Stopping the deforestation that is advancing over the La Asunción reservation, in the department of Guaviare, Colombia, is becoming increasingly urgent. Nancy del Pilar Padua Palacios, an Indigenous Tucano, has a solution: "It is the planting of ají (chilli), a product of our culture," says the 26-year-old leader, while she records yellow, green and red chilli peppers with her phone. These will later be dried to make tucupí, an Amazonian hot sauce that is produced in Guaviare.
The land, where Nancy and 146 other people from the Wanano, Tucano, Desano, Cubeo, Paeces and mestizo families live, has too many ‘open wounds’ from deforestation, which has been increasing for years. According to Nancy, 45% of the territory, a total of 300 hectares of the 702 hectares that make up the La Asunción reservation, have already been converted into pasture for cattle and monoculture plantations.
The reservation, 47.7 kilometers from San José del Guaviare, the capital of this department in the Amazon region, is surrounded by the Caño Grande, Caño Raya and Caño Platanales tributaries, where its inhabitants obtain water and fish.
Like other young people and children in La Asunción, Nancy knows she is inheriting a deforested territory that has been hit by many threats and pressures.
Her own relatives, who settled in the region in the 1960s, learned the cattle-ranching business, which today continues to expand rapidly in Guaviare, from foreign settlers. Cattle ranchers continually clear the jungle to expand pastures, destroying the natural habitat. There are also drug-trafficking networks, which are less discussed, but which contribute to the uncontrolled destruction of the jungle by encouraging the planting of coca crops.
According to the Deforestation Monitoring of the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) in 2019, 24,220 hectares were cleared in Guaviare. In Nancy’s municipality of El Retorno alone, 6,396 hectares were reported, making it the seventh most devastated municipality of forests in Colombia. These figures are in addition to the 3,119 hectares of coca plantations reported in the report of territories affected by illicit crops 2019 of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The deforestation choking the reservation has not only affected the Indigenous peoples, but also the fauna and flora. Irene Caicedo, the leader of the traditional authority of La Asunción, says that "all the little animals in the forest, such as birds and monkeys, no longer have anything to feed on and they come to the reserve, and they do us a lot of harm. You can't have a pineapple, a banana, because they eat them.” Irene adds that the game animals, birds and small mammals that the communities use to supplement their diet have decreased significantly.
But beyond the pressure on the forest, there is another environmental problem affecting their communities: the pollution of the Caño Platanales and Malagón rivers, caused by waste from cattle ranches and garbage from the inhabitants of El Retorno. "This is making water consumption dangerous for those living in the reserve," says Irene.
Sowing to survive
Fearing the loss of what little forest remains, Nancy took on the mission of recovering and protecting a territory that has belonged to Indigenous peoples since 1993, when the former Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (INCORA), through Resolution 073, created the reservation.
For three years now, together with 17 other young people, Nancy has been leading a community initiative to reforest the felled areas. "As our parents have already cut down the jungle, we are going to take advantage of the chagras (open spaces for planting) to grow chilli peppers and other plants (pineapple, yucca, lulo, chontaduro) that we use as food," she says.
In the view of the Tucano people, Indigenous women are considered "mothers of food". They are in charge of planting and harvesting the chagras, while the men take on hunting and other rituals.
With ancestral knowledge passed down from grandmothers, Nancy and the young people of La Asunción prepare the land of the chagra, where she plans to plant chilli peppers and sweet and hot yucca to produce tucupi, a spicy, sweet and sour, thick, dark brown sauce.
"We already have several recipes," says Nancy. The sauce is made from the juice of the yucca brava, which is boiled in water for several hours until it thickens. Sometimes ants, fish and bushmeat are added to the sauce. "It all depends on the Indigenous people who prepare it".
Tucupi can also be made with vinegar and salt. Nancy, with culinary precision, details the ingredients. "We add 20 milligrams of vinegar, 30 grams of salt, three grams of ground aji bell pepper, six grams of sweet cassava starch and 205 milliliters of lemon.
Another popular recipe is spicy chontaduro, a fruit abundant in the region. Its preparation consists of two phases. In the first, the chontaduro is cooked, peeled and ground in a special machine. Afterwards, it is strained to obtain chontaduro powder, which is then dried in a clay pot or in the open air on zinc tiles. The next phase is to strain the chontaduro powder again so that it is fine and can be packed in bags for six to eight months. After this time, Nancy explains, the preparation of the sauce can continue. "The chontaduro powder is put in water for an hour until it dissolves, then a little vinegar, lemon, salt, ground chilli bell pepper is added, and finally the product is ready to be sold".
These recipes, which Nancy proudly shares, are learnt under the guidance of not only the Indigenous grandmothers, but also wise men and traditional authorities. Producing them strengthens the young people’s leadership skills and their culture, as well as teaching them to defend their territory and the environment. The whole process is carried out with the objective of preventing young people from returning to cattle ranching.
An 'inherited' land
Nancy was born in the community of La Victoria, a non-municipalized area in Mirití-Paraná, in the southern Colombian department of Amazonas. In 2009, when she was 14 years old, the family moved to La Asunción, driven by necessity and in search of opportunities.
A young woman with black eyes, long straight hair, coppery skin and a robust complexion, Nancy embodies the physical traits of the Tucano lineage, a people native to the jungles of Vaupés, located between Colombia and Brazil. The Tucano or Dahséamahsá (‘Tucano people’ in their native language) are known for being gatherers or fishermen, who live in malocas (communal huts) and practice the culture of the Yuruparí, a traditional festival with sacred flutes where they represent their first ancestors.
"My uncles told us to come to La Asunción, because we no longer had the necessary things like soap, salt; all that was gone. We didn't receive any help either," recalls the leader.
When she arrived in Guaviare, Nancy was shocked to see that there were less trees than in La Victoria. "Everything was pasture, in quantity. There were cattle everywhere.”
Part of her struggle is to return to the roots of her ancestral culture, because she knows that her people are not traditionally cattle ranchers. They come from another, more sustainable tradition: fishing, planting yucca and sweet cassava, the chagra and hunting.
Nancy is clear that, little by little, her community must try to overcome the fact that cattle ranching has become its main economic option, as the reservation stated in its economic development plan. "Due to the settlement in an area that is purely livestock, we have land suitable for livestock with pastures, we have dedicated ourselves to this productive activity," reads one section of the document. Convinced that this cattle ranching is too aggressive for the environment, Nancy believes the alternative is to educate young people to return to planting and traditional cooking.
"For me, as an Indigenous person, as a woman, the territory is important ... because without forest, without nature, we do not have that good energy, that good communication with the beings around us,” she says.“It is very important to show the community that we must take care, that they do not cut down, that they do not destroy what little we have."
In addition to the advance of deforestation, a new threat to the survival of Indigenous peoples was introduced this year: COVID-19. Guaviare, which recorded only 73,000 inhabitants in the 2018 census, has already reported 2,032 positive cases and 37 deaths, as of January 12, 2021, according to reports from the National Institute of Health.
Irene says that local institutions and the Guaviare health secretariat have held COVID-19 prevention workshops. They have also provided everybody with biosafety elements such as mouth masks and hydroalcoholic gel. "They give us talks where they tell us that we have to take care of ourselves, that if we have any symptoms of COVID, we have to isolate ourselves and live away from family or friends, because it is always contagious," adds Irene.
To date, there have been no cases of infection of the new coronavirus in the La Asunción reservation. Nancy and Irene believe this is due to a prevention ritual performed by the spiritual authority of the community. "When the pandemic began, grandfather José made a protection with tar and tobacco around the maloca, then he made another protection," recalls Nancy.
For her, the survival of the Indigenous people is in the care of the great natural spaces such as the Chiribiquete, a large national park near the reservation, declared a Mixed (biological and cultural) World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2018, which is already beginning to be deforested. To protect the Chiribiquete is to protect the legacy of the ancestors, the habitat of biodiversity, as well as the seat of mythical places where, for many of these Amazonian Indigenous peoples, the world originated.
For Nancy, producing tucupi or fighting for the Chiribiquete is crucial – as is protecting the mother forest, which provides sustenance for the communities, as well as their own medicines and the connection with the spiritual world.
This story is part of our ‘Flares from the Amazon’ series, produced in the Amazon basin by DemocraciaAbierta. In Colombia, the intercultural team of Agenda Propia participated with the engagement of indigenous journalists. The series is supported by the Pulitzer Center's Amazon Rainforest Journalism Fund. We appreciate the testimonies and graphic material provided by members of the Achuar communities portrayed in this story, who remain isolated due to COVID-19.