerns about Psilocybin Intellectual Property’.

“Pharmaceutical development of psilocybin is operating through colonial mechanisms of intellectual property,” Schenberg told CannCentral by correspondence. He said these mechanisms “violate Indigenous rights”.

If developments in the psilocybin field were to become ethical, Schenberg said that corporations should engage the Mazatec in a dialogue.

According to the supporter of Indigenous rights, such discussions should lead to “compensatory and benefit sharing agreements”.

Also in the paper, the authors noted that the ethics of reaping financial benefits from Indigenous knowledge needs to be examined.

“Reflecting on these ethical dilemmas may offer frameworks to understand and solve for the ongoing harm of extractive economics, and perhaps even point the way toward reciprocal and reparative arrangements with indigenous stewards of medicines and molecules around the world,” they concluded.

Lead author Konstantin Gerber is a human rights lawyer in Brazil. He noted to CannCentral by correspondence that the Mazatec were “crucial” in the discovery by the western world of psilocybin.

In addition, Gerber suggested that researchers discuss a Mazatec community protocol for the future.

Also, Gerber stated that the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides for restitution with respect to cultural and intellectual property taken “without free, prior and informed consent or in violation of the traditions and customs”.

Gerber described the reparation issue as “an open question on reciprocity”.

Follow Carlito Pablo on Twitter @carlitopablo

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