An interview with Andrea Langlois
The fast legitimization of psychedelics presents us with many ethical discussions and debates. One of critical importance is the question of ‘sacred reciprocity’. Because what does the circulation of wealth look like within the psychedelic community? And how can we engage in ‘sacred reciprocity’ with communities that have used plant medicines for thousands of years? Andrea Langlois is Director of Engagement at the International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education, Research, and Service (ICEERS). She feels that ‘sacred reciprocity’ has become a bit of a buzzword in the psychedelic space. Of course, Andrea also reflects on the blessings that she, a non-indigenous woman, has received from plant medicine traditions. “But reciprocity is not transactional like 'you give me this, I give you that'. I believe we can move beyond bartering and towards sincere relationality.”
According to Andrea, we should see our experiences with a plant, a toad, a cactus, or a fungus as relational rather than transactional. This includes respecting and acting responsibly in ways that might impact the original holders and teachers of that medicine. “You ask yourself: how do I act in a relationship? And what are the impacts of my actions? How do I acknowledge the lineages that have carried this medicine and respect those? A totally different approach than: ‘I bought these mushrooms. I took them. Thank you and goodbye’.”
From pirate radio to Ayahuasca
For as long as she can remember, Andrea has been interested in social justice, sense-making and the ability to impact the world. She holds a Master’s Degree in Media Studies and a BA in Women’s Studies, co-edited two books on independent media and pirate radio and was involved in community-based research around harm reduction and HIV/AIDS for more than ten years.
Andrea came to a crossroads when her personal world with plant medicines started opening up - expanding her understanding of consciousness, spirituality, life, health, and relationships. “I was seeing the potential of all of these different plant medicines and psychedelics to truly help people on a deeper level. And I was working with people who could use that help but didn't even have access to it.” Andrea felt that she needed to dedicate herself to that area. She decided to volunteer at the second World Ayahuasca Conference in Brazil in 2016, organized by her current employer ICEERS. She helped in a dialogue around the framework of ‘cultural patrimony’ and its potential for moving the needle for international policy. Besides that, she participated in some of the meetings with ICEERS’ Ayahuasca Defence Fund. “By the end of the conference, it was clear that I would be joining the ICEERS team.”
As Director of Engagement, Andrea is responsible for the strategies and development of the organization. For the past three years, she has been co-leading the Iboga and Ibogaine Community Engagement Initiative. This initiative engaged with the global community to crowdsource opinions and ideas about an ideal future for Iboga and Ibogaine in a global society - a process that highlighted key biocultural sustainability issues around Iboga in Gabon. She is also an advisor to the soon-to-be launched Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund. This initiative will be dispersing funds directly to indigenous communities to support keystone biocultural conservation.
Respect traditions and medicine
“A lot of indigenous communities around the world have had long-standing relationships with plant medicines. So, with the globalization of these, a lot of questions arise. How do we ensure that there's consent for using these plants? We have to make sure that we're sensitive around issues of cultural appropriation.” Andrea explains how Iboga is an example of where international interest has contributed to sustainability challenges. She hopes that Iboga poaching from the wild will be replaced by the plants being cultivated in a good way. “And with the people of Gabon participating and receiving the benefits.”
According to Andrea, many communities are happy to be involved in such a dialogue. “They want to have their voices heard. So, it is important to explore what access and benefit-sharing look like. For instance, companies will benefit a lot from the knowledge that comes from psilocybin mushrooms. How do we come full circle to acknowledge where that knowledge came from in the first place? How do we respect traditions and medicine and ensure that indigenous communities also benefit?” Extremely complex topics. “That’s why I'm picking my words very carefully, avoiding language like ‘giving back to’. Because that sounds like we take first, and then maybe we'll give back.”
Navigating different perspectives
In the conversations Andrea has had with different organizations, she’s heard varying perspectives about the commercialization of plant medicines. Or what it means to be in a ‘right relationship’ with them. According to her, it's about humbly navigating those different perspectives and understanding that they exist. “I work very closely with UMIYAC, an indigenous-led organization in Columbia. They have published a declaration about cultural appropriation and the commercialization of yagé. An important perspective that seeks to set things right.” And in Gabon, where Iboga has been declared a cultural treasure, ICEERS’s research informants spoke about it being shared with the world under certain, respectful conditions. Andrea: “They clearly said that they want to be part of the conversation and part of receiving some of the benefits back - whether through cultivation initiatives or scientific explorations.”
Give more than we take
Duncan Grady, PhD, psychotherapist and elder of the Circle of Indigenous Nations Society in the West Kootenays, shared a vision that has greatly impacted Andrea's perspective. “I’m so thankful he gave me permission to share this teaching.” He said: if you learn something about your interconnectedness with life or your own personal world from the medicine or a teacher, you are responsible for carrying those into your life. “That's part of being in that relationship I mentioned before. So, what does it mean to truly be in a relationship with our teachers and with the plants themselves? And to come back to 'sacred reciprocity': my concern is that the current use of this term is a bit shallow.” Andrea pauses. Then: “It's being used in relation to giving back once people have had experiences with these medicines. Donate here or do this there. Pay for the ceremony or say thank you. But reciprocity is much more cyclical and spiral. It’s about giving first and then giving more than we take. Ultimately, it is about closely examining how we live our whole lives.”
She adds that we don’t need to be so oversensitive about cultural appropriation that we become paralyzed, “but we should be thoughtful and just acknowledge that generations and generations of people and families have been working with these medicines.” On the other hand, Andrea has seen a real spiritual hunger in the global North to find out what has been lost from people's own places and ancestors and a desire to reconnect with different forms of spirituality. She sees this as a gift from plant medicine. “We're waking up. And when that happens, we also need to face the grief that comes with acknowledging what our own people have lost, healing our own ancestral lines and our own connections to the land we live on.”
Solidified by our common values
If she looks at the complex jigsaw we're involved in, Andrea tries to keep in perspective that this is what we're being guided to do at this time. “Figuring out all of this together is part of creating a new paradigm or a new way of working that doesn't exist yet.” She thinks the future will be based on how we build bridges between different ways of knowing, life experiences, cultures, hopes, and dreams for the future. “The bridges that we build are made up of and solidified by our common values of respect, reciprocity, relationship, and based on indigenous teaching. I have hope that we can build something that looks like nothing we could have ever imagined. My optimism is that it will be really beautiful.”
Do you like to know more about Andrea’s work? Check out the videos "Ethics, Responsibility and Reciprocity - Hattie Wells & Andrea Langlois" and "Specialist Panel on Medicalisation and Reciprocity in Psychedelic treatment @Medicine Festival '21", and the article "Iboga Charting a Path Forward: Conclusions and Recommendations"
About the author: Marlies van Exter is a Dutch writer, storyteller and communications consultant who loves to explore and inspire. She is one of WOOP's regular writers. Through her work, she wants to contribute to a world where everyone understands, respects and builds on their different perspectives. She believes that by digging deeper and going beyond cultural conditioning, it’s possible to create real connections and a better world. Marlies has always had an insatiable curiosity and eagerness to get the most out of life. In psychedelics, she found a travel companion for this and a guide to know herself on a deeper level. Want to know more about Marlies’ work? Check out her website Magpie Communications.