It was 2013 when Sebastian Woodroffe decided to quit his job and leave his home in Canada to study plant medicine in Peru. A relative’s battle with alcoholism had inspired him to “fix the family’s spirit” and pursue a career as an addictions counselor, he said in a YouTube video.
Woodroffe, then a 36-year-old father of a 4-year-old boy, began raising money for an apprenticeship with traditional healers in the Amazon. He felt a responsibility to “support this culture and retain some of their treasure in me and my family, and share it with those that wish to learn,” he wrote on a fundraising page. He was particularly interested in experiencing ayahuasca, a sludgelike hallucinogenic potion used by indigenous shamans in spiritual exercises.
It’s not entirely clear what happened in the years that followed, or whether the Canadian tourist found the healing he was seeking in the Peruvian Amazon. But late last week, his name and face somehow landed on a wanted poster that accused him of killing a beloved shaman and indigenous activist in a remote rain forest in northeastern Peru.
Enraged members of the indigenous community appear to have taken matters into their own hands. Peruvian authorities say a mob of locals in the Amazonian region of Ucayali killed Woodroffe before burying him in a makeshift grave. Peru’s ombudsman described the killing as a “lynching.”
A gruesome cellphone video that emerged in local news outlets shows a man — later identified by officials as Woodroffe — being dragged through the mud by a cord wrapped around his neck. He moans and pleads for mercy before lying motionless in the dirt.
Police found the buried body and identified it as Woodroffe’s, Peru’s interior ministry said in a statement Saturday, vowing to aggressively investigate his killing and that of the shaman, Olivia Arévalo Lomas, a respected member of the Shipibo-Konibo tribe who was in her 80s.
Woodroffe’s body was buried less than a mile from Arévalo’s home, and an autopsy revealed that he died by strangulation after being beaten, Ricardo Palma Jimenez, the head of a group of prosecutors in Ucayali, told Reuters. His body has been taken to a morgue in the nearby town of Pucallpa, the interior ministry said.
“We want the people of the Amazon to know that there is justice,” Jimenez told a Peruvian TV news station, “but not justice by their own hands.”
The killing of Arévalo, a respected indigenous-rights activist, spurred outrage within her tribe and across Peru, particularly in light of many recent unsolved killings of environmental and human rights activists in the region. The Amazon was cited as one of the regions worldwide with the most killings of activists, particularly indigenous activists, according to a 2016 study by the environmental watchdog group Global Witness. These disputes often arise over mining, agribusiness, logging and dam projects.
Locals told an indigenous news outlet that witnesses saw Woodroffe shoot Arévalo multiple times after she sang an ikaro, or curing song. He then fled, local residents alleged, prompting Arévalo’s family members to post a “wanted” bulletin online and on Facebook, showing Woodroffe’s photo, identifying him by name and nationality, and offering a reward.
Between 2009 and 2011, Arévalo worked on ayahuasca “retreats” at a traditional healing center in Iquitos, Peru called Temple of the Way of Light, according to the business. She had been working with traditional plant medicine since the age of 15, and came from a long line of healers, the center wrote alongside a YouTube video that shows her singing one of her curing songs.
Ricardo Franco, Arévalo’s nephew, described her to a Peruvian TV station as “the mother that protects the Earth in the jungle” and “the most beloved woman” in the tribe.
Ayahuasca retreats have become immensely popular among foreign tourists. Each year, thousands of people travel to the Peruvian Amazon to experiment with the hallucinogenic brew, also known as yage and referred to by some locals as “the sacred vine of the soul.”
The potion contains dimethyltryptamine, a powerful hallucinogen that is legal in Peru only as part of spiritual exercises. Tourists from the United States, Australia, Canada and beyond flock to these jungle villages to participate in ayahuasca rituals in the hopes that the treatment might heal anything from depression to childhood trauma, The Washington Post reported in 2010. These retreats have created a booming tourism industry in the region.
But the growing number of tourists in the town has added to mounting frustrations that a double standard exists in the way indigenous people are treated in the criminal justice system, local residents told Peruvian news broadcasters.
“There is justice for those with money,” one local resident, Alder Rengifo Torres, told TV Peru.
“A foreigner can come and kill us, day after day, like dogs or cats, and nothing happens. The state does nothing,” one local woman was captured on television telling a Peruvian vice minister who visited the indigenous community over the weekend.
A Peruvian ombudsman wrote tweets condemning the killing of Arévalo, “a promoter of the cultural rights of the Shipibo-Conibo indigenous people.” He urged the government to protect indigenous people “in the face of an increase in illicit activities that put their lives at risk.”
But the ombudsman’s office also expressed its “resounding rejection of the lynching and murder of the alleged perpetrator” of Arévalo’s killing, adding: “We ask the authorities for an in-depth investigation.”
In his online fundraising campaign to study in Peru, Woodroffe spoke of wanting to make several trips to the Amazon to “keep learning, bringing them love and friendship, and building community.” He said he had already begun to learn Spanish but was “not yet adept enough to go without a translator there with me daily.”
“Acceptance of their wisdom’s potency will bring value to the Shipibo, who are under threat from modernization and industry, helping preserve their eroding perch in the Amazon,” Woodroffe wrote.
Reached by The Post, Woodroffe’s relative said his family declined to comment. His friend Yarrow Willard told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that Woodroffe grew up in the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island. He worked odd jobs in recent years and did some professional diving.
Willard said Woodroffe had become more distant after trying ayahuasca in Peru and came back “troubled” from his retreats there.
He described Woodroffe as a person “who likes to poke, and likes to test the boundaries of people’s beliefs, but is very much a gentle person underneath all that.” He found it hard to believe that his friend would ever be involved in a violent crime. “He had a beautiful spark to him that people respected and loved.”
“This man has never had a gun or talked about anything along that line,” Willard told the CBC. He suggested that Woodroffe may have become a scapegoat.
“We’ve just been in shock,” Willard said. “It just felt like a scam because there is no way this person is capable of that.”
Clarification: Olivia Arévalo Lomas had not worked at the Temple of the Way of Light since 2011.