Kaitlin Sullivan, The Guardian
28 January 2023 at 09:00:00
The world is waking up to the power of African medicine. Gabon’s sacred plant, Ibogaine, is increasingly in demand because of its powerful healing properties.
This is an extract from a report published in The Guardian.
On a rainy October night outside his home in Libreville, Gabon, Christophe Bibang explained how many Gabonese, especially those who practice Bwiti, are experiencing a shift in their relationship with iboga.
The slender yellow fruit is not an unfamiliar sight, even in the tropical city, where transplanting iboga starts into personal gardens is common practice; everyone has a different reason for making sure the iconically Gabonese plant is close to home, whether for its beauty or to reap the benefits of the root. Recently, more people are buying iboga root – either lengths of bark or in powdered form – in big cities for use in urban Bwiti temples.
“A real connoisseur would go to a village to get iboga, but you can buy iboga bark in markets in cities including Libreville,” Bibang, a 57-year-old gardener, said. If the bark snaps, it’s probably iboga. If it bends, it’s a potentially lethal fake. But when it’s purchased in powder form, it’s more difficult to tell.
Most iboga sold in the global market has been illegally exported from Gabon, according to Lee White, Gabon’s minister of water, forests, the sea, and environment. Authorities suspect it’s mostly poached by people coming in from neighboring countries and carried on fishing boats that get lost in the heavy sea traffic between Gabon, Cameroon and Nigeria.
A gram of raw iboga root sells for about $2,000 a kilogram. Medical-grade pure ibogaine, which is extracted from the root bark, costs as much as $150,000 a kilogram. It’s often sold on online marketplaces and through social media.
“Because it’s a sacred plant in Gabon, you shouldn’t even talk about selling it. For others it’s a drug, and then again, you shouldn’t be selling it because it’s a drug. But for others, it’s a commodity that’s a business opportunity,” said White, adding that the powdered iboga root is sometimes cut with bark from a plant called Rauvolfia vomitoria. In high doses, it’s toxic, and people who have purchased tainted iboga for use in Bwiti have died.
Deaths from tainted iboga have increased as global demand for ibogaine therapy put pressure on Gabon’s natural reserves. It’s also increased incentive for vendors to sell tainted or fake iboga in markets and abroad, according to Yann Guignon, founder of Blessings of the Forest. His non-profit helps communities throughout the interior of Gabon start iboga plantations and replant what has been poached from the wild. The hope is that the 12 communities cultivating high-value iboga will serve as a pilot program that would let the country explore how it can get involved in a regulated iboga industry, putting less pressure on wild plants.
“Everyone should have access to this medicine, but in a legal, sustainable and fair way. There is no problem with companies making money, but when they potentially generate huge profits while iboga is plundered from the public domain, that is a big problem,” he said.
Gabon was the first country to sign the Nagoya Protocol on genetic resources, largely to protect its Tabernanthe iboga. The agreement creates a framework in which companies that benefit from the genetic resources of another can ensure some of the profit goes to the communities from which that resource came from. But White worries that as research on ibogaine moves forward in different directions, Gabon will not be compensated for its contribution.
“The ultimate economic negative would be if someone does invent a drug that helps cure one of these horrible diseases and they make money and Gabon makes nothing,” White said. “We wouldn’t know about this plant had it not been for the Gabonese people.”
Gabonese officials plan to meet early this year to discuss how the country’s relationship with iboga – currently a protected plant – may change in the future. Bibang and others in his community are preparing to be part of a legal and sustainable global industry if laws that prohibit the plant’s export from Gabon are lifted.
On his plot of land outside the city, Bibang is cultivating 20 iboga plants. For now, he sells the plants to people who want to plant their own backyard iboga shrubs. But he also recognizes the global interest in iboga and what doors that could open for plant experts like him.
“It’s green gold. I want to make sure I know how to grow it,” he said.