November 7, 2019

Amazon under Fire: A letter of protest by Brazilian scientists published by the New York Review of Books

As Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro stood before the United Nations in September of 2019 downplaying media reports of increasing forest fires under his administration and denouncing world-renowned indigenous leaders such as Raoni Mektuktire and Sonia Guajajara, who he claimed were being manipulated by foreign interests, the Brazilian Amazon continued to burn. Enormous fires have broken out in different parts of it as deforestation has reached levels not seen for over a decade, with an area of forest the size of Hong Kong cut down in the month of August alone. 

During the first dry season after Bolsonaro's inauguration, forest fires in the Amazon were up 80% over the previous year. Photo: Dado Galdieri / Wall Street Journal (2019)

Since taking office in January of 2019, President Bolsonaro has used his powers to undermine the cultural, territorial, and human rights of indigenous peoples that are guaranteed in the Brazilian Constitution. His public statements have contributed to a climate of lawlessness and impunity, and to a tacit understanding that legislation protecting indigenous territories and other areas will not be enforced. Over the past year, indigenous lands in Brazil have seen a surge in invasion by illegal loggers, gold miners, and land speculators, and there has been an alarming increase in aggression against indigenous peoples. In early September, 2019, Maxciel Pereira dos Santos, a contractor for FUNAI, Brazil’s federal Indian agency, who had over a decade of experience protecting isolated indigenous peoples of the Javari Valley, was murdered execution-style on a busy street in the town of Tabatinga. A little over a week later, men associated with illegal loggers and hunters staged an armed attack on a FUNAI guard post in the region. 

Photo: Agencia Jovem de Notícias (2018)

Scientists such as ourselves have documented how the traditional knowledge and management strategies of Amazonian indigenous peoples have contributed to safeguarding global biodiversity and climate stability. To an outsider, these territories may seem “uninhabited” or “unused,” but in fact the vast expanses of intact forests that constitute indigenous lands are essential to their sustenance. Indigenous peoples occupy and use their land in ways that take advantage of hundreds of species of plants and animals while preserving the place of other organisms in the ecosystem; in many cases, landscapes have been enriched with useful plants and groves of fruit and nut trees such as the Brazil nut and the açai palm. Villages and communities are surrounded by gardens that produce staple foods, old gardens in various stages of regeneration, and rivers, forests, and mountains, all of which provide a rich and dispersed base of resources—such as fish, game, fruits, garden lands, and the raw materials for adornments, canoes, houses, and so on—that have sustained indigenous peoples’ way of life for centuries or millenia, dating back to pre-colonial times when indigenous populations were much larger. These lands may also constitute sacred spaces, places of mythical origin, or sites of ancestral history.

Since 1988, the Brazilian Constitution has recognized the central importance of indigenous lands for these peoples’ continuing existence and has guaranteed a legal process for demarcating them for indigenous peoples to inhabit and use. Once they are demarcated and signed into law, indigenous lands become inalienable assets of the Brazilian state.  

A recent unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brazil overturned the administration’s attempt to remove the legal responsibility for indigenous land demarcation from FUNAI and give to the Agriculture Ministry, which is controlled by the ranching lobby. Despite this victory, the ongoing and wide-ranging initiatives to weaken environmental, indigenous, and scientific institutions remain deeply troubling. Moreover, expressions of hatred and aggression, widely disseminated in the media, have further encouraged illegal invasions as well as violent actions against indigenous peoples in different parts of our country, including the Wajãpi of Amapá state, the Awá-Guajá of Maranhão, the Kayapó, Munduruku and Apyterewa-Parakanã of Pará, the Karipuna and Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau of Rondônia, and the Yanomami of Roraima and Amazonas states. The current administration’s ongoing actions of dismantling and defunding FUNAI, Brazil’s federal indigenous protection agency, only increase the risk of further violence to these people.

Illegal gold miners have expanded their activities with impunity in indigenous territories such as the Kayapo Indigenous Lands in southern Pará state. See more reporting by Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (2019).

Ranching and mining lobbies have spread a false dichotomy between indigenous peoples’ rights and economic growth. There are currently large areas of abandoned farm- and pastureland that could be put to productive use without having to cut down a single acre of indigenous lands. Furthermore, the destruction of forest cover to serve the agricultural industry is short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating, since well-established scientific evidence points to the necessity of the Amazon rainforest in creating an “aerial river” that delivers rainfall to the rich agricultural lands of southern Brazil. Scientists fear that deforestation in the Amazon could soon upset rain patterns throughout Brazil and further destabilize the global climate. 

Bolsonaro insists that development in the Amazon is a question of Brazilian sovereignty, and that foreign interests should not intervene. Yet Brazilian indigenous representatives and environmentalists are calling for nothing more nor less than the enforcement of existing laws and the protection of indigenous rights as enshrined in the Constitution and in multiple international agreements to which Brazil is a signatory. International treaties and economic accords should include provisions to guarantee these constitutional, human, cultural and territorial rights of indigenous peoples.

Kayapó warriors rehearse battle maneuvers in a war dance to protest the administration's hostile policies. Photo: G.H. Shepard Jr. (2019). See additional reporting by Andres Schipani and photos by Dado Galdieri in The Financial Times.

The struggle for land remains a perennial source of political mobilization for indigenous peoples, as backlogs of land demarcation claims remain unresolved, and many other issues related to their rights remain unfulfilled. Anthropologists, cultural heritage professionals, and other researchers have been crucial allies of indigenous peoples in these struggles. Moreover, indigenous leaders and intellectuals today increasingly speak in their own names, defend their own interests, elect their own political leaders, and have an ever-greater role in protecting their cultural and territorial heritage. While there are a plurality of indigenous voices in contemporary Brazil, including a small number who favor the opening up of indigenous lands to mining and other outside interests, to date all of the historically recognized, broadly representative indigenous organizations who have expressed their views on the current administration have condemned its assaults on indigenous territories and rights. 

As scientists working in Brazilian research institutions and universities, we are deeply concerned about these grave threats to indigenous peoples’ territory, heritage, and well-being, which are inextricably connected to the well-being of Amazonia, global biodiversity, and climate stability.

This letter, signed by 65 Brazilian scientists in protest of president Jair Bolsonaro's attacks on indigenous peoples, was first published by the editors of the New York Review of Books on November 7, 2019. 


Adriana Queiroz Testa, anthropologist 
Alexandre Clistenes, biologist
Aline da Cruz, linguist 
Ana Rosa Guimarães Bastos Proença, tourism researcher
Ana Vilacy Galúcio, linguist
Bruna Franchetto, linguist
Caio Ferrari de Castro Melo, lawyer
Camila Loureiro Dias, historian
Carmen Lúcia Reis Rodrigues, linguist
Carlos Fausto, anthropologist
Carlos Zimpel, archeologist
Claide de Paulo Moraes, archeologist
Claudia Lopez, anthropologist
Cristiane Barreto, archeologist
Cristina Adams, human ecologist
Décio Guzmán, historian
Denny Moore, linguist
Edithe Pereira, archeoloigst
Eduardo S. Brondizio, anthropologist
Eduardo Góes Neves, archeologist
Eduardo Nunes, anthropologist
Eduardo Ribeiro, linguist
Fabíola Andréa Silva, archeologist
Felipe Milanez, political ecologist 
Gabriel Soares, anthropologist
Gabriela Prestes Carneiro, archeologist
Geraldo Andrello, anthropologist
Gessiane Picanço, linguist
Glenn H. Shepard Jr., anthropologist
Hein van der Voort, linguist
Helena Pinto Lima, archeologist
Ian Packer, anthropologist
Ima Guimarães Vieira, botanist
Isabela Galarda Varassin, botanist
Julia Otero, anthropologist
Juliano Franco Moraes, ecologist
Kristine Stenzel, linguist
Lucila de Jesus Mello Gonçalves, psychologist
Lucia Hussak van Velthem, anthropologist
Lúcia Sá, Professor of Brazilian Studies
Márcio Meira, anthropologist and former FUNAI president
Marcos Magalhães, archeologist
Marcos Vital, biologist
Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, anthropologist
Maria Candida Barros, linguist
Maria Carolina Loureiro Fernandes, social scientist
Marília Fernanda Pereira de Freitas, linguist
Marinus Hoogmoed, zoologist
Mark Harris, anthropologist
Marta Amoroso, anthropologist
Myrtle Shock, archeologist
Nelson Sanjad, historian
Orlando Calheiros, anthropologist and photographer
Nicole Soares-Pinto, social scientist
Regina Oliveira, biologist
Renato Sztutman, anthropologist
Ricardo Ventura Santos, anthropologist
Rita Natalio, artist, anthropologist and member of the Indigenous Forum of Lisbon 
Roberto Araujo, anthropologist
Roberto Ventura Santos, geologist
Ruth Monserrat, linguist
Sidney da Silva Facundes, linguist
Sylvia Caiuby Novaes, anthropologist
Teresa Avila Pires, zoologist  
Tiago Gomes dos Santos, zoologist

September 27, 2019

Toé (Brugmansia suaveolens): The Path of Day and Night [excerpt]

The Path of Day

Henchi, a young man from a remote Matsigenka native community in Peru's Manu National Park, left home one morning to go hunting in the vast and preserved Amazon rainforest around his village. It rained, and towards the end of the day when he had not returned, his relatives got worried and went out to look for him. They found Henchi, half-conscious, bruised and cut by palm thorns, sprawled at the base of a large Pouteria tree, a favorite fruit of monkeys. He had climbed into the treetops to recover a monkey, fatally shot with an arrow, that had gotten stuck in the branches. But he slipped on the wet bark and fell more than fifty feet to the ground. Henchi's spine was broken in several places, he couldn’t move and was in great pain, oscillating between consciousness and unconsciousness, between life and death. Everyone, including Henchi himself, thought he wasn't going to survive.

His relatives carried him back to the village, rolled up in a mat. The village's most respected shaman prepared a potent infusion made by boiling the stem-pith of a specimen of Brugmansia suaveolens from his garden. A Datura relative known in English as white angel’s trumpet, the plant is called toé or floripondio in the Peruvian Amazon. In the Matsigenka dialect of the Urubamba river it is known as saaro, while in the dialect spoken in Manu and Alto Madre de Dios the name is hayapa or jayapa, a word that seems to be a loan from the unrelated Huachipaeri language. On many occasions, especially when they are near an actual toé plant in their house patio, the Matsigekna may call it merely kepigari, which means “poison, intoxicating.” As is the case for other shamanic plants like ayahuasca, the Matsigenka refrain from using the plant's proper name when in close proximity to it as a way of showing respect for its spirit owner. The shaman offered Henchi a small gourd with a few ounces of  the toé decoction, and he entered a week-long trance of induced coma. Henchi remembers almost nothing that happened during that first dose of toé: he was “dead” (in the Matsigenka language, death and loss of consciousness are synonymous) for a week. 

"The 'mother' of the plant appeared..."
La India de los Floripondios: Alfredo Ramos Martinez, 1932.

When he woke up, the shaman asked if he was still in pain. Henchi said yes, and so the shaman made another dose of about the same size, and he spent another week in trance. This time, Henchi said that a group of small, happy people appeared, the invisible forest spirits that the Matsigenka call Saankariite, the “Invisible” or “Pure Ones.” They approached him singing and playing musical instruments. The "mother" of the plant appeared, a smiling woman dressed in a cushma, a native cotton tunic with geometric paintings. She blew tobacco smoke onto his body, sucked on his body in several places to extract palm thorns that were still inside, causing pain, and then flew with him to a distant city. There, doctors, nurses and mechanics in white uniforms took care of him, giving him medicines, healing his injuries and "welding" his spine with metalworking tools. 

When he awoke again a week later, the shaman asked if he was still in pain. Henchi said he was better, but still felt pain. The shaman made another bowl of toé tea for him, and Henchi went into a trance again and spent another week unconscious, visiting the fantastic world of the spirits and receiving their miraculous healing powers. After three doses of toé, and three weeks of psychedelic coma, Henchi was no longer in much pain, and could move a little. Over the months, he gradually regained her strength, and in less than a year had returned to his normal activities. With his spine broken and "soldered" in several places, he remains hunchbacked, but he lives a mostly normal life, taking care of his garden, hunting and fishing, raising his children and drinking his masato (manioc beer). He acknowledges that toé, with its powerful "mother" spirit, saved his life. Considering the great distance of this remote village to the nearest hospital, and the limited medical resources at the local health post, Henchi's story is truly a miracle of traditional medicine.

“With his spine broken and ‘soldered’ in several places, he remains hunchbacked, but he lives a mostly normal life… Henchi's story is truly a miracle of traditional medicine.” 

The Path of Night

Simón was one of the most talented students in his village. He had big plans to study nursing in the regional capital, Puerto Maldonado, and then return home to work in the local health post in his own community. But the course of study was difficult and highly competitive, and his family couldn’t afford to maintain him in the city, where everything has a price. He eventually returned to his community, disappointed and frustrated. Like many indigenous youth people who leave their villages during their formative years to study or work in urban centers, Simón found himself in a cultural Catch-22: lacking the appropriate academic and professional background to compete in the university setting or the urban labor market, but also no longer accustomed to the pace of village life. Simón, who was not only intelligent but also handsome and charming, married and separated several times, and had affairs and children with several women.

Feeling confused, Simón decided to prepare toé for himself. The Matsigenka use toé to resolve multiple kinds of problems in their lives, whether health disorders, social or spiritual maladjustments, or even, in some cases, to locate lost or stolen belongings. Simón's grandfather was the same shaman who cured Henchi with toé, so Simon knew how to prepare the plant. He took the medicine and spent a few days walking in trance through the forest. But instead of absorbing the plant’s lessons and solving the problems in his life, Simón became "addicted" to toé, according to family members. While Matsigenka value toé as a powerful medicine for resolving various types of health and personal problems, they show great respect for the plant and are careful to avoid overindulgence. The Matsigenka say that toé has a treacherous side, that the plant’s mother is seductive, and may take a frequent user down the dark path, tempting them with the forbidden teachings of witchcraft.

And so it was with Simón. He began taking toé frequently, alone or in combination with ayahuasca. During manioc beer drinking parties, he would rip off a toé stalk (almost every Matsigenka house has a toé plant in the backyard in case of emergencies) and chew on it until he got “crazy.” One day, his newest wife had a fit of jealousy when she heard rumors that he was seeing one of his ex-wives. They argued, and Simón fled the house saying, "I'll take ‘the poison’ [i.e., toé] until I can't see anymore." He made a strong dose of toe and disappeared into the woods. Three days passed, and his body was found in an abandoned field a few miles downstream. Witnesses say the body had a strange green color, which they attribute to his toé intoxication. Some say it was suicide, others say the toé tricked him in a dangerous game of seduction…

...A painted textile of the Shipibo people of the Ucayali basin in Peru shows the toé plant growing along the bodies of two snakes, one red and one black, connected by a rainbow. The title of the painting is “The Path of Day and Night,” highlighting the widespread perception of toé in indigenous Amazonia as a plant with astonishing but ambiguous powers, often associated with witchcraft and sorcery.... 

“A painted textile of the Shipibo people of the Ucayali basin in Peru shows the toé plant growing along the bodies of two snakes, one red and one black, connected by a rainbow.”

Hayapa: The Highest Authority

...Brugmansia is considered the strongest and most toxic (kepigari) of all the plants in the Matsigenka pharmacopoeia (Shepard, 1998, 2005a). Unlike ayahuasca, which is taken frequently, usually in groups including the healer and / or patient, Brugmansia is taken rarely, usually alone and only by the patient. Frequent use of Brugmansia is considered very dangerous, leading to death or madness. Brugmansia is the last resort, the highest medical authority reserved for the most drastic cases. The shaman, healer or a respected family member prepares the potion and is responsible for watching over the person during the course of intoxication. The potion is prepared with great care, attention and respect. A branch of the plant is broken by hand (it should not be cut with a metal tool, which would offend the spirit of the plant) and a few inches of the pith is scraped out. The scraped material is boiled in water for fifteen minutes or more, or steamed at high temperatures in a banana or other plant leaf. The potion is brewed away from the household to avoid contamination or impurities that could kill the patient. Doses are measured very carefully in drops or small gourds, as even a small dose can last from one night to three days. An overdose can make you hallucinate for weeks or months, go crazy for the rest of your life, or die.
The effects of Brugmansia and other psychoactive Solanaceae are very different from those of other shamanic preparations like ayahuasca, Psilocybe mushrooms, or peyote. The different tropane alkaloids present, which vary in their relative concentrations depending on the species or variety, plant part, and form of preparation, combine to create a unique visionary state…

“Doses are measured very carefully in drops or small gourds, as even a small dose can last from one night to three days. An overdose can make you hallucinate for weeks or months, go crazy for the rest of your life, or die.”

The person under the influence of Brugmansia looks like a somnambulist, walking and dreaming with their eyes open, unable to distinguish between the material world around them and the juxtaposed visions of the spirit world. They wander through the dark forest at night with ease, their vision illuminated by the eternal sun in the realm of spirits. The person often feels thirsty and hot, removing their clothes and leaving them strewn in the bush. A patient with a chronic or apparently incurable disease may disappear for several days, walking away to the realm of the invisible Saankariite villages. There, shamans, healers, or “Madre Toé” herself, treat the patient by massaging and sucking the body to remove intrusive objects or revealing the sorcerer or evil spirits responsible for the illness. Sometimes the patient reports being taken by car or plane to distant cities where they treated by “white” doctors and nurses who use modern tools and machinery.

The Saankariite and especially the Mother of Toé are powerful, but they are also mischievous, and sometimes treacherous. Small, “child-sized,” these beings may reveal profound knowledge, but they can also play games with the patient, tricking the person into drinking sand like water, or eating leaves like food. Wide paths through the forest open and then close in a tangle of vegetation. Great vistas illuminate and vanish. Wise, other-worldly characters appear, speak profound and mysterious words, then suddenly disappear with a sad gaze into a handful of bones, dry branches and leaves, taking the cosmic revelations back to oblivion. Jaguars, monsters, evil giants and witches block the way, threaten, chase. The Saankariite have a lot to offer, but may also ask for concessions in return. With overuse, the toé plant’s spirit “owner” may tempt the person with dangerous sorcery teachings, or deceive them with false promises or deadly challenges.

When the effect passes and one returns to the material world, very little is remembered of the fantastical experiences of the spirit world: it all seems like a vague dream…

“The title of the painting is ‘The Path of Day and Night,’ highlighting the widespread perception of toé in indigenous Amazonia as a plant with astonishing but ambiguous powers, often associated with witchcraft and sorcery”

Excerpted and translated from chapter 6 in: 
Rio de Janeiro: Gramma/NEIP, 2019. 372 pgs.

This excerpt was first published by The Ethnobotanical Assembly, September 2019.

Download Portuguese and English excerpts at

See also the 2004 documentary film A Figueira do Inferno ("The Fig from Hell") about the use of this plant by indigenous and Afro-Brazilian healers in northeast Brazil

Cite as: Shepard, Glenn H. Jr. (2017) “Toé (Brugmansia suaveolens): o caminho do dia e o caminho da noite.” In: O Uso de Plantas Psicoativas Nas Américas, edited by Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Sandra Lucia Goulart. São Paulo: Compania das Letras, 121–136.

Full Chapter Bibliography:
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_____ (1992) “The one intoxicated by tobacco: Matsigenka shamanism,” in: MATTESON-LANGDON, Jean & BAER, Gerhard (Eds.). Portals of Power: Shamanism in South America. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, pp. 79-100.

BENNETT, Beverly Y. (1991) “Illness and Order: Cultural Transformation among the Machiguenga and Huachipaeri.”  PhD Thesis. Ithaca, NY: Dept. Anthropology, Cornell University. 

BROWN, Michael F. (1978) “From Hero’s Bones: Three Aguaruna Hallucinogens and their Uses”, in: FORD, Richard I. (Ed.). The Nature and Status of Ethnobotany. Anthropological Papers, vol. 67. Ann Arbor: Anthropology Museum, University of Michigan, pp. 119-136.

CAMINO, Alejandro (1977). “Trueque, correrías e intercambio entre los Quechas Andinos y los Piros y Machiguenga de la montaña peruana”. Amazonia Peruana, 1(2), pp. 123-140. 

CASTRO DE LA MATA et al. (2012). “Independent Advisory Panel on Development Issues in South-Central Peru – 2011-2012 Report.” Lima: Centro de Sustentabilidade Ambiental, Universidad Peruano Cayetano Heredia (relatório, 53 páginas).

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FURST, Peter (Ed.) (1972). Hallucinogens and culture: the ritual use of hallucinogens. New York: Praeger Publishers.

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JOHNSON, Allen W. (1983) “Machiguenga gardens,” in: HAMES, R. e VICKERS, W. (Eds.). Adaptive Responses of Native Amazonians. New York: Academic Press, pp. 29–63.

_____ (2003). Families of the Forest The Matsigenka Indians of the Peruvian Amazon. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. 

JOHNSON, Orna R. & Allen W. Johnson (1975) “Male-female relations and the organization of work in a Machiguenga community”. American Ethnologist, 2(4), pp. 634-638.

OPAS, Minna (2001) Time and kinship: representations of temporality among the Piro women of Eastern Peru. MA thesis. Finland: Department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku. 

RENARD-CASEVITZ, France-Marie; SAIGNES T.H. e TAYLOR, A.C. (1988). Al Este de los Andes: Relaciones entre las Sociedades Amazónicas y Andinas entre los Siglos XV y XVII. Quito: Ediciones Abya-Yala/IFEA.

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_____ (1998) “Matsigenka myth and morality: Notions of the social and the asocial”. Ethnos, 63(2), pp. 248-272.

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_____ (1992). Plants of the Gods: their sacred. Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press. 

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_____ (1998). “Psychoactive Plants and Ethnopsychiatric Medicines of the Matsigenka.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 30(4), pp. 321-332.

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_____ (2005b) “Psychoactive botanicals in ritual, religion and shamanism.” Chapter 18 in: ELISABETSKY, E & N. Etkin (Eds.), Ethnopharmacology. Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), Theme 6.79. Oxford, UK: UNESCO/Eolss Publishers (

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_____ (2015b). “Will the real shaman please stand up?: The recent adoption of ayahuasca among indigenous groups of the Peruvian Amazon”, in: LABATE, Beatriz C. & CAVNAR, Clancy (Eds.).  Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 16-39.

_____ & CHICCHON, Avecita (2001). “Resource use and ecology of the Matsigenka of the eastern slopes of the Cordillera Vilcabamba,” in: ALONSO, L.E. et al. (Eds.). Biological and Social Assessments of the Cordillera de Vilcabamba, Peru. Washington, D.C: Conservation International, pp. 164-174.

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VOEKS, Robert A. (1997). Sacred Leaves of Candomblé: African Magic, Medicine, and Religion in Brazil. Austin: University of Texas Press. 

WILBERT, Johannes (1987). Tobacco and shamanism in South America. New Haven: Yale University Press.