“I hope the plants will win”: 5 Questions for ethnopharmacologist Matteo Politi
Politi discusses Amazonian plants including ayahuasca.
Matteo Politi studied pharmaceutical chemistry in Italy, focusing on deriving medicines from plants for his doctoral research at the University of Pisa. But as he worked at universities and research centers in Europe, Politi found that the academic environment was too narrowly focused on the chemistry of plants, rather than also exploring the culture of medicinal plants and traditional ways of using them. This interest eventually took Politi to Peru in 2015, where he began to work with Takiwasi, a non-profit organization based in a city called Tarapoto in the upper Amazon region.
Today, Politi is the research and development manager at Takiwasi, a word which means “the singing house” in the Quechua language. Takiwasi staff includes researchers studying medicinal plants as well as therapists who offer psychotherapy and treatment for a variety of mental health issues with a special focus on drug and alcohol addiction. Takiwasi was founded in 1992 and brings Western scientists together with Indigenous healers to explore practices using medicinal Amazonian plants, including ayahuasca, a psychoactive tea traditionally used by Indigenous healers in the region. Although he no longer lives full time in Peru, Politi still coordinates Takiwasi’s research activities.
How does Takiwasi blend Amazonian plant medicine traditions with scientific research?
Takiwasi is a pioneer in that sense because it started more than 30 years ago with the idea to combine Western approaches for addiction treatments with the local Indigenous approaches. There is still this combination of the psychotherapeutic approach, biochemical analysis, with traditional healers that are preparing the medicinal plants and administering and performing the ceremony. And sometimes, even the psychotherapists that have a university background start to learn about some traditional practices. And so there is still this combination between Western and Indigenous knowledge.
Takiwasi is mainly a therapeutic community for the rehabilitation of drug addiction. This is the main focus and all the other activities, including research, are built around this core. So we can research, for example, which kind of intervention can be more useful than another or which kind of plants can be more effective in relation to drug addiction.
Because of my background, I am always interested in any research that is mainly related to medicinal plants. Takiwasi works not only with ayahuasca but with a lot of medicinal plants belonging to the Amazonian tradition. And another important area in Takiwasi is a laboratory of natural products. We try to develop commercial products for other activities that still belong to the Amazonian tradition, like food and diet supplements.
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Ayahuasca is a big part of Takiwasi’s work. Can you describe how ayahuasca is used in Peru today?
What I consider very important in Peru is this process of recognition of the ayahuasca ritual as a cultural heritage of Peru. I don't know if there is another country that has this kind of approach. It is not the plants, it is the ritual that is recognized as the cultural heritage. And I think this is a very important aspect, especially if we want to use ayahuasca or similar medicinal plants in the West. Because usually what I have seen when I was working only at the university is that we go everywhere in the world looking for medicinal plants to transform into modern drugs. And once we discover a plant species, then we take it. We go to the lab, we isolate chemicals from the plants, and we transform and we create new pills without any recognition of the ritual, which is the traditional way to use these plants.
Traditional healers know how to transform a plant into a medicine. And if they used to chant special songs, for example, or if they need to fast before collecting the plants or before having a ritual, then that is the way they administer the medicine. So we need to recognize the importance, the relevance of this practice. And I think it's very important that the Peruvian Ministry of Culture recognized the ayahuasca ritual as cultural heritage, not the plant itself, but the way the plant is used.
How do you think about the connections between Indigenous values, plants, and environmental issues?
We have this problem about climate change and the environment. Here in Europe, most of the countryside is cultivated. And even if there is a forest, it is not an original forest. The Amazon is something that is quite different. There is a lot of biodiversity. So if you have a culture in front of you that was able to protect the biodiversity of the environment, we should just stop doing what we are doing and go to them to learn in silence.
Science is like a sort of a teenager in comparison to these old and ancient traditions. There is this arrogance when we are teenagers that we want to change everything and we don't have respect. But there is no way that we can solve the environmental problem using the same mentality that created environmental problems. So the only way is to listen to those people from cultures that were able to keep the environment safe.
What are you hoping that people will learn from the Indigenous peoples using these plants as medicine?
If the environment is safe you will be safe and healthy as well. I think, at least for me, this is the main lesson that we should learn from the Indigenous knowledge. Science is the new religion now, and there is no difference between science and religion as it was a few centuries ago. In the end it is exactly the same approach where humans are on the top of the chain and we look at plants or even animals as natural resources for our needs. And this is a sick mentality.
If you consider a plant as a box of chemicals this means that you consider your body and yourself as a chemical machine, no more than that. You have no soul or spirit. Well, if you like to consider yourself a biochemical machine, that's good for you. But not for the rest of the world, that's for sure. Because you will be a problem for the rest of the world.
And so I think that the most important lesson we can learn is not only how to produce good medicine for the mental health of humans, but how we can stand up in this world in a safe and respectful way.
There is increasing demand for ayahuasca in the U.S. and elsewhere outside of the Amazon region. Hundreds of churches are using ayahuasca as a sacrament, which they say is protected as a religious freedom by a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. What do you make of the growing popularity of ayahuasca and other plant and fungi based psychedelics in countries like the United States?
I have this feeling that the Amazon is trying to convert and to speak to the Western mentality about what we are doing. So I like to look at all these western movements of going to the Amazon, drinking ayahuasca and other plants as a sort of strategy of nature to manipulate the humans to try to stop what they are doing. And so I hope the plants will win in this sense.
Plants are intelligent beings and part of their intelligence is the chemistry that they're able to produce to influence the animal world, including humans. So every time we cultivate a specific plant, let's say coffee or cacao, it is because the plant itself produces something we like and because the plants know that the humans will help them to spread. We are used by plants to do something for them. And so I hope that these kinds of psychedelic plants are working in the same way, to try to rearrange our mentality for the benefit of the environment in general.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.