Published on
September 21, 2022

Miriam Volat | Director of the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund

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Miriam Volat
Miriam Volat, MS, serves as Co-Director with Cody Swift of the Riverstyx Foundation, Interim Executive Director of the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, Director of the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund, and she is on the Board of Directors of MAPS Public Benefit Corporation.
The RiverStyx team undertakes deeply engaged relational philanthropy supporting social justice; ethical and innovative integration of the psychedelic movement into broader society; addressing mental, spiritual, and ecological crises through biocultural responsibility; and respectful allyship with Indigenous traditional knowledge holders.
Miriam Volat works personally and professionally to promote health in all systems. Her background is as a complex systems-facilitator, soil scientist, educator, and community organizer. Her work aims to increase broad-based community and ecological resilience through supporting high leverage initiatives at the intersection of biological, socio-cultural, and psycho-spiritual diversity.

What is the Indigenous Medicine Conservation Fund and what does it hope to accomplish? 

The IMC Fund is addressing some of the most pressing ethical issues created by the psychedelic renaissance for Indigenous communities and ecosystems, while also defending from the impacts of extractive industries, climate change, destruction of Indigenous territories and armed conflict. The IMC Fund is working to ensure a future where Indigenous peoples, medicines, culture, and knowledge will thrive for generations to come.

How did you first become involved with the IMC and what sparked your interest in these medicines?

Beginning in 2016 we began supporting ceremonial leaders from the Native American Church and Azebenegaha of Dine Nation (Navajo Nation) in establishing a conservation strategy for Peyote medicine including the plant, the native territory, and traditional cultural knowledge. This has evolved into establishing a conservation organization - the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, that was formed to directly support Native Americans in their reconnection and their ability to ensure abundance of their medicine. In learning more about what it takes to do biocultural conservation and some of the pressures from not only land use, climate change, and extractive industry, but also from the psychedelic renaissance itself, it became clear that some of the strategies and issues around Peyote conservation were similar to those experienced by some of the other keystone medicine biocultures such as Ayahuasca, Mushroom, Iboga, and Toad. Through consultation with Indigenous leaders in these biocultures it became clear that a vehicle for trusted and high impact relationships between funders, activists, and traditional knowledge holders / Indigenous organizations would help ensure collective healing during the psychedelic renaissance rather than more problematic outcomes for traditional knowledge holding communities.

In this time of the 6th greatest extinction, climate issues, mental health and addiction crisis, supporting traditional knowledge holders and Indigenous communities in their biocultural conservation needs is one of the most high impact use of time, organizational efforts, and funding. I personally feel there is nothing more important to be getting right at this time. Imagine 75 years from now - if we could say this new health and healing effort not only did no harm to Indigenous communities and cultures, but helped to strengthen and ensure their future thriving.

What is a keystone medicine? 

A keystone medicine is an irreplaceable medicine central to traditional biocultures, meaning there is no substitute and it is an essential component of an ecology and culture.

Who have you been partnering with as you move forward with your fundraising efforts?

Partnering with RiverStyx Foundation and Dr. Bronner’s and several other key seed funders, has allowed us to create trust for other funders while allowing our strategies to be led by Indigenous conservationists. We have also established a project called “Grow Medicine” which not only shares the voice of Indigenous people with the general plant medicine community, but is also a vehicle for benefit sharing and raising funds. We continue to develop relationships with funders who can not only support financially, but also engage in right relationship and respect with these traditional knowledge holding communities. In 2022 we are looking to reach a goal of 20 million to support over 24 substantive projects over the next several years.

What are the biggest risks and challenges that these medicines face both in the preservation of their use and the cultures surrounding them?

The rising demand of keystone medicines has significantly impacted access to the medicines themselves, and the traditional cultures Indigenous people rely on. Indigenous keystone medicines, traditional cultures, and territories are at risk of cultural and physical extermination. To name two examples, Iboga in Gabon has become very difficult for local villagers to find in the wild compared to just 10 years ago. Iboga, as well as some of the other medicines has declined in populations due to overharvesting, poaching, and a lack of replanting and proper harvest techniques. This same story is true for Peyote and Toad. In the case of Ayahuasca, threats to the jungle environment and lack of land tenureship are problematic as is cultural appropriation.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the psychedelic industry and how would you like to see it grow and develop?

It is extremely important and exciting that we are looking to medicines that impact consciousness and health, and can address the epidemics of depression, addiction, and disconnection. However, in our learning and excitement of how these medicines can be integrated into mainstream society in a truly healing way, it is extremely important that we attend to the complex details of not causing more trauma and harm in the process. This means paying attention to not only our business models, patient access, and practitioner training, but also to unequivocally not undermine ecologically, culturally, financially, or spiritually the traditional knowledge holders who have utilized these medicines for their own community health for a millenia.
This means giving space for Indigenous voices, actually listening to them, and being willing to change behavior based on their needs. It means building in systems of benefit sharing, doing Indigenous led philanthropy, and erring on the side of caution when there is a potential for harming these biocultures, meaning the territories, communities, plants, and their ecosystems.

Do you feel that indigenous communities have been overlooked in the latest rush to commercialize and legalize these plants and substances? What could be done differently?

Yes. International human rights standards should be utilized such as Free, Prior and Informed Consent. Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) is a specific right that pertains to indigenous peoples and is recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). It allows them to give or withhold consent to a project that may affect them or their territories. Once they have given their consent, they can withdraw it at any stage. Furthermore, FPIC enables them to negotiate the conditions under which the project will be designed, implemented, monitored and evaluated.  This is also embedded within the universal right to self-determination.

What is the IMC’s view on novel, synthesized or lab-made substances? Can they help redirect attention away from the natural plants that they are often derived from and who should own the IP to those substances?

Each keystone medicine has a different ecological and cultural context so we look at synthesized or lab made substances as a conservation strategy differently. For example, when it comes to 5-MEO-DMT in Toad conservation, it’s clear that unless we want to see extinction and we want to respect the relationship to Indigneous communities and the Toad as part of their creation stories, we must utilize synthetic options. It is important that we consider different cultural views on these issues and not use a one size fits all approach to all of these medicines. In terms of intellectual property this is very complicated and essentially we should follow the Nagoya and biodiversity protocols of having some kind of a consent process and if companies are bypassing that process they should unequivocally be engaged in benefit sharing, and if they’re patenting a molecule that has association with a cultural lineage they should be consulting and sharing the benefit with that community. It is entirely appropriate for a company to either not patent in respect, or give ownership of the patents to those communities.

What would true benefit sharing and preservation look like?

Benefit sharing supports Indigenous rights and sovereignty, plant medicine conservation, biocultural diversity, and community health so these communities can thrive for generations to come. Through benefit sharing, we help to empower the psychedelic community to make choices that respect and honor the ecologies and cultures that make these medicine experiences available and possible.This is how we embody the practice of “Right Relationship.”

The psychedelic community should consider it a responsibility and an honor to ensure that traditional knowledge holding communities are supported for the future in the way that they want to be supported for perpetuity as a fundamental component of the psychedelic renaissance. At IMC fund we are committed to supporting the psychedelic ecosystem to make this a reality. 

What is the Grow Medicine platform and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

Grow medicine will be acting as the consumer-facing brand, putting the power in the “medicine users” hands to embody benefit sharing  and support plant medicine conservation through a donation-based website. In addition to acting as a fundraising platform for the medicine community, Grow medicine will also offer content to help educate medicine users about the importance of reciprocity, plant medicine consumption and conservation, and upholding the sovereignty of indigenous communities.

Who are a few individuals and organizations that are doing great work with psychedelics while being inclusive and respectful of indigenous communities?

Dr Bronners - the company, while supporting changes in research and changes in policy is also listening Native Americans and standing behind, allowing Peyote regulation and policy to be directed by Native Americans. Horizons conference has made a commitment over the last couple of years to center Indigenous voices in their educational platforms for the psychedelic community. Chacruna Institute has advanced justice as a value in the psychedelic community. Several funders have come in as substantive seed funders for the fund to ensure the psychedelic field supports rather than harms. More and more businesses such as Woven Science are including reciprocity or benefit sharing in their business models.