We reported here about efforts to maintain peyote populations in northern Mexico, in the sacred peyote grounds of the Huichol. A Reuters news service story yesterday by Jeff Franks tells a less hopeful story about the peyote harvest north of the border.
A peyotero is a person licensed by the US government to sell peyote. A peyotero‘s customers must be members of the Native American Church, who are the only people for whom peyote use is legal in the United States. In the 1970s, there were as many as 27 peyoteros licensed in the state of Texas. Now there are only three.
There are good reasons — apart from the federal government and its war on drugs — why peyote should be professionally harvested. There is a skill to cutting the peyote in a way that lets it grow back, although the cactus grows very slowly.
The reason for the declining numbers of peyoteros is the increasing scarcity of peyote for harvest. The land on which peyote grows is being destroyed by urban development and by conversion to grass for cattle grazing. And peyoteros are being kept from harvesting peyote on land that rich Texans have made into hunting preserves. In the mid-1990s, peyoteros sold around 2.3 million peyote buttons; in 2006, they sold around 1.6 million. As the available land shrinks, the quality of peyote available for harvest declines, and the peyote is increasingly in danger of overharvesting.
As long ago as 1995, Edward Anderson, of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, had warned of a coming peyote shortage. He had recommended three approaches. First, he said, efforts should be made to persuade ranch owners to grant peyoteros rights, through leases or permits, to harvest peyote on their property. Second, negotiations should be initiated between the Mexican and US governments to allow the importation of dried peyote from Mexico. Third, ranchers could be persuaded to allow peyoteros to collect entire peyote plants prior to their destruction by the plow, and those collected could be placed into cultivation in secure fields.
For reasons that are unclear, the US government has so far failed to implement any of Anderson’s proposals. It has also continued prohibiting greenhouse cultivation of peyote — an obvious solution both to the peyote shortage and to the preservation of the species.