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Healing with the Jajañ: Indigenous Polyculture as a Remedy to Colonial Monoculture

All photos courtesy of the author.

This is Part 1 of a two-part article. Read Part 2 here ((Coming Soon!)

A verdant basin nestled between the Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands of southwest Colombia, a battle is being waged.
The jajañ of Batá Magdalena, a master artisan and cultural guardian, on the outskirts of Sibundoy, Colombia.

A Relational Conception of Territory in Colombia’s Sibundoy Valley

On a cool August morning in 2022, fatigued and shaky after a long night’s ayahuasca ceremony, I slipped out into the shaman’s garden to meet the first light of dawn over the Uaman Luar, the “sacred place of origin” of the Kamëntšá people. As I watched the light of the sun which the residents of this valley once worshiped cascade over the eastern hills, draping in a golden mantle the north face of the Patascoy Volcano, I breathed in an air heavy with the humidity of an overnight rain and the morning dew.

As I stood unsteadily, mind still reeling from the visions of the night before, my eyes were drawn to two plants whose vines were growing together, intertwined, one wrapped in a corkscrew spiral around the other. The image of these two plants growing together in mutual harmony—a passion vine already bearing fruit and a Datura whose deadly but beautiful flowers were just coming into bloom—suggested the motif of weaving, a familiar practice among Kamëntšá artisans.

A verdant basin nestled between the Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands of southwest Colombia, a battle is being waged.
Passiflora, or passionflower, is a common edible and medicinal plant in the jajañ.

As the visions cleared and my anthropological perspective reasserted itself, I was suddenly struck by an ethnographic realization three months in the making. What if the territory itself is a kind of textile, where biology and culture are inextricably interwoven, just as the shaman’s garden is a nexus of mutually interdependent plants and insects which, in turn, depend on the care and cultivation of the gardener? Then a second understanding came to me: if the territory is a kind of network of interwoven and interdependent threads existing as a relational whole, then this delicate textile is at great risk of unraveling at the seams under the onslaught of a fundamentally different form of land management—one which doesn’t depend on relationality but instead seeks to erase it.

In the Sibundoy Valley, a verdant basin nestled between the Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands of southwest Colombia, a battle is being waged between two fundamentally incompatible land use practices—and the stakes are high. 

On the one hand, there is the ecologically and culturally destructive monoculture and livestock system of the settler communities who have made up the majority population of the valley since the mid-twentieth century. On the other is the ancestral and sustainable polyculture system of the valley’s Indigenous communities. That system is known as the jajañ, and despite its steady decline over recent decades, it may represent one part of a solution to the ills that monoculture has brought to the Sibundoy Valley and other colonized territories in Colombia and beyond.

A verdant basin nestled between the Andean highlands and Amazonian lowlands of southwest Colombia, a battle is being waged.
In addition to shamans, women are the traditional caretakers of the jajañ and the guardians of botanical knowledge. In this mural at a bilingual school in a Kamëntšá reservation, a respected herbalist stands against a stylized jajañ and motifs of weaving.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge Under Threat

The Sibundoy Valley is known for its biological and cultural diversity. Home to Andean and Amazonian flora and fauna alike, its Indigenous communities—the linguistically unique Kamëntšá and the Quechua-speaking Inga—also demonstrate cultural links to both Andean and Amazonian groups. No wonder, then, that for centuries the valley acted as a contact zone for plants and people moving up and down the Andes-Amazon Piedmont. Perhaps it’s that atmosphere of diversity and exchange that gave rise to the unique jajañ system of the Kamëntšá.

The jajañ is a garden containing edible, medicinal, and magical plants that traditionally surrounded each family’s residence and provided for their primary sustenance. Whereas large fields were held in common and used to cultivate staple crops such as maize and beans for the whole community, the jajañ provided food, medicine, and magical protection to each family. In this sense, the jajañ system as it formerly existed—in which every family kept and cultivated large, complex gardens with dozens of plant species whose interrelationships and properties were well known and accounted for—was and remains a vital repository of traditional ecological knowledge and integral to the dietary and medical wellbeing of the community.

The jajañ system has been in decline since at least the 1980s owing to the advent of monoculture as the predominant land use strategy in the Sibundoy Valley—a system introduced by and for the White and mestizo landowners who, by the end of the century, had succeeded in buying, swindling, and stealing the majority of the valley’s best land from its Indigenous inhabitants. Today, many in the Kamëntšá community lament the gradual disappearance of the jajañ system, which is now only preserved in its most traditional forms in the most distant of the valley’s outlying rural districts. Even in such cases, there exists a generational divide whereby elders tend to the jajañ, but without the assistance and involvement of younger people who once would have learned to cultivate their gardens by the example of the elders.

“For me, the jajañ is as the grandparents of my grandparents, the ancestral ones whom I knew, taught us,” said Taita Miguel, a Kamëntšá shaman I spoke with in his maloca, or ceremonial roundhouse, in a reservation outside Sibundoy. He continued:

From the jajañ comes every kind of medicine and every type of medicinal plant. It’s all there in the jajañ. There’s corn, beans, taro, squash, arracacha, cabbage, achira… Within the jajañ is the medicine that the elders, the ancestors, have taught us. That’s what we must conserve and care for. Unfortunately, the state itself has started polluting the air, trying to destroy everything that exists in the jajañ… We, as the caretakers of these territories where we live, try to care for it, and not to use herbicides, no… That does us harm. As landowners, as a community, we are struggling against the use of herbicides. Instead, we encourage using hand tools to work the land.

The herbicides that the shaman refers to are those of the monoculture system encroaching on the remaining jajañs of the Sibundoy Valley. This is the challenging situation facing those who continue to uphold and preserve the jajañ system. Many in the community seem resigned to the fate of the jajañ, sure that it is destined to give way to the monoculture systems that threaten it. However, the continued centrality of the jajañ within the Kamëntšá shamanic system suggests that there can be hope to the contrary. There are still those fighting to keep the knowledge alive, transmitting it to the next generation of Kamëntšá land defenders.

The example of young activists like Eisen Jacanamijoy, a musician and artisan whose uncle is one of the foremost shamans in the territory, bears out that optimism:

The jajañ is polyculture and it is without order, without structure. The jajañ is an equilibrium. There are medicinal plants, corn, minor species, even artisanry—everything comes together there. One plant cares for the next. If there is a medicinal plant somewhere, there must be another plant that protects against pests—unlike monoculture, which is with one plant at a large scale and using chemicals. That has affected things a lot because before monoculture, there were no pests here. Now pests have started coming for the medicinal plants. Even corn, which we cultivate for our subsistence, is attracting pests. It is very difficult to conserve because of what we said about monoculture. But I think there are ways to recuperate through the jajañ, the traditional practices we are implementing through collective work, supporting each other in the community, with the cabildo [Indigenous government council] or with landowners.

Something beautiful is the traditional seed bank, which we share. That’s what we do here. If I don’t have a plant, others will come and bring it, and we share and exchange among ourselves because that’s a form of recuperation. If I lose a plant in my garden, I can say, “No, I gave it to someone else, let’s exchange again and bring it back here.” It’s a big concern because the native seeds we used to have are being lost, the fruit trees are being lost. It is our duty to recuperate the territory through these practices, the practices we have been taught, the form of planting under a good moon, and also of cultivating under a good moon. That’s why the moon is our mother, the lunar cycles tell us when to cut and when to plant.

Even in medicine, they tell us what day to take medicine. Returning to these practices is our duty. In that sense, we are doing it here, and we are strengthening it more each day, learning with the elders.

For this young activist, recovering the jajañ is paramount to returning to a more just and sustainable land use system in his people’s homeland—for the jajañ represents not just a land use system, but an extension of a broader philosophical conception of territory that underpins the entirety of Kamëntšá culture and the people’s relationship to the land they inhabit. In this sense, the issue of the jajañ vs. the colonial monoculture system is a microcosm of a much greater ideological divide—one that must be bridged if places like the Sibundoy Valley are to remain territories of life. 

Read Part 2 of this two-part article here. (Coming soon!)



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