Ayahuasca, 'source of knowledge' in the heart of the Amazon
In the heart of the Ecuadoran Amazon live the Cofan Avie, masters of ayahuasca -- the powerful hallucinogenic concoction said to open the door to the "spirit" world.
Here, they call it "yage" and consume it for health and wisdom.
"God once lived here on this planet", recounts Isidro Lucitante, the patriarch and shaman of nine Indigenous Cofan Avie families spread over 55,000 hectares of river and jungle along the border with Colombia.
This god "pulled out one of his hairs and planted it on the Earth. Thus was born the yage, source of knowledge and wisdom," the 63-year-old, his face painted in striking animal motifs, told AFP.
Extracted from the "Banisteriopsis caapi" vine that has grown in the Amazon for thousands of years, ayahuasca has also gained a reputation in the outside world.
In neighboring Peru, and to a lesser extent also Ecuador, a tourist industry has taken root around the vine that is now also available for sale -- in capsules or as an infusion -- online.
For the Cofan Avie, yage is not a business but an umbilical cord that connects them to one other and to long-dead ancestors.
"Yage is not a drug. On the contrary, it is a remedy that makes us better," said Lucitante, who insists he is, above all, a healer, and dead set against the commercialization of yage.
"My grandfather drank yage every week, he lived to 115! We are all healthy!"
Becoming increasingly fashionable and even punted as a treatment for drug addiction, ayahuasca can be dangerous for people who take antidepressants or suffer from heart or psychotic problems, epilepsy or asthma, according to medical experts.
Its active ingredient dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, is illegal in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and in other countries.
Back in Bermejo, in the jungle, friends and neighbors gather every weekend in a wooden hut decorated with painted parrots, snakes and panthers, settle down in hammocks and imbibe some of the brown, bitter beverage.
Sometimes a visitor joins in.
Under the supervision of shaman Lucitante and his assistants, songs are addressed to the "spirits" as the concoction -- crushed, mixed with water and boiled for hours -- starts to kick in.
- 'Rebalance the world' -
The Cofan Avie are known in Ecuador for a legal victory over the mining industry in 2018 that led to the scrapping of 52 gold mining concessions granted by the State.
Last year, Lucitante's son, Alex, was a co-recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize for his contribution to that triumph. He had been responsible for setting up an Indigenous guard to conduct patrols to collect evidence of intrusions by gold prospectors.
Today, he acts as an assistant at his father's yage ceremonies, which he also accompanies with guitar song.
"It was a long and difficult struggle to protect our territory and Nature," the 30-year-old told AFP, wearing a necklace of animal teeth, a feather stuck through his nose.
"We were inspired by the wisdom of the ancients and the knowledge of yage" which he started drinking at the age of five, said Alex Lucitante.
"The plant is everything to us, just like our territory. We could not live without it. It is through yage medicine that we can connect to the spirits and... rebalance the world."
The ritual is a grueling one that starts for most people with violent vomiting as part of a purge of the body.
"It’s like a great cleansing," explained shaman Lucitante.
Only then "can the visions come. First colors. Then, if you concentrate, the jungle appears. Then the animals: the boa master of rivers, the catfish, or the jaguar master of the hunt. And finally people and spirits... but not everyone can see them."
In the hammocks, everyone prepares for their "journey" -- novices in an apprehensive silence and regulars chatting away.
Lucitante invites each in turn to take a drink. Then orders AFP's cameras to be turned off.