STEVE INSKEEP, host:
One of these days we might see protesters carrying signs that read something like: Save Our Peyote. That hallucinogenic cactus has been used for hundreds of years by Mexican Indians in sacred ceremonies. It became popular outside that community in the 1960s when a UCLA student, Carlos Castaneda, wrote "The Teachings of Don Juan." Americans, Europeans and other foreigners have since made the pilgrimage to Mexico to hunt for peyote and consume it recreationally. So now the Mexican government and the Indian community warn that peyote is under threat.
Here's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm standing in the central square of Real de Catorce, a former silver mining town high in the mountains of the state of San Luis Potosi in northern Mexico. The crumbling colonial architecture, though, is not the attraction for the many foreigners who flock here. One clue: In front of me is a jewelry market and there seems to be one central design theme - there are rings, necklaces, broaches, bracelets with representations of the peyote cactus.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A couple of women browse at Armando Garza's stand; woven bands made out of hemp surround ceramic peyotes. Garza says he came here several years ago to take peyote and decided to stay.
Mr. ARMANDO GARZA: (Through translator) People like to come here and take peyote because it has a very long history. It's a natural plant and it allows you to understand the Indian culture and that way of life - a different perspective on things.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And come they have. The problem is, in ever-increasing numbers.
To get to the desert where this peyote is found, you need to get a guide with a truck who can take you down into the scrub land below Real de Catorce. The road is bumpy and pitted with rocks and holes, but our guide, Jorge, who doesn't want his last name used because it is illegal to harvest peyote, takes us to a patch of the cactus located under a bush.
JORGE: (Spanish spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He points to a small, round, puffy-looking disc that is divided into segments. The peyote is partially buried under the ground.
Even though he lives off the peyote trade, he says he's noticed that it's becoming harder and harder to find.
JORGE: (Through translator) Peyote is running out. People come here and don't know how to harvest it. And there are people who traffic it, too. There used to be so much peyote, but the plant is dying out here now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says he tries to make sure that when people dig up peyote to consume it, they leave the root so it can re-grow. But it can take up to 30 years for a peyote cactus to reach maturity.
JORGE: (Through translator) If the peyote dies out here, so does our livelihood.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the local beer and gas station in the dusty, nearby town of Estacion 14, owner Serio Delgadillo pours petrol into a jug for a waiting client.
He doesn't like the peyoteros, as the drug tourists are called.
Mr. SERIO DELGADILLO: (Through translator) People come here for the peyote; that's the only reason they come and they eat it. They come from all over the world. Russians, Chinese, Japanese, everything.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He too is worried about what's happening to the supply, as he uses it in small quantities for its medicinal purposes.
Mr. DELGADILLO: (Through translator) Before, there was peyote everywhere. Now, there is so little. At the pace we're going, they're going to finish it off.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Peyote's hallucinogenic properties come from the compound mescaline. To start seeing visions, you have to eat at least three of the cacti. It's incredibly bitter. Trips last for hours, depending on how much you consume. Typically, drug tourists come down to camp in the desert for days on end. Unlike the peyote, they are not hard to find.
(Soundbite of train)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sitting on the train tracks are three young Mexican high schoolers from the city of Monterrey. They've been taking peyote for the past three days, chewing it, making tea out of it, roasting it. None want their last names used.
Fernando talks about how he's become obsessed with a painting on the wall of the room he's staying in. FERNANDO: I was like lost in the painting.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Though they say it was worth it, it took them days to find peyote. One of them, Manolo, has a badly sunburned face. He was almost bitten by a rattlesnake, and the blisters on his feet have swelled after his days-long search.
MANOLO: (Through translator) To find it is really hard. The peyote is supposed to talk to you. We went to one part of the desert and we walked for six hours, and we found nothing, nothing. It wasn't agreeable at all. All that walking.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Laurent is from Geneva, and he went hunting for peyote with the Mexicans. He says this was always something he wanted to do.
Mr. LAURENT: I have a friend that went there and that told me that this place where you can find the peyote in the desert. And he told me that it's really nice to try and to go in the desert and to stay a couple of days there, and it's a really nice experience.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He came and he loved it.
Mr. LAURENT: Yeah, I like to use this plant, like open my mind to the nature. The best way to use it is to go alone and to walk and to see the nature. So there, we eat it, and then I went in the desert. And I walked hours and hours and hours and I lost myself, and it was really incredible. Really, like you can feel the place in another way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he says he'll tell his friends that it is worth doing.
Even though there is peyote from the southern United States to central Mexico, the desert area near Real de Catorce is the most important for the sacred rites of the Huichol Indians, who are animists.
Local academics say disappearing peyote affects not only biodiversity but also their rites. Several times a year, the Huichol make a pilgrimage on foot from their communities in the neighboring states to this area. On the journey in specific places their shamans consume peyote. In their cosmology, the peyote is used to communicate with their gods.
It has been harder and harder for them to find their peyote along the way, so the Huichol asked the Mexican government to designate their route a protected area.
Mr. PEDRO MEDELLIN: If peyote disappears, their whole culture disappears.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Pedro Medellin is one of the lead investigators for the government study on the peyote population in the Huichol sacred areas.
Medellin says that the 40,000 strong Huichol community is one of the most important indigenous groups in Mexico. And the government is coming up with a plan to preserve the peyote along their route.
Mr. MEDELLIN: And so I do believe that there will be several problems with conserving peyote if we don't act.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: For now, though, tomato farmers, drug harvesters who make mescaline, and drug tourists are encroaching on the area.
Mr. ANDRES CARRILLO: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back in Real de Catorce, Andres Carrillo speaks to his wife in his native Huichol tongue. He is a shaman and an artist who uses string and beads to depict the visions given to him by the peyote. The colors in his artwork are electric - purple, green, orange. A cartoon, crazy world. He says peyote has taught him everything he knows.
Mr. CARRILLO: (Through translator) The peyote has taught me how to heal people, to get to know the properties of medicinal plants. And it has taught me how to be an artisan. That's where it came from. My father was not an artisan and the peyote taught me that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He doesn't read and he doesn't write. He only recently learned Spanish. It is the peyote, he says, that bestows the most important knowledge. How will our young people learn if the peyote ends? He says. This is how we learn and how we are taught.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Real de Catorce, Mexico.
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