Misak people live in Cauca province southwest of Colombia, specifically at Guambia reserve in Silvia municipality. However, land is scarce because their population is growing, forcing them to move to other provinces such as Cundinamarca, Valle del Cauca, Huila, Putumayo, Caquetá, and Meta.
According to 2018 data from the National Department of Statistics (DANE), there are about 21,703 Misak in Colombia. Most of them live at Guambia reserve, a collective property of Misak people in Silvia, about 2.5 hours from Popayan, the capital of Cauca.
Misak people are one of more than a hundred indigenous communities in Colombia, known not just for their agricultural practices, but recently also because they led the dismantling of the conqueror’s monuments during the ongoing strike as a way to vindicate their own historic memory.
Walking in their territory of Guambia reserve, which is surrounded by mountains, you can see diverse crops by the side of the road. Generation after generation, the Misak people maintain an ancestral practice known as yatul: A family orchard around the house. The yatul is made up of combined crops such as potato, corn, beans and onion, among other medicinal plants, whose nutrients complement each other and keep the people and the land healthy.
As they learned from their elders, preserving these yatules is paramount to the Misak peoples’ survival since these provide them food for the family and they can also exchange its produce with their neighbors. Through seed planting and tending, this practice requires being respectful of the land, following earth cycles and moon phases and considering the altitude of their farms.
Teaching through practice
Standing on the land of her parents, Mama Cecilia Tombé, a middle-aged Misak leader states that their connection with Mother Earth starts from their mother's womb. Growing up, parents teach children how to take care of the land and milking cows. Remembering ancestral ways and prevents mother earth from getting sick. Tombé explained: “We couldn´t walk on the land while menstruating. This was serious because even if it is a signal of life, it is also something dirty that women expel. Mother Earth is healthy. It has a spirit, we shouldn´t mess it up."
Yatul and fire are essential in Misak life. Around the fire, the mother, father and children have a "words circle" at sunset; it is the moment of the day when they have supper, talk about their activities, and plan the next day of work at their yatul.
Maria Victoria Muelas, a member of the group Siembra, or seed time, emphasizes that each new family should take into consideration the yatul's location. It should be near the family kitchen, for example, because that is where they teach the younger generation how to cultivate the land and to love work.
Family orchards are not just found on the countryside at Guambia reserve. They exist also in the urban area in Silvia municipality. In the yard of her home, María Antonia Muelas has a small yatul. She uses eggshells and plantains to make organic compost to fertilize the soil.
María Antonia lives with her daughter Mama Adriana Velasco, a traditional doctor, or medica tradicional. Velasco's father was a well-known traditional doctor among the Misak. At the age of 23, she follows in his footsteps, overcoming the barriers that prevented women in the past from becoming whatever they wanted.
At first, it was not easy, but now she is respected by her community, she says.
“Now, we are rethinking women's strength. Women are occupying spaces and recognizing [ourselves] as holders of wisdom. This is good because it strengthens the idea, among people, that women could be traditional doctors too,” insists Adriana.
She uses seeds, cultivated by her mother, to cure people who ask for help when they feel sick and disharmonized. A succulent (Echeveria elegans) is used to reduce fever; the pansy (Viola tricolor var. hortensis) helps students keep their minds sharp and avoid confusion; avocado seeds cure insomnia, and an infusion of arrayan (Myrcia popayanensis) helps with throat pain. Misak people of Guambia have choices to be healthy. They can opt for traditional medicine or western medicine, both provided through the nearby Hospital Mama Dominga.
The hospital is managed by Mama Ascensión, who is also the coordinator of the health program. The program has a network of traditional doctors’ that people can access at the House of Nutrition and Health located at Sierra Morena Frailejón, a few kilometers from the urban area of Silvia where the hospital is located.
The traditional healers offer midwifery and alternative therapies, helping to bring back equilibrium to minds and bodies. Ascensión said: “This is a family tradition. People rarely go to hospitals, they use plants and follow ancestral practices with their traditional doctor they trust, who prescribes harmonizations to live in equilibrium with the family, environment and community.”
Misak people consider all plants special, as medicine or food. Yatules are essential to their culture; these cannot disappear from their lives. Plants accompany them at all stages of life: before they are born, while they are growing and at death.
“A few hours before childbirth, women take plants to reduce the pain, after the birth they use them for the babies and mother’s bath; also, for women to recover and produce more breastmilk. Plants are utilized during the first menstrual period and at the time of death before the spirits return to the origin,” says María Victoria Muelas.
Mama Mercedes Tunubalá, the Mayor of Silvia, learned from her mother how to plant on and harvest produce from the land. During her tenure at local government, her purpose is to strengthen indigenous, and farmers’ economies based on the yatul, which helps families save 80% on the family food basket, she explains. Tunubalás administration strengthens this type of economy for indigenous peoples and farmers just by respecting their culture and traditions.
“Yatules are the strength of the Misak people because the relationship among family happens there. There are permanent practices of this community from each generation and young people practice at their family orchards besides other activities such as studying,” states Mama Mercedes Tunubalá.
For now, the indigenous economy remains different from the neoliberal one. “From our perspective, economy is conservation, not a market. We are always thinking about the environment, our relationship with nature spirits and respecting mother earth. Respect should apply at all stages of production,” says Tunubalá.
This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Spanish on 10 July 2021 in El Espectador and was republished in Servindi on 11 July and in English on 24 July in Global Voices.
Banner image: The Misak peoples' territory, Guambia reserve, is surrounded by mountains / Credit: J. Fernanda Sánchez Jaramillo.