Olivia Rose Marcus

Olivia Rose Marcus, PhD

University of Connecticut

Traditionalizing global forms: ethics in vegetalista practices of the Peruvian Amazon


In the last two decades, the Peruvian Amazon has gained increasing recognition as a place for healing, spiritual seeking, and personal development, largely due to rising global awareness of ayahuasca, a psychedelic tea traditionally prepared among forest-dwelling societies. Traditionally ayahuasca has a variety of uses, yet there is a growing global interest in its potential therapeutic benefits, particularly for mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and trauma. Novel approaches to psychotherapy are emerging to address the needs of ayahuasca users to prepare as well as to guide them in ‘integrating’ their powerful psychedelic experiences, yet there is little discussion on the ethical frameworks that may structure these therapeutic processes or the social and cultural assumptions that influence the assignment of ayahuasca as a medicine. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in San Martín and Loreto, I examine the varied social meanings and uses of ayahuasca in the Peruvian vegetalista tradition and the potentially conflicting ethical implications among shamanic practitioners, mental health practitioners, and ayahuasca retreat centers. The plurality of healing approaches in the context of ayahuasca shamanism and associated psychotherapeutic practices have given form to a therapeutic milieu with intersecting ontological, and therefore ethical, configurations that lack a common worldview. Therefore, practitioners and ayahuasca centers are left with navigating globalized concepts of ethics while attempting to remain authentic to local ontologies of healing, care, and safety. The production of a cohesive ethical framework is attempted by invoking globalized psychiatric concepts through the lens of local animistic ontology.


Olivia Marcus received her MPH in Sociomedical Sciences from Columbia University. She has co-authored articles on the 2014/15 Ebola epidemic, plant medicine in the Peruvian Amazon, and the mental health implications of the use of ayahuasca shamanism among diverse populations. Her doctoral fieldwork in the Peruvian Amazon explores the use of Amazonian shamanism for mental wellness and the processes of professionalization and legitimization of tradition Amazonian medicine among locals and foreigners. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in San Martín and Loreto, her dissertation explains the ways in which intercultural dialogues effect changes in worldview among clientele and practitioners through the growing plurality of healing methods offered in these regions.



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