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Healing with the Jajañ: A Wider Divide - Ancestrality vs. Coloniality

Read Part 1 of this two-part article here.

The difference between the Kamëntšá jajañ and the settler colonial monoculture systems, two diametrically opposed land use strategies, represents in miniature the broader ideological and philosophical conceptions of territory that underpin each.

The Kamëntšá conception of territory is, like the jajañ itself, relational and mutualistic; each aspect of the Kamëntšá lifeworld forms part of a continuous fabric from which no individual feature can be extracted in isolation. On the other hand, in the monoculture fields that now spread across the valley where once there were family plots containing dozens of different species, there is no relationality, no interdependence—only a flat homogeneity that poisons the earth, unravels cultural ties, and eventually succumbs to its own unsustainable nature.

The Kamëntšá understand, based on a knowledge system built up through the experience of millennia spent inhabiting their corner of the ecologically megadiverse Andes-Amazon Piedmont, that actions have consequences. For thousands of years, they and other Indigenous populations inhabited the relational fabric of their territories respectfully and sustainably. Only in the past several centuries, particularly since colonization and the advent of industrial capitalism with its all-consuming need to exploit the natural abundance of their ecosystems—what some term “natural resources,” as if ecosystems are merely reducible to their conceivable commercial uses—has nature’s delicate equilibrium been thrown out of balance.

The old Capuchin road along which missionaries and settlers once entered the Sibundoy Valley to strip the Kamëntšá of their culture and dispossess them of their land has long since been overtaken by the jungle—nature reclaims its own—but new roads, like the one locally known as the “Trampoline of Death” thanks to its towering death toll, continue to allow settlers, developers, and agents of the state to infiltrate and develop colonial and extractive projects on the territory that the Kamëntšá are fighting to reclaim. Now a new road project threatens the Kamëntšá: the San Francisco–Mocoa Bypass, an illegal yet rapidly advancing highway being built through both Kamëntšá territory and a designated ecological protected area.

Healing with the Jajañ: A Wider Divide - Ancestrality vs. Coloniality
Monoculture isn’t the only threat to traditional land use in the Sibundoy Valley. The mural on the side of this house reads, “No to mining in Putumayo,” referring to the multinational mining industry in this region of Colombia.

Kamëntšá activists and land defenders have made some important gains, but the struggle continues. As in all Indigenous communities in Colombia and beyond, fighting for environmental rights and social justice is a risky prospect; Colombia is among the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders, and several among the Kamëntšá have been assassinated in recent years. Building autonomy and safeguarding the future of their people is, like the insidious colonial project that the Kamëntšá are resisting, a continuous and iterative process.

Lessons from the Kamëntšá Land Struggle

This isn’t just a local problem unique to the Kamëntšá or the Sibundoy Valley. The same struggle plays out in vastly different contexts but in similar ways around the world. The battlefields differ, but the battlelines are the same. Everywhere the settler colonial project has not yet been carried out to its lethal conclusion, Indigenous peoples remain on the frontlines of the climate struggle.

Faced with a climate crisis partially caused and certainly exacerbated by the fundamentally unsustainable logics of monoculture and other profit-oriented land use practices, today’s environmentalists must consider how addressing these systems introduced and propagated by colonialism and capitalism requires paying heed and respect to Indigenous wisdom and ancestral forms of land management, which are often not only more ecologically sound but also offer additional solutions in terms of food sovereignty, traditional medicine, and spaces of cultural knowledge transmission.

In other words, environmentalists worldwide must not take systems like monoculture for granted but instead challenge those assumptions and take Indigenous knowledge more seriously.

Healing with the Jajañ: A Wider Divide - Ancestrality vs. Coloniality
The jajañ is a wellspring of medicinal plants, like those on display in this shaman’s shop.

So when the shamans tell me that “water is life,” referring to the páramos, alpine wetland ecosystems that provide the bulk of Colombia’s drinking water but which are rapidly degrading under climate change—recently escalated by the outbreak of wildfires across Colombia this January—or refer to the communal hearth as “Grandfather Fire,” I listen up. Because despite centuries of colonization and decades of territorial and cultural pillaging, these notions rich with meaning are as resilient and resonant among the Kamëntšá as ever. They embed them in the tsömbiach, the pictographic woven belts that can be read like books and which are wrapped around infants to impart to them the wisdom of their mothers and grandmothers. They put these notions into embodied practice in their daily work in the jajañ. They keep these notions, like all the collective knowledge and values of Kamëntšá cosmology, alive in their language—whose future is threatened by the linguistic hegemony of Spanish. Armed with the wisdom of their ancestors and the strength and resolve of their youth, the Kamëntšá confront contemporary challenges with hope.

Such hope is a powerful tool that we must all learn to wield. The Kamëntšá example of a profoundly relational existence suggests other possibilities for our own societies, a vibrant and viable alternative to our ways of being in the world, and a possible bridge over the deep divide that separates people from nature in globally mainstream societies built on the Western capitalist model. That divide has brought our species to the brink of environmental and social catastrophe on a global scale. Perhaps it will take the ideas of people like the Kamëntšá to rebirth a world more sensible, just, and sustainable than the one that is presently on its way out.

Read Part 1 of this two-part article here.



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