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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 November, 2003, 13:42 GMT
Peru seeks tribal cure for addiction
By Javier Lizarzaburu
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Takiwasi centre
The hallucinogenic Ayahuasca plant is taken by patients at Takiwasi

Peru is home to the coca leaf, the main ingredient of cocaine.

In the last few years it has also become home to a new way of confronting drug addiction: by returning to Shamanism and traditional Amazonian medicines.

As one of the world's biggest exporters of the coca leaf, Peru has developed its own home-grown drug problem, which is acute in cities like Tarapoto in the northern Amazonian rainforest.

Now a maverick doctor is seeking an answer to this modern phenomenon through ancient wisdom.

Santa Rosa del Mishoyou is one of Peru's coca producing areas

Jacques Mabit is the founder of Takiwasi, which means "The chanting house."

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents he said: "The idea was the result of my experience as a medical doctor, when I saw how limited traditional treatments were.

"I met spiritual healers - Shamans - and realised they had resources unknown in the West."

Mabit wanted to connect the rationalism of Western medicine with the spiritual healing of traditional practices.

He was especially intrigued by the ritual use of a sacred plant called ayahuasca, which creates altered states of consciousness, but which he says is non-addictive.

Ayahuasca creates visions in which, Mabit says, users can engage with the underlying causes of their drug addiction. It can also produce powerful physical reactions, including shouting and vomiting.

Emotional cleansing

He founded Takiwasi in 1992 on the outskirts of the city of Tarapoto, which at the time, was in the middle of the main coca-producing area in the world. It is also one of the prime consumers of cocaine base.

From the outset, the purpose of Takiwasi was to offer an alternative to traditional methods of dealing with addiction.

Patients are expected to stay at the centre for between nine and 12 months, and should not have any contact with relatives during the first three months.

A Takiwasi patient
Ayahuasca sessions take place at night in the jungle
The treatment is divided into stages that go from physical detoxification - which includes taking purgative plants to cleanse the body - to psychic detoxification, which relates to what Mabit calls "emotional cleansing".

Only at this stage are patients ready to take ayahuasca, a plant that is officially considered a drug, but is also a sacred plant for Amazonian healers.

The ayahuasca sessions take place at night, in the middle of the jungle, to the sound of Shamanistic chanting of traditional songs called Ikaros.

Mabit told me that these chants modify the effects of Ayahuasca, providing feelings of peace or courage. Psychologists are on hand to observe and interpret the reactions of the patients.

I began feeling dizzy, losing control of my body, and laughing a lot and all of a sudden that laughing turned to crying... like a boy lost in the forest
Cesar, Takiwasi patient

"We create the bridge between western and ancient Amazonian knowledge," said Mabit.

It is not dissimilar to dream interpretation. In this instance, patients are helped by psychiatrists the following day to interpret the visions they had during the Ayahuasca session.

Cesar has been a patient at the centre for the last 10 months. He told me about his first experience of Ayahuasca.

"I began feeling dizzy, losing control of my body, and laughing a lot. All of a sudden that laughing turned to crying... tears, like a boy lost in the forest, feeling lost."

He said that using the plant has given him visions which have helped him to understand his problem, with the aid of the centre's psychologists.

Cesar also had to undergo a number of solitary retreats in the jungle.

"This is the most difficult part," he said, "you go on retreat for 10 days, and you cannot eat anything savoury or sweet.

"You cannot see anyone with the exception of the Shaman who is looking after you. You are in the jungle, with no electricity and nothing to do."

Although the Takiwasi approach takes far longer than a typical Western detoxification course, Mabit claims a far higher success rate, as a result of the centre's efforts to cure the fundamental imbalances that cause addiction, rather than just the addiction itself.

According to him, over a third of the patients that begin treatment get completely cured. And among those who complete the treatment, the success rate is as high as 70%.

For Jacques Mabit, director of Takiwasi, the lack of meaning in life is what generally leads to drug-addiction, and if society does not deal with this, he believes there is no point in continuing to develop health policies or eradication campaigns.

He told the programme: "It shows the basic dysfunctionality of Western culture: the absence of a spiritual dimension.

"This is a culture that has destroyed the meaning of the sacred, and there is a tendency to control all aspects of society, without allowing room for freedom and creativity."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 6 November at 1100 GMT and repeated on Monday, 10 November at 2030 GMT.

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