Interview, transcription and translation by Gart van Gennip
Don Luis (Lucho) Culquitón is a 65 year old native of Manacamiri, a small river village on the Nanay, not far from Iquitos. He’s been working here as a shaman for most of his life. Although shamanism runs in the family –his grandmother was a healer– Don Lucho, as he is known, did not learn the art as an apprentice from his parents or grandparents, as is usually the case.
“No, it’s like a natural talent; a heritage from my ancestors. Even as a child I realized that I had this energy, this calling inside of me. I always knew how to choose my food. I didn’t eat much meat, not much grease; I always ate fruits and vegetables. Those were the things I liked, that I had a craving for. It’s like I knew from a very early age what qualities these foods had. It came naturally to me.
“When I was sixteen, I drank ayahuasca for the first time. Then, I realized the potential I had; that the medicine was part of me. From then on, I started to explore. So I was born with the medicine. It was a natural part of me.”
In 1980, during an ayahuasca ceremony, the plant spirit urged Don Lucho to work with the plants; to dedicate himself to developing a better way to grow and cultivate them. He saw all around him that traditional agriculture was destroying the natural environment and was not sustainable.
Farmers applied what is known as ‘slash and burn’, a technique where, to create a new field, they cut down part of the forest and burn whatever was on there. As the soil in the Amazon is very poor, a field will only render crops for a few years. Then, the farmer abandons the field and creates a new one in the same way. Fields that are abandoned soon fill up with tough, long grass that doesn’t allow anything else to grow.
“It’s been 34 years since I received that message. The spirit of ayahuasca told me how we can save nature, how we can save the world. That was something I had not been too concerned with until that moment. So I said; ‘How am I going to save the world? I have no education; I don’t know anything’. Well, ayahuasca taught me which plants heal and how they function Not only to heal ourselves, but also to heal the earth on which they grow.”
“Then, when I started to work, I realized of each plant what they were good for. I started to sort those things out and I created some order. Somehow I knew; this plant has a certain quality; that plant has another.”
“I also realized that I was doing scientific work, that I was able to diagnose my patients’ conditions, whether they were psychological, or physical; and I learned how to help the spiritual part. It was like a calling.”
With the help and the inspiration of ayahuasca, Don Lucho became a self-taught shaman with a strong focus on stopping and even reversing the damage done to the rainforest. He saw that the forest was able to maintain itself by combining an infinite number of plant species, all mixed together, and by recycling its own waste and nutrients. He saw that every species had its function to feed the earth and the plants and trees around it, as a perpetual process, without ever running out of nutrients.
He created Kapitari in this way; from a barren piece of land that had been depleted of nutrients. Now, thirty-four years later, Kapitari has emerged as an oasis in the forest, with countless of species of plants and trees. It functions as a healing center, as well as a nursery for seeds and saplings, which Don Lucho uses to create new fields of ‘permaculture’, as it has become known.
Now, hundreds of people from around the world come to Kapitari every year to take part in ayahuasca ceremonies with Don Lucho. The proceeds of these ceremonies are used to finance and expand the permaculture projects that the shaman has developed. He also shares his seeds and plants with others, in order to expand the effect of his new way of agriculture.
“I copy the technique of nature. Because I have seen that nature is a rich diversity of plant species, which is why they don’t malnourish. The diversity of the plants makes that they can reproduce. So what I see and have clearly concluded is that we will not change that technique; that it is a completely natural technique.”
“We just have to copy nature and continue to expand. Every species has its function. One function is as medicine; the other as food, which contains nutrients; and another is to feed the soil. So you have a diversity of nutrients, to create a balance of species, so those species can live.”
“How wonderful is nature, to teach us that you don’t have to add nutrients. Only for monoculture do you need chemical fertilizer. We integrate everything, we work in peace, while nature gives us everything it has, without wasting anything.”
Don Lucho decided he would apply the same technique to agriculture; plant not just one or two species of plants on a field, but hundreds. This way he created the balance that allowed him to increase the volume of the crops, while maintaining the fertility of the soil.
“The objective of Kapitari is to be a school. I call it a ‘field school’. We need to create this school, because it is necessary to exchange the knowledge and to teach, both in theory and in practice. People need to understand that a species can serve our health; or it can serve as fertilizer for the soil; as food; or as compost. That is how permaculture works.”
“Now, I didn’t know what permaculture was, but when I saw how this worked, what we were doing, I had the calling to do this. I realized that we were doing organic work. So, many people have come to observe, to learn, to study this subject; analyzing it.”
“People must understand that we need to expand this technique. We have to share it. Why? Because we have to rise out of extreme poverty, out of the destruction and the contamination that overwhelm this world.”
Don Lucho has made it clear that his aim is not only to save the rainforest, but also to create an economic advantage for the farmers who grow crops in the jungle. It has become clear to him that poverty is one of the causes of the problem, and that you cannot solve one without also tackling the other. He feels a strong sense of urgency:
“I believe there will be more interest in this technique. Not only in the Amazon, but in other parts of the world as well. Because we try to set up an exchange of knowledge and of technique. So I don’t say; ‘gentlemen, I can’t share my technique; gentlemen, you must be patient’. No, we have to unite right now; exchange our knowledge and our experiences, and work in unity, without any selfish intentions. Work with a lot of love, because that will be the fundamental part; the part of love and spirituality.”
“So I see this as both a commercial as well as a social project. Because commerce aids the social aspect. We have to break this impotence, this cycle of poverty.”
“At the moment there are ten families that work with me continuously. We have been doing it this way for twenty years now. Eventually, they will return to their homes and continue to work in this way. Right now, we are working on the sequel with them; on the second stage.”
Don Lucho has noticed an increased interest from abroad for his techniques. Recently, two non-governmental organizations have arrived to work with him:
“They want us to work together, to exchange experiences, knowledge, and to advance the cultures that we are creating. I like that, because we are managing short term, medium term and long term plants. So what we are doing is integrating different species, to avoid being a monoculture. With monoculture, you need chemical fertilizer. Without it, nothing grows; nothing develops, because it lacks nutrients. The Amazon has acidic loam. So there aren’t many nutrients that can improve the culture.”
“What we have to do is find out what nourishes the plants. If we don’t think about how to feed the plants and the animals, we will lose many species. So what I am trying to do is to create a balance of species, but also an economic balance. Because with an economic balance and a balance of species, you will have profitability. And so we will create a large amount of what is called the ‘diversity of species’, of plants that will serve as food, as medicine, as compost and nutrients for the soil.”
“What is the goal of Kapitari? To have a quality product as medicine. To show the world that we sell healthy food that is grown in a sustainable way. That is our objective. So currently, we are working with fifteen representatives of all kinds of different scientific fields. There are some agronomists, biologists, ecologists, foresters and botanists. We are planning a visit to Tamshiyacu and we are inviting the brothers of the Qitchua, who live on the Rio Tigre and the Rio Napo. And so, they are spreading the word among the indigenous, and among other organizations.”
“I believe that this year, we will see increased activity, because they realize that we have enormous resources, while we live in a country with a lot of poverty. I believe we have to break that fear, we have to break that impotence.”
“We are developing our new plan together. In less than three years, we should have our first processing plant, to launch our product on the market. We have already spent two years focusing on the expansion of the seeds and the culture. I am planning an exchange of seeds, which is a component that we can engage in at very low cost, and expand the plants. If we talk about the exchange of seeds, I believe that will advance the technique. We need to do it that way, because without the seeds, there is no technique; there is no culture. Without seeds, there is no food.”
“What we need is continuity, perseverance. Because I don’t just give you this plant or seed. I give it to you and you plant it. Then, should I come over in one year and see how it’s doing? If it’s growing? No. Because it can’t grow that way. You must have a permanent technique. Permanent observation, so we can advance. That is a little bit difficult, but if you want to advance with the technique that we have, you must have a total field of technique and management. And so, I am very confident, I have faith that with this technique, we are going to save the Amazon.”
Does Don Lucho think that his technique will one day be able to put a stop to the damage done to the rainforest, and even reverse it?
“Yes, of course I do. Because in this area we will no longer slash and burn. Instead, we are going to manage this area for life. Why do I say that; ‘for life’? Because we will plant many species. We will be able to manage it in a sustainable way. And you will no longer see ‘slash and burn’ in this region.”
“The Amazon grows back very quickly. We are fortunate in the Amazon, because there is so much rain. The Amazon jungle is very aggressive; some plants grow thirty to forty centimeters per day. So you don’t have to keep adding fertilizer to the soil. Nature very quickly recuperates its energy and its nutrients.”
“At Kapitari, we have recuperated many species, like aguaje, guaba, etc. It was a zone where the soil was depleted. We used a technique with which the plants helped us to retake the depleted areas. You have to go see with which techniques we manage to recover the depreciated and malnourished areas. And we can even retake and turn those areas into primary forest again. There is a way to recover. This takes an average of five years. Then this area will be strengthened again, and all the animals will return. Because where there is food, there is migration. If there is no food, there is no migration. This is clear from experience.”