Lately I have been sought by people interested in getting into the frog vaccine practice and wanting to know if it is legal. For newcomers to this subject, the Kambo or Kampum is a poison which is scraped from the hide of an Amazonian frog (Phyllomedusa Bicolor) which is then inoculated under a person’s skin to achieve astral cleansing and, according to some, of the body as well. The practice is becoming increasingly common, not only for those who seek the mysteries of the forest, but in urban centers as well. In Brasilia, Rio and São Paulo, it has been distributed quite often.

I made it a point to speak to people who had already tried it. They told me the experience was a good one. But the body does react. Swellings, nausea and giddiness. Throwing up is inevitable. But after that, one is expected to feel a comforting sensation. Some said they would be willing to do it again; others became regular users. However, when asked about the legal and environmental implications and possible health risks, no one had much to say in their replies.

I thought of undergoing the experience myself, for the sake of journalism. But my extreme fear for needles preceded my will. Actually, I get itchy even when I trim my fingernails. (The last time I donated some blood, it was so embarrassing the nurse counseled me not to come back). However, I did not find anyone to volunteer for this investigation. In Brasilia, I learned about a self-declared indigenous person from Mato Grosso that offers an application at R$ 100 a shot. In São Paulo, a person had one for R$ 50. (In Brasilia, even frog poison is overpriced).

On the internet, everything is recorded. One just has to carry out a search for “kambo” in Google and you will soon have a handful of videos of people defending its use, shamans scraping the frog, and kids injecting themselves with gusto. It is a curious thing, but Brazilian press looks down on the subject. I did not track any reporting worth this description made by national vehicles. On the Internet, I only found an article from the New York Times and a video from Reuters – both published a few years back.

Journalist Altino Machado off and on publishes something in his blog which he maintains from the city of Rio Branco, in Acre. He left a great deal of material on the Internet. That was the best information I could lay my hands on. A good example of this is an article by Leonardo Calderon, a professor of UFAC on the theme: Good Luck When Using Kambo.

Legality

In 2006, an ethnic group of the state of Acre, the Katukina indigenous people, in whose society the practice is encouraged, contacted the Ministry of the Environment demanding their share of the benefits by the widespread use of the frog vaccine in view of the Cartagena protocol.

From what I gathered, the Ministry assembled a workgroup, but did not go very much ahead. This was at the time when Marina Silva was in office. Braving the bureaucracy I went in to find exactly what was legal or illegal in the practice of Kambo. I sifted through several offices. The only regulation which directly addresses the issue is Resolution - RE no. 8/2004, from the National Agency for Sanitation Surveillance – Anvisa, who, in the name of a “precaution principle”, forbids advertising and selling this vaccine – as a medical product. The regulation also demanded that the website www.kambo.com.br had to be shut down, but the page is still available.

To this day, Anvisa hasn’t researched the substances that are present in that poison. This would have been the first step towards the regulation or not of its practice. From then onwards, other agencies would carry on the management part. At the National Agency on Drug Policies – Senad, I spoke to Wladimir de Andrade Spenpliuk – director of international affairs and strategic projects. The guy really knows the subject, but says the poison would only be of interest to them if Anvisa had detected any psychoactive principles. Wladmir even gave me some tips on an article about a person who died after having been inoculated by the so-called vaccine.

Environmental Law

The environmental legislation also offers little information in defense of the frog or its poison. But there are general rules. According to the Law of Environmental Crimes, wildlife capture is a crime. To tie up a frog and scrape its back can also be interpreted (in a discretionary manner by an inspecting officer) as maltreatment (Art. 32).

The problem is some of its partisans claim that it is actually an (animal?) extractivism practice, as is the case with forest fruits. This is a shaky argument at best, but a debate on such views is certainly prescribed. If the individual capturing the frog is an indigenous person, within his/her own land, then the law is there to support such a practice. This would be the most legally adequate way of doing it. Another environmental regulation that deals with the fauna is the IN 169/08 that establishes the rules for the handling of wildlife for research, commerce and breeding purposes. That is, for those who have the patience for such.

Biopiracy

Regulations on biopiracy state that, in order to extract the poison from the frog for scientific purposes, one must possess a Genetic Materials Transference Permit supplied by DPG/MMA – after an analysis of intentions.

Indeed, Brazil still lacks a proper law to address the issue. Today it only has the Provisional Measure (MP) # 2186 that regulates some of the items of the Convention on Biological Diversity, but fails to typify the exploitation of resources as a crime and neither does it punish its violators. In 2006, in the biopiracy CPI (Brazil´s Parliamentary Inquiry Commission), the practice of this frog vaccine was only mentioned in passing. Check out the report here.

In the field, inspectors suffer. It´s no easy task to separate bioprospection from direct, extractivism, in natura use. According to Roberta Grafe, environmental analyst of Brazil´s Environment and Renewable Resources Institute (Ibama) in the state of Acre that holds a doctor´s degree in Environmental Management, in the field, the loopholes in the law are an insurmountable problem. “If no one needs a permit to transport copaíba or to sell handicrafts, why would one need one to carry a pallet of kampum?” she asks.

Roberta is a specialist on the subject. She says that the issue that bothered the katukina people was the easy profit that the commercialization of kambo brought to third parties and not to them. She thinks that the katukina won´t have any trouble claiming the rights to their due share of the benefits. “Kambo is a type of traditional knowledge that is in the public domain. Many ethnic groups in Acre and from Amazonas use it. There´s the kulina and the huni kuin among others”, she ponders. “But a debate on this theme is long overdue”, she said.

Aside from Roberta, I also heard an environmental inspector who is a friend of mine and works in some part of eastern Amazon. As a user of this frog vaccine, he chose not to identify himself. An enthusiast actually, he is convinced that sooner or later everyone will be convinced of its medicinal value. Selfless, he avoids disturbing those who are into using it. “Even more so because we do not have the means to fight even those crimes which have been defined, so you can imagine what happens with those that have not been”, he counters.

Condescendingly, he said that the way to use the frog vaccine “without meeting any legal impediment” is to ask some indigenous person to administer it during some ritual in his native land and preferably, without any money involved. Hospitable, he said that the next time he came by he would make it point to introduce me to the frog and its venom. I thanked him for the invitation and replied that... I´d give it some serious thought.

For those who are eager to learn more about the laws on wildlife, I recommend braving this jungle of 38 rules, available at Ibama´s website (Then they say the forest is entangled!)

Learn more

Good Luck When Using Kambo, by Leonardo Calderon

Youtube videos on the subject:

Kambo
Reuteurs
Fernando Katikuna

Luiz da Motta é jornalista e educador ambiental. O foco de seu trabalho é a Amazônia, para onde já viajou diversas vezes, escrevendo para jornais da grande imprensa, investigando para o Greenpeace ou tentando criar canais de comunicação entre o Ministério do Meio Ambiente e a população da região.


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