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The Global Ayahuasca Community Is Reeling in the Wake of Recent Murders

A Canadian was lynched after allegedly killing a shaman in Peru, putting a spotlight on the dynamic of ayahuasca tourism.

Allison Tierney

Allison Tierney

Sebastian Woodroffe (left) via Facebook; Olivia Arévalo Lomas (right) via YouTube

It’s been over week since a respected ayahuasca shaman was shot dead in a village in Peru and a Canadian tourist was lynched in a suspected retribution killing. Local authorities have since located a gun they say was purchased by Sebastian Woodroffe of British Columbia, in early April—a Taurus .380 semi-automatic pistol, the Guardian reports.

Woodroffe is now the principal suspect in the murder of shaman Olivia Arévalo Lomas, 81, though gunshot residue tests on his body came back negative, according to the Guardian report. His body was found in a makeshift grave about two days after he was killed, which, according to Ucayali region prosecutor Ricardo Jiménez, could have affected such tests.

A cell phone video captured part of the apparent attack on Woodroffe. In it, a man is seen being dragged on the ground with a noose around his neck amidst a crowd of onlookers.

It is currently unclear if ayahuasca had any role in either murders. But, the deaths have led to immense media attention, a spotlight that has extended to the world of ayahuasca tourism.

Woodroffe, 41, spoke of his intentions to become an addictions counselor in a YouTube video years ago. The man also set up a crowdfunding page for his travels to Peru to study plant medicine.

“I feel responsible trying to support this culture and retain some of their treasure in me and my family, and share it with those that wish to learn,” Woodroffe wrote on the page. “I feel this is my path of being a responsible, accountable human being.” He specifically mentioned that he would seek knowledge from the Shipibo, the tribe which Arévalo was part of.

"She's iconic, so this really stirred up a lot in the plant spirit medicine community at large" —Zoe Helene

Zoe Helene, of Amherst, Massachusetts, describes herself as psychedelic feminist. She has been participating in ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru for a decade and is the founder of psychedelic advocacy network Cosmic Sister.

Helene described Arévalo as a “master healer.”

"She's iconic, so this really stirred up a lot in the plant spirit medicine community at large,” Helene said. “We're grieving."

Helene said that foreigners with fantasies of becoming healers are too common, as well as unrealistic at times.

“You don't ever heal your family. You heal yourself,” Helene told VICE. "After years of personal immersion work, maybe, just maybe you will be in a position to begin to guide people to where they can go in Peru to work on healing, empowerment, and self-liberation.”

Helene said you can support other people, but without years and years of training, you are not a healer yourself. “It's not OK to just sort of declare that—and people randomly claiming that title is rampant right now because it's so trendy,” she said.

Chris Kilham, an ethnobotanist and medicine hunter who has traveled the world for over 20 years working with medicinal plants, echoed Helene’s sentiments. “Many people are in fact delusional about becoming healers,” he told VICE. Kilham, who is married to Helene, has drunk ayahuasca with over a thousand people and has been taking part in such ceremonies for over 11 years.

In the wake of the tragedies in April, the principal leader of the tribe Arévalo was part of, Ronald Suárez, has raised the idea of controlling ayahuasca.

“We believe [ayahuasca] is an opportunity for our Indigenous brothers because it generates an income, but after what happened it should be regulated,” he told the Guardian.

The death of Arévalo and Woodroffe has also highlighted tensions in Peru surrounding the treatment of Indigenous people. A local congressman, Carlos Tubino, initially called the villagers “savages” in a tweet about the incidents, later apologizing to the Shipibo people.

According to the Guardian, villagers claimed they brought Woodroffe to police on multiple occasions for strange behaviour before Arévalo’s death.

“He never spoke, he never explained what he was doing here,” Miluska González, a village leader, told the Guardian. “All he would do was open a can of beer and start drinking.”

Woodroffe had lived in Peru for periods of time over the last five years. A friend of his, Yarrow Willard, described the man as “a gentle person” to CBC when news broke about the tragedy. He also said Woodroffe had returned to Canada “troubled” after taking ayahuasca.

According to Helene, what is known as “integration” is a highly important aspect of taking ayahuasca. Without it, she said, some people can be left in a “danger zone.”

“Integration is how you handle coming home and putting these new teachings and realizations into your life: giving yourself time and space to really sort it out,” Helene said.

“Vastly more people have gotten benefits than anything else from ayahuasca" —Chris Kilham

Helene said the integration phase can be helped along by talking with others who have had experiences with ayahuasca. She said she advises people to “wait” when they come home and not to immediately make life-changing decisions, such as quitting a job.

Kilham, who authored The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook - The Essential Guide to Ayahuasca Journeying, said that part of the responsibility people who seek out ayahuasca experiences have is to educate themselves. That education, he said, includes researching reputable healers and centres.

“Vastly more people have gotten benefits than anything else from ayahuasca,” Kilham said. He mentioned that in all the ceremonies he has been to, he has only seen one incident where someone went “nuts.”

Just as the case is with other medicines, not everyone is a candidate for ayahuasca. "Not everyone should do psychedelics,” Helene said.

Another Canadian was involved with an incident that is often referred to in the media as being associated with ayahuasca. In 2015, Joshua Andrew Freeman Stevens of Winnipeg stabbed a British man, Unais Gomes, to death in self-defence during a ceremony in Peru.

“I would really hate to see the media or anybody focus solely on the very, very few and rare negative incidents that have occurred when the greatest majority of people are getting benefits that are very valuable to their lives,” Kilham said.

A judge in Peru has issued arrest warrants for two men, José Ramírez and Nicolás Mori, apparently identified from the blurry cell phone video that circulated of Woodroffe’s lynching.

Helene hopes that some good can come out of the recent tragedies. “If you really want to honour Maestra Olivia's memory, the best thing you can do is give to what mattered to her. Reciprocity (giving back) is a core concept in Amazonian culture."

Helene said ayahuasca healed her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"In the right set and setting, ayahuasca can be perfectly safe and wonderful, and a life-changing experience,” Helene said. That's not going away because two people were brutally murdered, however tragic and terrible that is.”