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Kambo: From the Forests of Acre to the Urban Centers1
by Edilene Coffaci de Lima and Beatriz Caiuby Labate2
v 2.0 - May 31, 2012
Originally published in Povos indígenas no Brasil: 2001/2005 [Indigenous Peoples in Brazil 2001/2005]
Citation:   Lima EC, Labate BC. "Kambo: From the Forests of Acre to the Urban Centers" Erowid.org. May 31, 2012. Erowid.org/animals/phyllomedusa/phyllomedusa_article2.shtml
The original version of this text appeared as an entry about the Katukina in an encyclopedia of indigenous groups.
In recent years, the use of the secretion of the sapo-verde (Phyllomedusa bicolor; giant leaf frog) known as kambo, kampo, or kampu3 has reached the large urban centers of Brazil and acquired new meanings. The Katukina people, the subject of a number of news reports, have actively begun to give lectures on kambo and apply it at shamanism congresses and alternative therapy clinics. They have become the main actors in the understanding of new ways of using this substance in cities, far from the towns and villages of Acre ['akri] in the Brazilian Amazon, where its original users and practitioners are based.

Today, rather than being seen as a substance capable of freeing men and women from negative conditions such as bad luck in hunting [...], kambo has helped the Katukina to positively affirm their ethnic identity.
Kambo has raised a dual interest in urban centers: firstly as a "scientific medicine", with its biochemical properties being extolled, as confirmed by a number of international attempts to patent the substance, and as a "medicine for the soul", valued for its "indigenous origin". The two alternatives follow parallel paths, and the choice of one of them does not cancel out the other; often quite the opposite. For example, in neo-shamanic circuits, a specific part of the New Age movement, certain types of therapy seem to have gained more success when they have a "seal of indigenous origin". This has certainly been the case for kambo.

The main person responsible for disseminating kambo in urban settings was, apparently, the rubber tapper Francisco Gomes, who died in 2001. Gomes lived in a rubber camp among the Katukina people on the Liberdade River in Acre during the 1960s. Outside Acre, many people began experimenting with or regularly using the secretion of the sapo-verde, especially in alternative therapy clinics, during shamanic meetings, and in the context of the Brazilian ayahuasca religions. Through the spread of holistic practitioners and adherents and former adherents of these religions, in particular the União do Vegetal and Santo Daime, kambo quickly spread to areas where, until recently, it would not be expected to make inroads. Today, it is not difficult to find kambo therapists in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Brasília, and Curitiba. These cities are periodically visited by both ex-rubber tappers and Indians, especially the Katukina and Kaxinawá, who make the trek in order to apply kambo secretions.

While all this publicity and scientific interest in kambo has resulted in some distrust (after all, suspicions of biopiracy thrive in Amazonia), it has raised kambo to the state of special "diacritic sign" among the Katukina. Today, rather than being seen as a substance capable of freeing men and women from negative conditions such as bad luck in hunting ("panema" or, in the Katukina language, "yupa"), ailments, or various "weaknesses" (read as "laziness", "tíkish"), kambo has helped the Katukina to positively affirm their ethnic identity. This was clearly demonstrated in the filming of a documentary about the Katukina in 2005. The film, Noke Haweti: Quem somos e o que fazemos [Noke Hawati: Who We Are and What We Do], was produced by Nicole Algranti in partnership with AKAC (Katukina Association of Campinas) and released in 2005.4

In one scene from the film, this "ancient practice" is recorded for posterity when several young men are given an application of kambo. They receive the secretion from the hands of old hunters, who rub it directly on each of the small burns made on the skin with a smoldering piece of the titica vine (Heteropsis flexuosa). Some Katukina men have more than 120 "points" on the arms and chest, showing great courage to endure the pain and discomfort, and thus demonstrating their virility.

Kambo has given the Katukina a more prominent presence in the disputed area of indigenous policy and politics in Acre. Compared to the Ashaninka, with their strong presence in the Upper Juruá, and the more numerous and influential Kaxinawá, the Katukina have long occupied an underprivileged position in the indigenous politics of Acre. Now they have the possibility of reversing this situation.5

The management of kambo as an ethnic symbol by the Katukina can be seen in the fact that a drawing of the sapo-verde was recently incorporated into the AKAC logo. And, after recording the songs for their CD, Txiriti Katukina,6 in July 2005, one of the tribe's leaders decided that the collection would begin with an old man imitating the sound of two types of kambo. In addition, the CD's first song describes the luck brought by the green frog, with the chorus insistently repeating its vernacular name. By such actions the Katukina have affirmed their interest in keeping kambo strictly, if not exclusively, associated with the group.

But despite accusations by leaders of other indigenous groups, the Katukina do not exercise a symbolic, official or empirical monopoly on the application of kambo. Besides the Katukina, there are Indians from other ethnic groups in Acre, like the Kaxinawá, who sometimes apply kambo to residents of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba and Brasília. The family of Francisco Gomes and other rubber tappers, often working with urban therapists, also apply the secretion in various cities. And, there is the use and spread of kambo by the ayahuasca religions, both within and outside of Brazil.

The main urban partner of the Katukina, Sônia Valença de Menezes, who for some time has called herself a floral therapist, acupuncturist and representative of AKAC in São Paulo, argues that this group is the main or perhaps the "real" keeper of knowledge on kambo. Until the end of 2005, the Katukina counted on de Menezes's support for lectures, consultations and sessions where the secretion was applied. In a March 2005 talk given at the First Brazilian Meeting on Shamanism by de Menezes and Ni'i, the son of a Katukina rezador (prayer leader), de Menezes spoke on the uses that the Katukina and other indigenous groups in the Juruá Valley make of kambo: "Although all ethnic groups who live there are aware of this remedy, the Katukina are considered its custodians because they take a lot of it... they are always taking it ... all their lives, their joy, their health comes from a frog."

Given the interest among the non-Indian population, in April 2003, the Katukina sent a letter to Minister Marina Silva requesting that the Ministry of Environment coordinate a study on Phyllomedusa bicolor. The minister accepted the request, and a study involving anthropologists, molecular biologists, doctors, herpetologists, and other experts was launched. The expectation is that such studies may help to regulate the use of kambo by non-Indians as well as provide economic benefits to its traditional users. In addition to the Katukina, it is anticipated that the Ministry of the Environment project will also be developed among the Yawanawá and Kaxinawá.7

The urban success of kambo has led other indigenous groups in Acre to once again, after many decades, begin to use the secretion. This is what has happened, for example, with the Poyanawa and the Nukini, as a Nukini leader told us in January 2005. We also learned that the son of a rubber tapper has spread the use of kambo not only in the south and southeast of Brazil, but also in northeastern Brazil: kambo sessions have taken place among the Fulniô Indians of Pernambuco.

Whether kambo is an "Indian thing" or part of the "culture of the Indians", as many of Acre's Indians now insist, it is clear that the understanding of what is "Indian culture" has reached a much larger area than one might have initially imagined. Elevated to an ethnic symbol, kambo has allowed the Katukina to forge new paths, this time in relation to other indigenous peoples of Acre.

Notes #
  1. Translation from the original: Lima EC, Labate BC. "Das Florestas Acreanas aos Grandes Centros Urbanos". In: Ricardo CA, Ricardo F (Eds). Povos indígenas no Brasil: 2001/2005 [Indigenous Peoples in Brazil 2001/2005]. São Paulo, Brazil: Instituto Socioambiental. 2006. 590-1.
  2. Anthropology Professor at the Federal University of Parana (UFPR) and Research Associate at the Institute of Medical Psychology, Heidelberg University (bialabate.net), respectively.
  3. Sapo-verde is Portuguese for "green frog"; a common name for Phyllomedusa bicolor in English is giant leaf frog. Kampo is a Pano language word, kambo is the Portuguese variant. Other variants are mixtures of Portuguese and native languages, or just other local vernacular expressions. We chose to use kambo here, despite the fact that Katukina use kampo, because this is how the expression has become more widely known, including internationally. The term is used in reference to both the frog and to its secretions.
  4. Link: http://www.tabocafilmes.com.br/filmes_noke.htm
  5. Editorial note 2012: This possibility lasted several years, but has certainly by now been exhausted.
  6. Link: http://www.tabocafilmes.com.br/musica_cd_txiriti.htm
  7. Editorial note 2012: The project was completed in 2007-2008.
Revision History #
  • v 1.0 - 2006 - Lima & Labate - Original Portuguese text.
  • v 2.0 - May 31, 2012 - Lima & Labate - Translated for Erowid.org, with Notes and minor updates.