“El páramo es vida”: Lessons from the Kamëntsá Land Struggle

Serbal Vidrio #latin america #colombia #indigenous #territory #land #organizing

It was past midnight and a gentle rain pattered against the roof of the shaman’s house, where we sat conducting a whispered interview on a pile of blankets by the fireside. The red record button of my handheld recorder blinked in the darkness. I strained my ears to catch what Taita Antonio, a shaman, ex-political leader, and land defender of the Kamëntsá people of southwest Colombia, said next: “Our fight is for life and for water. The páramo is life.”

A wave of nausea and a bout of psychedelic visuals passed over me as the ayahuasca I had imbibed an hour before began to take effect. Still, I was determined to follow this thread. If I was in the Sibundoy Valley and among the Kamëntsá to investigate the social movement for territorial recuperation and autonomy currently underway in the community, I shouldn’t let a few mere hallucinations during a late-night curing ceremony distract me from my work. Especially important to understand, it seemed to me, was what Antonio was saying about the páramo, an alpine wetland ecosystem unique to the Andes of South America. Colombia sources most of its drinking water from its páramos, but they are increasingly under threat, especially in Indigenous territories like that of the Kamëntsá.

“Can you go into that a little more?” I asked as the walls began to wriggle with illusory snakes.

Taita Antonio, apparently unphased, though he had drunk more than me, continued. He spoke at length. The following is my transcription and translation of what he said, reproduced with permission.

The human body is 70% water. The páramo is so important in Colombia, as we have so many. The páramos are threatened by megamining in search of gold, also by monoculture to plant potatoes. As monoculture has invaded the páramos, the farmers have been burning them and all that.

Let me tell you, speaking ancestrally, ayahuasca has alerted us to the issue of water conservation. Ayahuasca is preventative, today it is inviting us to conserve nature. 15 years ago, I took the medicine and I had a profound vision in which ayahuasca told me that our water was going to run out. Now we’re seeing the symptoms that come when the water runs out, and it’s because of human intervention. Maybe the medicine is inviting us to return to nature, to conserve it.

Right now, we still have the means to restore health to the planet. Our páramos give us pure water, really pure, which you can drink with no problem. Do you know why? Because there, in the páramos, is a type of algae that works to filter the water. Studies have shown that inside those algae there is a type of herb. From this we understand that páramo water is very healthy. Sometimes we human beings haven’t understood that, thinking we’re above it all, but we have to realize that all the gold and minerals that we extract from the páramos will be no good at all if we don’t have water, and we’re contaminating the water with other types of chemicals.

The páramos are threatened by mineral extraction and then the water contaminants that end up there, like mercury, for example. And that’s a serious threat to our health. We’ve seen evidence from other places that, due to such pollution, people who drink that water are giving birth to deformed children. That worries us a lot and it’s our call to action to take care of the water, because in Colombia we drink about 3% of all water fit to drink. Imagine, for example, the Sumapaz Páramo, close to Bogotá, which gives water to the whole city, but only 10% is potable. All the rest, 90%, is contaminated. This is evidence of our poor integration. Capitalism, monoculture, a whole system which has taught us to pollute and not to have environmental consciousness with the planet.

Taita Antonio trailed off. The fire crackled, the rain pattered, and I tried not to surrender myself to another sudden wave of nausea. Soon, Antonio rose to attend to his patients, putting our interview on hold. The conversation continued off and on throughout the night and into the morning, though eventually I put away my recorder and gave in to the effects of the spirit vine.

Later, mulling over Taita Antonio’s words, I realized that despite the problems he identifies, which are both pressing and depressing, a sense of optimism underscores his narrative. He rightly understands that the ongoing destruction of Colombia’s most ecologically important biome, which is only being hastened by global climate change, is a serious and potentially deadly problem. Still, he finds reason for hope that the destructive processes underway in the páramos can be reversed—that we can return to nature, choose to conserve rather than continue to degrade it, and restore health to the planet.

The successes of the social movement for territorial defense in the Kamëntsá community bear out this optimism. In 2016, the Kamëntsá succeeded in winning a major case that went to the Ministry of the Interior, settling a 316-year land dispute in their favor and formally restoring lands claimed by the Kamëntsá going back to the year 1700. However, this win comes after previous decisions in which the Colombian state settled disputes in favor of multinational mining companies by arguing that there were no Indigenous people on lands that, in fact, have always belonged to the Kamëntsá.

The Kamëntsá have not only taken their land disputes to the national government but have shown their opposition to development and extractive projects in their territory through acts of civil disobedience. A key example is the 2012 March for Life, Territory, Sovereignty, and Dignity, in which hundreds of Kamëntsá protestors, together with representatives of five other Indigenous communities in the region, marched for three days over the páramo to the regional capital city of Mocoa to demonstrate their opposition to a planned road project. The project was soon put on hold—indefinitely. Every time the state and development companies try to revive it, they face another wave of fierce opposition from Kamëntsá land defenders.

The importance of preserving and recuperating Kamëntsá culture for territorial defense should also not be understated. As my collaborators have explained to me, as long as the language lives, so does their thought system. And as long as their thought system is intact, the Kamëntsá will always love and defend their territory, which each member of the community is ritually bound to from birth. This understanding crystallized for me during another conversation with Taita Antonio, weeks after the ayahuasca ceremony at his house. As we walked along a mountain path over the beautiful and verdant Sibundoy Valley with the Territorial Guard, an autonomous and ethnically mixed Kamëntsá-Inga unit of land defenders who patrol the territory for trespassers and violators, Taita Antonio said to me:

Our territory has its soul, its life, its air, the same air that gives us life. We won’t let them take advantage and leave our territory without soul, without air. Why do we defend the territory? For those on the way, the children, the youth, all those still walking behind us. For them we defend the territory, so that one day they’ll have a place to say, “thanks to the elders, those who came before, for leaving us this territory.”