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Amazon, Colombia

Colombia: Yanchama and the Guardians of the Forest

Jaime Parente is the curaca (leader) of San Pedro de los Lagos, a Ticuna Indigenous community located on the banks of the Yahuarcaca ravine, 15 kilometers from Leticia, the capital of the Amazonas department, in Colombia. Since the beginning of the 20th century, their ancestors have faced violence and the impacts of deforestation and extraction of wealth in the territory. This includes massacres in the Amazon jungle, where close to 100,000 Indigenous people lost their lives to the abuses of rubber businessmen. Despite this, Jaime has continued the legacy of his ancestors to protect and care for the jungle and its inhabitants.

Jaime carries with him the wisdom and experience he inherited from his father, grandfather Pedro—founder of the community, who died in 2021—and from his mother, grandmother Matilde—matriarch of the community and master weaver. Grandfather and grandmother passed down ancestral knowledge to their nine children, including how to care for the chagra.

“I had a very strong relationship with my grandparents, the talks and learning from my paternal and maternal grandparents were always present. I learned a lot about the jungle from them. I always learned by sharing with them, talking and listening. Since one is a baby, the mother takes him to the chagra, where he has his first encounter with the territory.”

Alexis Parente, Jaime's nephew and a young Indigenous man who works for conservation with a project called Semillas Ticuna in his community, tells me, “the initiative aims to keep alive the oral and written traditions of my culture, teaching the little ones the language and the ancestral stories. At the age of six or seven, I learned from my father and grandparents about tilling the land, the cultivation of cassava, pineapple. I learned the selection of seeds, how to take care of them and identify them. All this happens in the chagra. These lessons were the most important in my life.”

Indigenous person wearing a mask
Rituals are important to protect the territory / Credit: Ovidio González.

Matilde and Pedro taught their children and grandchildren about environmental conservation and culture. All her sons learned to take care of the chagra, work the land, identify the plants, plant them and take care of them. “The chagra is the place where one learns, it is one's first school,” says Jaime. Then comes the stories; the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. “Narration is a way of building meaning among the community and of creating identity and belonging with the culture, the community and with the territory that is cared for,” says Jaime.

“The chagra is my working land, and it was where my mom and dad taught me the most important things in life. And I also taught my children there,” Jaime tells me when we arrive, looking over an immense sour yucca crop and pineapple bushes.

Likewise, the women learned the art of weaving from their grandmothers and capture the stories of their ancestors in the fibers of yanchama, a natural fabric extracted from the bark of a tree that bears the same name, and which was used by ancestors for clothing. Jaime says, “The yanchama is a large tree that grows in highlands and the fabric for dresses and ceremonial objects were made from the bark in the past," adding that they still use it for the female initiation ritual.

The women weavers also use natural dyes found in jungle fruits, such as annatto, uito, saffron, and acerola, to draw the animals of their clans and their territory. “That's one's shirt,” grandfather Pedro told me about the yanchama when we talked before his death.

Photos of the landscape
Ticunas are connected to the territory / Credit: Ovidio González. 

“Indigenous communities are very fluid societies,” explains Germán Ochoa, professor and researcher at the National University of Colombia, pointing out that community members live in cities too. He adds that communities have long had respectful relationships with nature. “The chagras system, for a strategy of crop rotation," he says, where land is used in ways that give it time to fully recover.

The communities have coexisted in the territory and have learned for generations about this care in a very intuitive way, passing down knowledge for centuries.

The Ticuna Indigenous community keeps their links with the territory / Credit: Ovidio González. 

Jaime and the guardians of the forest

I walked with Jaime for many days through the jungle. In addition to his chagra, he showed me crowded roads and other sights. “30 years ago this was a pasture used to feed cattle; we have worked very hard to get them out and allow the jungle to heal,” Jaime says in a broken voice as we head towards the community. His voice trembles when he refers to the massacres his ancestors endured due to the violence of the rubber boom; the most famous is Casa Arana, a place of torture and genocide around the rubber trade that lasted until 1932 and killed 100,000 Indigenous people.

He explains that the community works together to protect the territory. Elders and community councils lead decisions, while youth, including those with university degrees who return to their communities, also contribute.

Alexis, Jaime's nephew, studied business administration at the National University of Colombia and is a researcher on issues related to Indigenous communities in the Amazon, especially environmental issues on the border with Brazil. He is a young Indigenous man in love with his territory, which he has learned about from his parents, grandparents and uncle, as well as from the academy.

“I believe that there are many ways to take care of the territory and two of them are political participation... and giving an opinion... because in the end—whether they want it or not—they must take into account the voices of the territories and communities. And the other is simply to teach all this knowledge that we have acquired,” he explains.

“Indigenous communities have the same place and many things in common such as crops and fields.... We must take care of it and make it look good, we live there and it is our home, it must be organized,” expresses Alexis.

Each of his words carries the legacy of his ancestors and he shares them with the youth. “The Semillas Ticuna project was born from the need for us as young people to strengthen a group of children through training, but where the teachers are our parents, our grandparents, all of whom we live with daily and with this strengthen the language.... If you don't know your language, you won't be able to understand and learn,” he explains. In their community, orality is key to transmitting the knowledge of the elders to the young ones and thus working together to take care of the territory.

Searching for the yanchama / Credit: Ovidio González. 

"It's going to stop raining," Jaime says when he hears the tinamou, known as panguana, sing. “When that bird sings, it means that the river stops rising,” he explains. From childhood they get to know the territory, the species, the uses of the land and its richness, and to keep the house clean, says Alexis. The men of the communities walk the deepest paths of the jungle. They know, for example, where to find the chambira leaves and the yanchama trees. Without their help, the women weavers wouldn't have the materials to weave. Everyone has their role in the community and relies on each other. From the youngest to the oldest, each does their bit to make it all work.

Yanchama weavers and makers

“Knitting is a way of writing, of thinking, of seeing and feeling the world. When you weave, you sow life, culture and everything we believe in as an Indigenous people,” says grandma Matilde, matriarch and master weaver of the community, in Ticuna.

In the communities of the Amazon Lakes, the women are weavers. Since they are little girls they use their imagination, creativity and skill in weaving. “When we weave, we draw and write about our territory and its nature, about the animals that inhabit it, about the mountains, the water sources, the chagra, the roads, the sun and the moon, and about ourselves,” says Deisy, Matilde's granddaughter. She is a young Ticuna woman who leads a group of weaving artisans in the community, along with her sister Marta and her cousin Alicia. They teach children and young people the art of weaving and pass on the teachings of their grandmother Matilde.

Weaving expresses the intimate relationship that artisans have with their territory, so it is an activity that must be carried out in total harmony with it. “To weave you have to have beautiful thoughts, tranquility and time. The stories, knowledge and advice of all my culture are put into the fabric. For example, waves that represent the water that is vital for the maguta people, or drawings of animals that represent our clans, the golden spiral that represents the sun, the plants of the jungle, the triangles that evoke the mountains and the seeds,” Deisy details as she makes cabuya with chambira leaves. “It's not just a hobby,” Martha points out. Weaving is one of the most important parts of the culture, as well as the center of Indigenous rituals that are still celebrated, such as pelazón.

women in hamacs
Weaving expresses the intimate relationship that women artisans have with their territory / Credit: Ovidio González. 

“When mom had her pelazón, they tore out all her hair, that's how she went from a girl to a woman,” Alicia explains as she knits. She translates what grandma Matilde says in Ticuna. Today the pelazón is still practiced, a ritual in which girls, when their first menstruation arrives, become women. Although the tradition is preserved, it has undergone drastic changes. “Karina, my uncle Jaime's daughter had her baldness and they left her all shaved,” Alicia explains between laughs. Grandma Matilde had her hair ripped out from the root, strand by strand, until she was completely bald. It is less less drastic now, as the girl's hair is cut with scissors instead.

The night of October 11 is approaching, the day of Karina's pelazón. A week before, her father goes into the jungle to look for the necessary supplies to make her wardrobe. Her aunts, Martha, Alicia and Deisy, in the company of grandmother Matilde, make her yanchama, or traditional Indigenous dress. He heads into the jungle, together with Elías—Jaime's nephew—in search of the yanchama and the chambira. The road is swampy as it rains a lot and the atmosphere is humid. Despite the fact that it is not sunny, sweat falls from their bodies.

The mosquitoes worsen as the path becomes narrower and the green of the jungle feels thicker and thicker. They only wear boots, shorts and T-shirts, and carry a machete to clear the way. The noises of the jungle are a beautiful combination of birds, reptiles and insects. In the virgin forest, the trees are so tall and the vegetation so thick that the sun only shines in small spots between the leaves—it seems like five in the afternoon but it's barely two. Jaime points with his machete to a thorny tree, with leaves like a palm tree. It is very tall but untouchable as each thorn measures about 10 centimeters. "That's the chambira palm. We're going to carefully remove a top," Jaime says as he approaches the tree. Sure enough, he skillfully reaches the leaves of the palm without hurting himself with the thorns. With these leaves, the women of the community will make cabuya and fabrics for Karina's pelazón.

Experiencing the 'pelazón' / Credit: Ovidio González. 

Further on, Jaime and Elías continue looking for the yanchama tree; they need a tree thick enough to be able to remove large pieces and make Karina's dress. “The yanchama bark is extracted from the tree with great care. With the machete I mark the square and with the tip I detach it from the trunk,” says Elias. Subsequently, it will be pounded with a mallet until its thickness is approximately 1 millimeter, at which point it will be dried in the sun and will be ready to cook and decorate in two days.

“The yanchama can only be taken out when there is a full moon,” Jaime says. “If you want the cloth to be white, you should only take it out on a full moon.” They explain that if it is extracted on days that do not have a full moon, the yanchama takes on an unwanted yellowish hue. The chambira leaves, for their part, must be washed and cut into very thin strands, to later dry in the sun for three days.

Once back in the community, Deisy explains the weaving: "When the thread is dry, two are taken, the end is joined, it is passed through the leg, up, down, and pulled; then tightened and start again. Up, down and press, that's how the cabuya comes out." Guarapo is prepared for the pelazón. The meat is prepared for dinner and the entire community gets ready to commemorate the occasion.

Community get-together / Credit: Ovidio González. 

Karina's yanchama costume is ready and decorated. Her crown has big blue macaw feathers and everything is ready for her to take the big step from girl to woman. The drums rumble and the sky is clear and starry. Songs in the Ticuna language take over the maloca and there is Karina, covered with a white sheet and enveloped in the power of this ritual. Her family accompanies her; they cut her hair with scissors and then go to the river to honor the Ticuna creator gods Ipi and Yoí.

The energy of his family, together with the songs, fill the space. It's easy to get lost in time. After the ceremony, Karina is now fully grown, ready to continue learning from her ancestors.

The forest under threat

In Colombia, more than 3 million hectares of forest have been deforested in the last 20 years, as evidenced by the Ministry of the Environment and the early warning reports issued by the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam).

During the first quarter of 2023, high deforestation continued to occur in the Amazon region, estimated at around 12,000 hectares. Although this estimated value is lower than that identified during the same periods of 2022 (50,000) and 2021 (48,500), it is very close to the 13,000 hectares lost in the fourth quarter of 2022.

“Praderization oriented towards land grabbing, unsustainable practices of extensive livestock farming, crops for illicit use, development of unplanned transportation infrastructure, illegal extraction of minerals, illegal logging of wood, and expansion of the agricultural frontier in areas that are not permitted, are the main causes of deforestation in the region,” says the Ideam early warning report.

Without the communication between institutions and communities, or Alexis's commitment to sow knowledge in ticuna seeds, or the skills that grandmother Matilde taught her daughters and granddaughters, or the passion that Deisy, Martha and Alicia put into weaving, or the skills of Jaime and Elías to collect these supplies and take care of the forest, the conservation of the forest in the southern Amazon region would not work out. It comes from collective work - a woven social and political fabric, or a domino effect. As a song by composer Nelson Osorio says: “Tree felled, it is water that is running out. Water that runs out is a cloud that does not come out. Cloud that does not come out, it is rain that does not fall. Rain that does not fall, is life that is not born".

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in a printed book on September 8, 2023. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Ticuna people have maintained a connection with their land for countless generations / Credit: Ovidio González.