By Tracy L. Barnett and Hernán Vilchez

with production by Andrés Juajibioy in Sibundoy and Laura Gómez in Bogotá

Academic support from Álvaro Sepulveda from the Colombian Society of Ethnobiology

This story begins the transmedia series “Cosmology & Pandemic — What We Can Learn from Indigenous Responses to the Current Health Crisis,” produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, The One Foundation and SGE. Episode I: The Body as Territory begins the series with three stories from three different indigenous communities in Colombia. For more about this series, see cosmopandemic.esperanzaproject.com.

From the moment the Kamëntšá Biyá people of the Sibundoy Valley learned about the Covid-19 pandemic, they knew what their response would be: to close the entire territory to outside visitors. In so doing, physically, symbolically and spiritually, they would close the territory of the human body to the viral invader.

That’s because for the Kamëntšá, and many other indigenous communities, the separation between the human body and the territory that it inhabits is a contradiction. The interconnection of land, water, air, and living beings is intricate and profound, and no healing can occur without first acknowledging that relationship.

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“The territory is what allows life. So, if the territory is poorly conserved, in the future it will be difficult to preserve and protect life,” says Taita Ángel Pasuy Miticanoy, an architect, territorial planner and leader of the Kamëntšá community. “If the territory is healthy, we will be able to grow nutritious plants that help us strengthen our organism as a body, as people and as members of a community and a territory.”

The Kamëntšá-Biyá and their neighbors, the Ingas, inhabit a territory the Putumayo region that includes the Sibundoy Valley, a biocultural corridor that has long served as a crossroads connecting the Colombian Amazon with the high Andes. (Photo: The Esperanza Project – Cosmology & Pandemic)

For Pasuy, it is a reciprocal and synergistic relationship, and it works both ways: in healing the human body, the territory is also healed — and knowing, caring for and organizing the territory also provides well-being to individuals and human communities.

The Kamëntšá, whose territory is in the gateway to the Colombian Amazon, are far from alone in holding this concept. From the Misak in the Andes of the southeast to the Arhuacos in the high Sierra Nevada range of the north, the human body is its own territory, but one whose health is inextricably linked to that of the land it inhabits.

The knowledge that is still practiced in these ancient cultures emerges today as a key to help us explain the current pandemic, prevent imminent crises and prepare to navigate future uncertainties.

In this transmedia series, we will enter three very different emblematic indigenous communities in Colombia through the eyes of three different indigenous reporters — a journalist and two filmmakers— to tell their stories of community resilience.

The Kamëntšá Biyá: Land Use Planning in Defense of the Sacred

The Kamëntšá-Biyá and their neighbors, the Ingas, traditionally inhabited a vast area in the Putumayo region that includes the Sibundoy Valley, a biocultural corridor that has long served as a crossroads connecting the Colombian Amazon with the high Andes. But like most Indigenous peoples of the Americas, they have endured a five-century series of dispossessions that has left them with about 20 percent of their ancestral territory.

Now, faced with a multimodal transportation corridor that could open their sacred mountains and rivers to a multitude of extractive megaprojects with potentially devastating consequences, they are laying the groundwork for a legal fight.

“The territory is what allows life.” — Taita Ángel Pasuy Miticanoy, territorial land use planner and Kamëntšá leader (Photo: Esperanza Project – Cosmology & Pandemic)

Taita Angel Pasuy Miticanoy, architect, land use planning specialist and Kamëntšá leader, is one of the main land-use planners for the two communities. With hopes of heading off the worst of the impacts of the multimodal highway project, together they have managed to drive a fundamental shift in the management of their ancestral lands, starting with a process of territorial recognition in 2010 of 84,000 hectares divided into six indigenous resguardos, or reserves, that now officially belong to the Kamëntšá and Inga peoples.

That allows Pasuy and his colleagues to map out their territory and manage it according to their own cosmovision. The process reflects a radically different view of land use — one that is integrally connected with their view of public health.

Mapping the Spiritual Dimension

“The Western culture sees the territory as something very physical — a collection of objects to be taken advantage of for an individual benefit, to be converted into elements of capitalism,” said Pasuy. “But for our elders, it is a unity; it’s a home – where the natural and vital cycle of the life of living beings is recreated.”

Mountains, rivers, valleys, biodiversity — what Western observers consider natural resources — all have their own spiritual significance. But for the Kamëntšá, Tabanók, as they know their place of origin, has its own spiritual meaning, and each of these elements and actors has a specific and symbiotic function in the territory.

For the Kamëntšá, territorial planning must guarantee the conservation of the sacred sites where the water is born, and where the medicinal plants grow, which are vital to guarantee life.(Esperanza Project – Cosmology & Pandemic)

“If we affect something so primordial as the water; if we extract the most precious, which is what maintains the energetic balance – for example, the gold that is buried there – the elders say that the Mother Earth in some way is going to return to you the treatment you are giving her. So diseases are precisely answers from Her.”

That’s why, for Pasuy and the people he represents, territorial management is sacred work, encompassing not just a physical but also a spiritual dimension. The territory is home to an entire network of symbology and meaning that revolves around the sacred sites — the places that were identified by the ancestors as having special significance — that must be mapped out and given special protection, points on the ground that mark the water sources and the beginning of the hydrological network, source of the great rivers that feed the Amazon basin.

Places that give life to a unique diversity of native plants; true open-air pharmacies that can help the entire community — indeed, the entire world — to combat calamities such as Covid-19.

Threats on the horizon

Government recognition of the reserve is a great advance, but it is far from a guarantee that the land will be protected. Mining projects, hydroelectric dams and massive agroindustrial operations continue to threaten the region, with the Variante San Francisco – Mocoa being the most worrying for the Kamëntsá.

A fundamental highway for the international trade agreement known as the South American Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure, known more widely as IIRSA, by its Spanish acronym, the multimodal corridor was begun 10 years ago, before the territorial recognition was formalized in 2016. It would connect the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Tumaco, Colombia, to Belém do Pará, Brazil, a great open road that would run right through the heart of the Sibundoy Valley, causing incalculable socio-ecological impacts.

Kamëntšá woman in face mask and traditional poncho uses a popular form of local transport. (Esperanza Project/Cosmology & Pandemic)

While a transitable highway is badly needed in the region, the scope of the project goes far beyond what the Kamëntšá need, says Pasuy, and menaces the integrity of their territory, their communities and their ability to keep themselves healthy. Indeed, their elders believe that it is exactly this type of destructive land management that has brought on the current health crisis, climate change and other modern ills.

Paradoxically, the current pandemic has helped the Kamëntšá and many other indigenous communities throughout the continent to reactivate their traditional medical practices – in part because of the precariousness of the public health system throughout the region, but also because of their proven effectiveness in all the epidemics of which there is memory in the Valley.

“For us it generated a very good opportunity to investigate internally, to rescue medicinal plants that had been forgotten,” says Pasuy.

Those plants were an important part of the response in their community, he said, allowing traditional doctors to prevent suffering, psychological effects and even deaths.

“Something that was very interesting to me was that the bodies that were treated with medicinal plants, we know have responded better than those that were treated with Western medicine.”

The sacred yagé vines grows healthy in the jajañ of a Kamentsa healer (Esperanza Project/Cosmology & Pandemic)

Ancestral pharmacopoeias

A return to the plants and healing traditions with the onset of the pandemic is a trend that has been seen all over the region as indigenous peoples throughout the continent have gone back to the heritage pharmacopoeias they have developed over the millenia, drawing on the experience of previous epidemics such as smallpox and measles.

“It is time to use everything we have, what we are and with our own medicine, trying to avoid this disease and not go to hospitals, because there is a lot of mistrust … Many enter the hospital and they don’t return.” — Mama Hemerenciana, Kamentsá leader and healer (Esperanza Project/Cosmology & Pandemic)

As the Kamëntšá traditional authority Mama Emerenciana Chicunque declares,

“We have to use all that we have, all that we are, our own medicine… We have to prevent the illness and try to avoid hospitals.”

Dany Mahecha, a veteran Colombian anthropologist specialized in indigenous peoples and health, was impressed to see the quick action on the part of communities through the Amazon, where she works.

“People drew on their wealth of knowledge and gathered mallow, ginger, and turmeric that are used there on a daily basis, but everyone added eucalyptus to that.. with a clear dimension that it could prevent their disease,” she recalls. “People drank infusions of plant mixtures and made vaporizations with the eucalyptus — all of which have made a big difference.

“There is one thing that seems relevant to me: The people say that our (Western) medicine does not cure. It relieves, but it does not cure. That the origin of diseases is cured with the knowledge that they have.”

Taita Juan Mutumbajoy can spend hours describing the hundreds of medicines (and recipes to prepare them) that grow in his jajañ. (Esperanza Project/Cosmology & Pandemic)

Traditional Agriculture as Medicine

Likewise, the pandemic has served to reactivate another key element of territory: subsistence agriculture, which researchers are increasingly seeing as essential to food sovereignty and resilience in times of crisis. Medicinal plants are traditionally a part of that system, which is typically rich in agrodiversity.

The concept is the same for indigenous peoples everywhere: the chagra, the milpa, or for the Kamëntšá, the jajañ, is much more than a simple cornfield; it’s a complex and integral ecosystem and a sacred manifestation of the relationship between Mother Earth and humanity.

Like the milpa in Mesoamerica, the jajañ, or traditional Kamëntšá agricultural system, is an important source of medicine as well as food. (Esperanza Project/Cosmology & Pandemic)

Edgar Chicunque, artisan and leader of the Kamëntšá community, likens the contrast between the jajañ and a Western monoculture farm to the difference between indigenous and Western thought.

“If you enter a jajañ, you will find many elements. Even the little plant that we are walking on can be used to make different remedies that can help us to solve this disease that we are currently experiencing. But if we go to a monoculture beanfield, what do you suppose we will find? Just beans. You won’t find a plant that will help you…. And besides, they use herbicides.”

One must cultivate their thoughts in the same careful way that one cultivates the land, explains Chicunque: with mindfulness of the integrity of the whole, and the connection to the Mother Earth always present.

“That is why it is important that all indigenous and non-indigenous peoples also begin to cultivate our thinking and our words, and also the integrality of the jajañ,” says Chicunque. “We cannot separate the two things; jajañ and the word have to be embodied. So in a very respectful way, I invite you all not to dissociate ourselves from these two terms. And that is where we are really going to find a cure: in being united with Mother Earth.”

The jajañ is much more than a simple cornfield; it’s a complex and integral ecosystem and a sacred manifestation of the relationship between Mother Earth and humanity. (Esperanza Project/Cosmology & Pandemic)

These are among the opportunities also seen by scientists such as Rodrigo Botero, an expert in zootechnics and sustainable development, and who was the territorial director of Colombia’s National Parks for 10 years. Botero has insisted for years that the health of the territory must be seen as a factor in the symptoms of the human populations that inhabit them. If we continue to fail to make that connection, he said, we will have lost the lesson brought to us by the pandemic.

The reasons behind the health crisis are clear to Botero.

“It has happened in large areas of indigenous peoples who have lost their forms and customs… And unfortunately, this has generated a very high vulnerability of large population groups with cultural and territorial losses, with very high mortality and morbidity levels due to the Covid issue. “

Returning to the essence

To Pasuy, the healing goes both ways. The Kamëntšá concept of healing encompasses that idea: When the traditional doctor corrects an imbalance in a person, he or she is simultaneously working through that person to correct a corresponding imbalance in the territory, which is the origin of most disease, according to their cosmovision.

“The ultimate goal of all these traditional medicine treatments is to be able to heal the territory,” he says. “To be able to rebalance all the imbalances that have happened against Mother Earth is to return to the essence.”

Taita Juan Mutumbajoy leads collective ceremonies of yagé, or ayahuasca, for his community, helping them to harmonize their minds and spirits with each other and to achieve a balance of mind, body, spirit and the land that is their home. (Esperanza Project – Cosmology & Pandemic)

Many of the keys to these organizational procedures emerge in collective ceremonies of yagé, or ayahuasca — “the remedy”, as it is known in the Valley, a traditional decoction made from psychoactive native plants of the Amazonian jungles. Much in the way that a Kamëntšá shaman uses the medicine to diagnose his patients’ maladies, it has helped them to collectively understand the illness in a deeper way, and think together about the best ways to confront it.

“We are constantly carrying out rituals with yagé, precisely to harmonize the whole spiritual theme of balance with Mother Nature through the sacred plant,” Pasuy explains.

Pasuy, who in addition to being an academic and a leader in his community, is himself a Taita involved in the ceremonial work of his elders, and a veritable bridge between ways of understanding the world. When the pandemic arrived, he says, they turned to their medicine as they do with any challenge — and it has given them spiritual and psychological strength by helping them to return to their roots. The plant works, he explains,

“… to achieve a balance between man, nature and our spirits. I think that this is essential to the extent that it generates prevention against the disease and possible community imbalances…. to have a very healthy mind to be able to face all conditions.”

Yagé, or ayahuasca, is “essential to the extent that it generates prevention against disease and possible community imbalances…. to have a very healthy mind to be able to face all conditions.” — Taita Ángel Pasuy Miticanoy (Esperanza Project/Cosmology & Pandemic)

While the city may offer greater access to Western medicine, there is a lack of trust among indigenous patients and that mistrust is a risk factor in itself, he says.

“In the territory, we are more directly connected with our families, with our elders, with our own community. They generate a better confidence to face (the pandemic). In the context of our own traditional medicine, which for us generates a great sense of security, insofar as it can be consumed directly … We know that it has benefited many people and that fortunately they have been cured. And that is very important to have with traditional medicine, something that does not necessarily happen in the cities.

The most important lesson in all of this, he believes, is what the elders have said:

“In this time of fear, people began once again to give importance and meaning to the subject of traditional medicine as a tool,” said Pasuy. “In these difficult moments in our history, the pandemic has managed to get us to return to our traditional knowledge that we still retain, and to revalue it in a special way.”

In these times of fear, the Kamëntšá are turning to their elders — and to their ancient “remedy” of ayahuasca, or yagé — to reflect on the deeper meanings behind the pandemic, and to seek solutions. (Esperanza Project/Cosmology & Pandemic)