Interviewed by Bia Labate
Originally published in Portuguese in REVER – Revista de Estudos da Religião [Journal of Religious Studies] (2004)
Anthropologist Anthony Henman is one of those extreme characters who make us ask, “Why do I carry on with the life that I have?” He’s one of those hybrid people, whose cultural identity is imprecise, of the type who “goes a bit native” (despite his almost 1.90 meter height and pink skin). A mixture of Brazilian, English, and Argentinian, he divides his time between a cottage in Wales and a penthouse in the charming colonial neighborhood of Barranco in Lima, which serves as the basis for his trips to the interior of Peru in search of the San Pedro or wachuma (Echinopsis pachanoi = Trichocereus pachanoi) cactus.
Henman examining cactus.
Photo by Bia Labate
Born in 1949, Henman has been a pioneer of the sociological discussion on psychoactive drugs in Brazil. A former professor at the University of Campinas, he has edited two compilations and written three books and several articles on psychoactives. His best-known work is probably Mama Coca, published in London under a pseudonym in the late 1970s. This is one of the first contemporary academic written discussions to address the issue of the indigenous uses of coca leaf (Erythroxylum coca) and criticize the authoritarian and ethnocidal rhetoric contained within the political agenda of the so-called “war on drugs”. His curriculum vitae also includes research in Brazil on the use of diamba (Cannabis sativa) among the Tenetehara Indians of Maranhão, guaraná use among the Sateré-Maué, the União do Vegetal ayahuasca religion, and heroin and cocaine use in Europe and the United States, as well as an analysis of harm reduction policies (public strategies to reduce the problems caused by the consumption of psychoactive substances instead of demanding their complete ban).
Beneath disheveled gray hair, Henman unceremoniously declares that he has definitively abandoned the academy. Above all he is an empiricist; or, in other words, a lover of plants. His favorites are coca and San Pedro, which he lovingly grows in his magic garden and prepares using techniques he has invented himself. He usually consumes San Pedro solo, in addition to the coca leaves he chews daily, as is customary in various traditional populations. It would be difficult to detail his vast curriculum of psychedelic experiments, which includes a near-overdose on heroin when he was researching “junkies”.
The father of six children and the ex-husband of four women of various nationalities, Henman is a charismatic man who knew how to exchange the heavy taxes and European winters for the heat of the Peruvian cholitas [women]. He gave this interview during a visit to São Paulo in early 2004.
Bia Labate: What is the San Pedro cactus?
Anthony Henman: San Pedro includes several species of a genus that was formerly called Trichocereus and is now part of the Echinopsis genus. There are at least three main species: E. pachanoi is originally from Ecuador and northern Peru, extending to Huarás and Huánuco; E. peruviana [= T. peruvianus] begins in the department of Lima and is found up to Cuzco; E. lageniformis [= T. bridgesii] grows around Lake Titicaca and reaches La Paz. In southern Bolivia and northern Argentina there are another two or three species about which little is known. There are considerable differences between them: while some measure 5-6 meters, others never reach 1.5 meters; some have trunks 30 centimeters thick and others only 7 centimeters. There are species with four, five or even twelve segments or lateral divisions. The number of thorns also varies greatly. But all species contain the same psychoactive ingredient, mescaline, which appears in much the same concentration, about 0.12% of the fresh plant material. An active dose of mescaline is about 300 mg, so to have a good effect it is necessary to process 250 grams of the plant in its raw state.