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Off to save the Amazon


Emily Shaw, owner of Panacea Peru.

Emily Shaw, owner of Panacea Peru.

This is an interview with Panacea Peru owner Emily Shaw about her business exporting Amazon botanics outside of South America, but first…

…you need to know that just after Christmas I’m jumping on a plane and heading off to save the Amazon. It’s just a small superhero feat I intend to accomplish over New Year’s Eve while the rest of you are out drinking champagne and thinking you’d rather be home watching the final season of Breaking Bad than out late at a boring party.

Seriously, as someone who’s spent almost a quarter century writing about environmental issues and editing magazines on recycling and pollution prevention, I feel I haven’t seen nearly enough of the very environment I’m supposedly spending my career protecting.

So, I got it in my head that in 2014 I’m going to devote as much of my online column as possible to writing about trips I plan in celebration of (what will be by next September) 25 years as an environmental journalist.

The first trip is “the big one.” I fly into Lima, Peru just after Boxing Day and change planes to Iquitos. From there I’m spending eight or nine days trekking through the Upper Amazon on foot and by boat. The first half of the trip will focus on wildlife and I hope to take some amazing pictures of various creatures. Hopefully the footage won’t end with an anaconda wrapping itself around me.

The second half of the trip will be spent at the Nihue Rao spiritual centre (www.nihuerao.com/eng/index.htm) here I’ll be studying with Amazon shamans and learning their sacred ceremonies. I’m already preparing for all this by drinking tea made from the bark and leaves of various rain forest plants and trees, and I just spent a small fortune at Mountain Equipment Coop on items ranging from a nifty hammock that folds up to the size of a handkerchief to a new backpack with lots of secret compartments (and a built-in rain cover, which I’ll likely need as the rainy season is starting down there).

Apart from the purely touristic dimension of my trip, I have a serious interest in preservation of the Amazon via two intersecting commercial possibilities that could help save ecosystems and the indigenous people who rely on them.

The first is eco-tourism, and a relatively new and fast-growing dimension of that, which is spiritual tourism. A lot of New Age folks (and others) are traveling to places like Iquitos to hang out with shamans and drink ayahuasca — a sacred medicinal brew — and participate in other modalities that allow a direct communion with nature and the “spirit world.”

(Yes, I do feel a bit like Sam Worthington in the James Cameron film Avatar, visiting the Na’vi on the planet Pandora. If my skin turns blue I’ll certainly post a photo here.)

My online article series will include reports and interviews with interesting people I meet in Peru, places I stay and (of course) experiences that I have. I hope to blaze the trail for interested readers who may care to travel there themselves one day.

As an aside, my tour is being arranged by Pulse Custom Tours in Vancouver, BC. You can learn about them here: www.pulsetours.com (If adventure travel is your thing, these folks come highly recommended. They have a Facebook page too.)

To start things off, I interviewed Emily Shaw, owner of Panacea Peru (http://panaceaperu.com). She’s lived in Peru for more than seven years and her company exports Amazon botanicals for health and cleansing. (She is the source of the Amazon teas I’m currently drinking, which I bought when I caught up with her at the Whole Life Expo in Toronto last month.)

Emily Shaw comes by her alternative leanings honestly. Her mother Ruth Shaw (a good friend of mine) established herself as a top yoga instructor in Toronto long before the practice became trendy. (Today there are more yoga storefronts on the streets of Toronto than there are fast food restaurants, it seems. And that would be a good thing.) Her brother James (Jimmy) Shaw is a founder and lead guitarist of the hit Canadian indie rock band Metric.

Panacea Peru botanicals from the Amazon.

Panacea Peru botanicals from the Amazon.

Here’s the interview:

GUY CRITTENDEN (GC): When did you first travel to Peru, and when/why did you decide to move there?

EMILY SHAW (ES): After moving back to Toronto at age 25 from the West Indies, I spent 10 years looking for the next part of the world that would be my new home. I moved to Peru in 2006.

I had been actively looking for somewhere to movefor a few years, ready for a new cultural experience. I tried Spain and Nicaragua but didn’t feel the magic I was looking for. I started dating a Peruvian here in Toronto and after several years of waiting patiently, we finally went for a two-month exploration.

I fell in love immediately with Peru and couldn’t believe my luck. We went to the beaches in the North, off the beaten track Andean towns in the Central Andes, and ate incredible food all over Lima. I was in!

I came back to Toronto determined to move there, it wasn’t easy or quick but I did it.

GC: Tell me briefly about your early experience being involved with or organizing ayahuasca tours into the Amazon.

ES: I never organized tours per se.

After trying ayahuasca for the first time in 2006 I was always interested in continuing working with the medicine but wanted to experiment with different Shamans or “ayahuasceros” as they’re called.

I’ve always been passionate about encouraging people to dive in to the medicine, if they felt a calling, so I was bringing friends, or friends of friends, with me as often as I could. By 2010 I was assisting at several different ayahuasca healing centers in Peru as well as continuing with my own exploration into the ayahuasca world.

In Iquitos, my friend Slocum was finishing building his center Amaru Spirit and needed a hand, so he hired me as his “interior designer.” I was happy to have an opportunity to spend more time in Iquitos and needed a break so I went for it!

Readers can visit the Amu Spirit website here www.amaruspirit.com and also view some of artist “Slocum’s” (David Hewson) amazing artwork here: www.davidhewsonart.com/index.htm

In the jungle this involved random things like custom designing mosquito-netting canopies that actually had an opening, and waiting for the local cotton trees to bud so we could use the blossoms to stuff our hand-sewn pillows. There were no trips to Ikea!

I was bringing photocopies and sketches of furniture to the local carpenters and metalworkers, designing bowls to be carved and other such fun things like sourcing non-toxic glue from Lima. I like to think I can find anything. People still contact me to source the strangest things.

At the time Slocum’s wife was expecting her first baby so I quickly adapted my role into raw food chef for his clients. I would take 5:00 am trips to the markets and return with a mototaxi filled to the brim with incredible fruits, vegetables and medicinal plants.

Slocum guides his clients through gallbladder and liver flushes, which involves drinking lots of apple juice in the preparation stage so there was lots of apple juicing! I did my first liver flush with him. His philosophy involves adapting the traditional way the ayahuasca is used into a more modern understanding of detoxing and preparing the body, which I love.

GC: What happened next?

ES: I went on to work with another friend who runs Ayahuasca Satsangha, a donation-based ayahuasca retreat center. They have one location in the Amazon and another in Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca mountain range (at nearly 4000 metres, where I was.)

They had just started up so there was lots of tweaking to do around the menu and schedule. They believed in a more intense approach involving many aya ceremonies in a short period. The challenge there was that their shaman was from the jungle and wanted to adhere to the diet he knew worked best with his medicine. At 4000 metres the environment is quite harsh on the body: it’s extremely cold and dry and there isn’t a lot of oxygen.

Guests were arriving from international flights and landing directly into this harsh (and beautiful) environment, which required some flexibility around the traditional “shamanic diet.”

The dietary restrictions most commonly thought to compliment working with ayahuasca, that has been adhered to for hundreds of years, is: no salt, no oil, no spicy food, no sweets and really no green or colored foods. The diet is mainly bland white foods: white rice, fish or chicken.

Now, from an Ayurvedic perspective, being in an extremely cold and dry environment without fats or salt or sweets isn’t sound. This was an interesting dilemma because as with many things surrounding the ayahuasca experience, sometimes good old logic just doesn’t have the same weight we’re used to. In the end, though, I was able to create a complimentary menu to the work we were doing there that is still running.

GC: Please dispel what you feel are some of the common myths about Peru, Lima and the Upper Amazon.

ES: I think there is a displacement of power from the medicine, which is ayahuasca, to the shaman, who is (for lack of better words) the chef, administrator, host and DJ.

People come to Peru looking for a “real” shaman to drink with, fearing if they don’t, they won’t have an authentic experience or get the results they’re looking for.

The truth is the entire thing has become a bit warped: even the most authentic “real shaman” was never sitting with huge groups of gringos as they work through their middle-class issues, and certainly not with western women. These medicine men and women at this point are generally way out of their element and are also trying to adapt to this new reality of their work.

Lets not forget that their new reality is also extremely lucrative, and big bucks can be a potent ingredient in the recipe for disaster.

With no disrespect to these incredible medicine men and women, they are also just humans, with desires, fears, and far more mundane real-life issues than many foreigners like to see. It seems to be part of the well-worn “guru worshiping” phenomenon or something similar. There is sometimes a glorification of the shamans, who within the context of their own communities are just following their calling and their family obligations.

The far more relevant relationship that will be formed if you make this journey is a deep life-long healing relationship between you and what I think of as the infinite wisdom of ayahuasca.

GC: That’s good advice. I can see people getting turned on by the aya experience and then thinking of the shaman as a guru. Point noted. So, tell me a little about your own experience with shamans and that healing tradition.

ES: My experience with ayahuasca has been far more influential than my experience with any particular shaman.

I’ve been quite experimental and enjoy drinking different brews in different settings with different shamans. Each experience brings it’s own beauty, it’s own challenges, and the continued lesson to remain non-attached to how it “should be.”

The most powerful lessons I have learned are the simplest ones: that there is nothing stronger than the power of love, gratitude and forgiveness.

One morning, after a very strong ayahuasca ceremony, I awoke in my tambo just as the beautiful morning light broke. My entire body was so flooded with gratitude that I actually couldn’t’ handle the overwhelming physical sensation in my body.

I had never felt gratitude, only just thought it.

I got out of bed and tried moving around to find a way to connect my body with this overwhelming feeling. Finally I fell to my knees and bowed my forehead to the floor, which felt fitting and brought me relief. I remained in this powerful position of grace and wept tears of joy all morning with the sounds of the jungle singing to me. I was experiencing gratitude ripping through my veins and it brought me to my knees. It was a kind of bliss I will never forget.

GC: Wow!

ES: But that’s not the lesson! The lesson came about three weeks later when I was in the lineup at the supermarket back in Lima and heard myself being rude to the cashier.

A voice in my head said, “Shit, it’s gone, but not forgotten.”

And so the work must continue. It is very rarely addressed at most of the ayahuasca centers in Peru: how one should integrate the lessons from the work with the medicine back into one’s life.

GC: Tell me about your company and its detox products/programs. Why and how should a person in North America travel to Peru for one of your programs.

ES: I developed a detox and rejuvenation program after I went to India to study Ayurveda and Pancha Karma (the Ayurvedic system of detoxification).

The work I did at the ayahuasca centers prompted me to create a program that would allow people to start their personal relationship with the medicine from a clean body. This has a two-fold benefit: Firstly, and quite logically, it just makes sense to prepare the body for the work ahead. Eliminating residual toxicity in the body allows for a cleaner and more stable connection to the medicine.

Secondly, and maybe even more profoundly, it states ones intention to take the process seriously, putting your best foot forward so to speak. I think energetically this has a huge benefit not unrecognized by the medicine itself.

GC: That makes sense. And I notice you refer to the medicine as having a mind of its own, which is common with aya practitioners. How have things been going?

ES: At the end of 2012 I started running the program with groups in Lima. The participants were getting results far beyond my expectation, which was extremely motivating to say the least.

I think one of the most powerful aspects to the program is that it is supported and the participants stick to the program. It’s not all that complicated to assist the body to detox, but if you cheat, it doesn’t work!

GC: What about the botanicals you export?

ES: The second part of my business is my product line that works within my program.

I’ve been making products my whole life. I have been an aromatherapist since 1993. I just love that I am once again tapping into my inner alchemist!

The 100 per cent natural products are made up entirely from high vibrational plant sources from Peru, and fit within the structure of Ayurvedic healing.

I love working with unrefined rare plant oils, essential oils, herbs and medicinal tree barks. It is very important to incorporate luxurious treatments into a detox program so that you keep the nervous system in “chill out” mode: you don’t want the experience to be stressful and I address this throughout the program.

The Lima detox program is targeted at Lima residents because I’m teaching wellness practices that they incorporate into their everyday lives. I have never had someone from North America come to Lima to do the program: the participants are either Peruvians or foreign residents. But having participants from outside Peru is something I’d consider.

GC: Highlight a few of your favorite botanicals and what they do for a person. I bought some things like Maca from you a couple of years ago and incorporate it in my green smoothies. But nowadays you’re exporting stuff I’ve never heard of.

ES: Oh there are so many!

One of my favorites at the moment is something called Sacha Canela. “Sacha” in the Amazon word meaning “fake” but is more accurately used to preface a wild variety or another more common plant.

Canela is cinnamon so Sacha Canela should be interpreted as meaning a wild Amazonian cinnamon variety.

Cinnamon is a powerful natural medicine that’s been used for thousands of years and often gets to boast the prestigious title in the medicinal plant world of “adaptogen plant.”

Adaptogens are really important in modern times as they strengthen our ability to adapt to all internal and external stressors, of which there are no shortage these days. They directly strengthen our immune system, our liver function, and reduce inflammation in the body. Cinnamon is also a staple in Ayurveda so the wild Amazon variety is a beauty to work with.

GC: Having edited a magazine on HazMat management for almost 25 years I’m fascinated by detoxification of the body. In fact, in the upcoming Winter 2013-14 edition of HazMat Management we’re running an article about a detox product my friend Rodney Palmer sells — the SaunaRay — which firefighters and EMS folks use to cleanse work-related toxins from their bodies. He was at the Whole Life Expo in Toronto too. Tell me about another Amazon botanical.

ES: I’m also very excited to be working with Aguaje. This is an Amazonian palm fruit that has extremely high levels of Beta-carotene as well as phyto-estrogens. Many older women of the Amazon have told me that aguaje has saved them from menopause symptoms.

Right now I use aguaje oil in my facial serum and it brings a radiating glow to the skin, protects against harmful UV rays (allowing for more vitamin D absorption). Aguaje has 30 times more vitamin A than carrots.

GC: What are your hopes for your company moving forward? Is this part of a vision of helping the Amazon and its people (i.e., creating markets for sustainable products)? You know I feel this is important in saving the region from the blight of unbridled development, mining and deforestation.

ES: For my company, I’m hoping to be able to expand into a wider range of products and start introducing them to some spas. It’s insane that you can go to some of the best spas in the world, and be smothered in petroleum based easy-glide “massage oil”!

Directly ahead, I’m hosting another program in Lima in January 2014 but I’m moving toward creating a program that works without my clients being in the same city as me. I’d like to explore how to work with larger groups online.

During the summer I was in the UK and worked with some clients privately through the program; this has motivated me to add this service to my website in the New Year.

I’m also now working out the logistics of international export of the products.

As for creating a sustainable business and saving the rainforest and it’s people, it’s all a little overwhelming. The Amazon rainforest faces many difficult challenges indeed: the exploitation of oil throughout the Amazon jungle is staggering. The loss of species every year is absolutely tragic and the greed and corruption that dominates South American politics makes protecting the Amazon this no small feat.

I wish I could tell you that everything that leaves Peru with an organic certification is organic, but I can’t. And that’s just on that end.

Over here on this end, we have Health Canada, the FDA and the various EU legislations making it more and more challenging (and expensive) to sell anything natural and that makes you feel good.

So, I do my research, go with the little-guy as often as I can, spread the word, bring the good stuff I find along my path to my people, work hard and hope that one day my business will be big enough to make a huge positive impact on both ends of the scale.

GC: Thank you so much for your time, Emily. We’ll keep in touch and you can update us all on your progress in the months and years ahead.

Emily Shaw (left) and Ruth Shaw (right) at the Panacea Peru booth at the Whole Life Expo in Toronto, November 2013.

Emily Shaw (left) and Ruth Shaw (right) at the Panacea Peru booth at the Whole Life Expo in Toronto, November 2013.

The website for Emily Shaw’s Panacea Peru products and programs can be accessed here: http://panaceaperu.com


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2 Comments » for Off to save the Amazon
  1. Guy, I had no idea you were approaching 25 years of Environmental Journalism. What a fitting trip this will be for you. I hope we’ll meet some interesting folks along the way to help inspire some amazing writing. Looking forward to meet you in 10 days!

  2. Ian Jennings says:

    Wow ! Truly amazing article. Enjoy this fantastic adventure. I look forward to reading about this trip. Be safe.

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