Mestizo shamanism in the Upper Amazon is expanding and declining at the same time. It is expanding at the expense of other indigenous shamanisms, and it is declining in the face of biomedicine and the reluctance of the young to undergo the sufferings required to become a shaman.
This does not mean that there is no interest in the shamanism of the Upper Amazon, and particularly in the psychoactive effects of ayahuasca. That interest, in fact, is great. Every year since 2005, Alan Shoemaker has organized, on behalf of his organization Soga del Alma, a conference on ayahuasca shamanism in Iquitos, Perú. These gatherings have featured such heavyweights as Dennis McKenna, Luis Eduardo Luna, Pablo Amaringo, Jacques Mabit, and Benny Shanon, as well as a number of indigenous curanderos. There is no doubt that these gatherings achieve their aims. They bring together famous scholars, psychonautic enthusiasts, serious seekers, and a variety of mestizo and indigenous shamans. Everyone gains an aura of legitimacy from this interaction, and the shamans pick up some much-needed cash. But then everyone goes home, and the shamans are left without what the tradition really needs — apprentices.
One reason shamanism is declining among Indians and mestizos is because young people do not want to keep the difficult diet; young Shuar, for example, nowadays prefer to learn magia, magic, by reading books and following their instructions, rather than undergo the restricted diet and sexual abstinence required to become a shaman.
None of the four shamans with whom anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna worked twenty years ago had a successor. They all told him that young people were not interested in or were unable to endure the diet and sexual abstinence necessary for learning from the plant spirits. Their roles have been taken, they said, by charlatans who do not possess any knowledge of the plants. And things have not changed much since then.
Don Mauricio Fasabi Apuela, a shaman from Lamas in San Martín, is willing to take on young people as apprentices in ayahuasca shamanism, which requires periods of sexual abstinence. He has had no takers. “I have no disciples here, just me,” he says. “In the end they prefer the girls.” Shaman Casimiro Izurieta Cevallos puts it this way: “Youngsters today don’t have the same curiosity.” My own maestro ayahusquero now has one regular apprentice, his son. No one else in the local community is currently working with him or has asked to be his apprentice. The foreigners, he shrugs, come for a single experience; few come to learn the ayahuasca path. But, he says hopefully, “the medicine will continue.”
Many Amazonian shamans continue to have patients, especially in rural villages and poorer urban areas, such as in Iquitos or Pucallpa. But few shamans nowadays have apprentices. Without students, as one shaman put it, there is no future. And then a thing of great beauty and power will be gone.