The Indigenous Guard, a barrier against the coronavirus in Putumayo

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This story was made possible thanks to an alliance between El Espectador (national newspaper) and the organization Ambiente y Sociedad.

Since the pandemic arrived in Colombia, the Putumayo Indigenous Guard, defender of life and territory, has organized to stop the spread of the coronavirus in their communities. For months, they took care of their reserves and their elders (guardians of ancestral customs and knowledge), to prevent the threats of a completely unknown disease.

A few weeks ago, I was touring the reservations of various indigenous communities in Putumayo with a group of people from Bogotá. In the seven days of hiking, one of the things that impressed me the most was, the organization and the work of the Indigenous Guard. They were the first to arrive and the last to leave. They took care of everything. To take care of outsiders, protect the communities and the territory.

Seconds before falling to the ground, due to any bad footstep (because of the little experience in walking among mountains and jungle), the arm of one of them appeared to support us. They went ahead, fixing the way in difficult places, and the rear guards preventing someone from getting lost. They distributed water and food, took care of disinfection protocols, made sure of our well-being, helped us with extra luggage and, at some point in a river, they carried more than one who did not want to get their socks wet. They walked fast, but firmly, they knew their lands.

They said, since the Mocoa avalanche, caused by heavy rains and the overflowing of several rivers (between the night of March the 31st and the early morning of April the 1st, 2017), they had not had to massively call their members to a meeting in such short notice. “At that time we provided first aid, we took care of the rescue of bodies and the relocation of those who were at risk. Our headquarters became a temporary shelter, where we attended up to 800 affected people. Also in the winery to receive aid and donations, and in community kitchen”, recalls Luis Jansasoy, coordinator of los Cuidadores de la Madre Tierra (the Caregivers of Mother Earth), Indigenous Guard of the Putumayo department.

On March the 6th, 2020, when the first case of coronavirus in the country was confirmed, the urge for an immediate meeting came once again, but now upon the grounds of a completely unknown disease. They turned to their traditions, organization, discipline, resistance, and traditional medicine to deal with one of the strangest viruses that has ever hit the planet. With their cane, their scarf and new biosecurity accessories such as the mask, without waiting for the help promised by the national government to arrive (which they never saw), they decided to take their own means to protect themselves. “In addition to disaster prevention, we started to help prevent COVID-19 infections. We worked so that the virus did not enter our department and our communities so soon.” explains Jansasoy.

“We organize to protect the department. Not only the indigenous peoples, but all the people of the town and peasants, because we had always seen on the news that the pandemic was a very delicate matter, ”says Jaime Jojoa, governor of the Inga Calentura (indigenous reserve), in Puerto Guzmán region, who was supporting the process from the municipality of Villagarzón. Like them, thousands of indigenous guards from all over the country, from La Guajira to el Amazonas, stood in the front row to protect their territories day and night.

Between the Andes mountain range and the beginning of the Amazon rainforest is the Sibundoy Valley, the cultural capital of Putumayo, the cradle of the Inga and Kamëntsa indigenous peoples, and one of the border territories between the Amazon and the interior of the country. Getting there can be one of the most difficult feats, even for the most experienced drivers. The only possible path is through the “trampolín de la muerte” (springboard of death), one of the most dangerous roads in Colombia. Kilometers of curves in a trail only three meters wide, with rocks, abysses and dense fog, constant landslides and rains, through which vehicles, buses and trucks pass in both directions.

It is the only road that connects Nariño and Putumayo, and is necessary for supplying the two departments. Although it is a territory with difficult access, the coronavirus arrived there, better known as “bacna tsoca” by the Kamëntsa and Inga who, for millennia, have inhabited this territory.

“The bacna tsoca has been a huge challenge. Not only for our communities, but for the whole world ”, says Sirley Jacanamejoy, a Kamëntsa woman, and an indigenous Guard. “Having encountered her, such a great and dangerous disease, made us sit down and think about what we were going to do to mitigate, defend and take care of ourselves.” At the beginning of the pandemic, the Putumayo department had only 10 ICU (intensive care units) beds for more than 340,000 inhabitants.

“When the pandemic began, it appeared in all the news that a deadly virus had arrived that was going to destroy all communities. And, towards lower Putumayo, people came from Bogotá, Pitalito, Neiva, from all over,” says Luisa Chindoy, also Kamëntsa. “We looked at it as something terrifying within the territory, a threat that suddenly exploded and was so lethal that we began to wonder, what are we going to do? How are we going to work from the physical and the spiritual to face it?”

One of the first steps was to remember the path traveled by her ancestors. “Thanks to all the historical organizational process that our elders Ingas and Kamentsá have carried out, we have been able to organize ourselves here in the Sibundoy Valley,” says Sirley. “Our elders fought to defend this territory, they resisted evangelization and colonization, and all that makes us now want to follow those seeds that they have left to defend the land, life and existence of this territory,” she points out. “With several young people, mostly women, we decided to continue with this beautiful process of protecting, because we understood its importance. And when we saw the threat that suddenly took off and that could be so lethal for the community, we decided to start working from the spiritual side and in the streets”, adds Luisa Chindoy.

The next step was to control entry into their communities. Loaded with firewood, eucalyptus, medicinal plants, and accompanied by his wardrobe, his cane and his scarf; In addition to some elements of self-care and biosecurity, the Inyenëng Wasikamas (Kamëntsa and Inga indigenous guards) have been located, since March the 25th, 2020, in various control posts in their territory. The objective was to create protection cords that would allow them to safeguard the lives of those who lived in the Putumayo department.

They became volunteers day and night, for more than two months, at various checkpoints such as: El Cascajo (Upper Putumayo National Road), Chorlaví, Caquetá River Bridge, Santiago, International Bridge in Santana and Puerto Asís. There, they watched the entry and exit of vehicles, were in charge of disinfection and combined physical cleanings with some that they had practiced before (traditional spiritual cleanings with incense). They allowed entry only for vehicles that transported food, basic necessities and ambulances. They faced local, departmental and national governments because they understood that the fight against COVID-19, in a context like this, could only depend on themselves.

“Making the decision to go to the national highway was a very important experience, both for me and for all the women and colleagues who were there staying up all night, getting wet and learning. It was something to which we said: ‘let’s go out and do it’ because we were very concerned about the situation”. Sirley Jacanamejoy says. “It was a large number of trucks that were entering. Many people entered, because the territory was like a refuge. So we said: let’s stop this, up to here no one is going to pass ”. Adds Luisa Chindoy.

One of the young “Wasikama women” (indigenous guard), who supported these checkpoints for two months, was Sandra Tiandoy, from the Inga people. “At first we were very nervous to know that we could get it, and we did not know how people were going to react when they saw us there. It was a tough experience, but taking care of our grandparents, their stories, our communities and territory was what motivated us,” she says. “With another colleague we sometimes doubled shifts, we were day and night, and sometimes we endured cold, sun, rain … but we were always there supporting the process.”

Feeding, she says, was one of the most difficult things during the quarantines, not only for her community, but also for those who lived in the village. Therefore, as guards, they devised a “trueque por la vida” (barter for life) so that no one in the city or the countryside would go hungry. They took what they produced in the “chagras” (farmland) of their community and brought it to the town, where they exchanged it for basic-needs food such as: salt, Panela, oil or rice. They were divided into several groups and, while some were in charge of walking around the territory to collect food and medicine, others were teaching and giving information about Covid-19, and still others remained at the checkpoints.

“Our inspiration is mother earth,” says Luisa Chindoy. “She shelters us every day. She gives us water, oxygen, wind, heat, rain, food, everything. That´s who we are, life givers. ”, she insists.

In addition to physical resistance, spiritual strengthening was added, which has historically allowed them to overcome various threats. The “taitas” (the indian elders), wise and traditional doctors carried out spiritual “harmonizations”, as well as accompaniments at the control points “as a way to harmonize the spirit to resist and exist for millennia,” she points out. All of this allowed them to endure much longer than they had planned on the streets. They went for a week and stayed more than two months.

“I do believe that with the work that we did, the Putumayo department did not become infected so quickly. But when we left the checkpoints, and each one returned to their shelter because we did not receive the support we needed from the non-indigenous authorities, that was when the pandemic arrived in the capital of Putumayo, ”says Jaime Jojoy.

The stigmatization, the lack of recognition and the non-compliance by the Government with the security implements, led the group of young guardians to change the care strategy: the protection “minga”(consensus) would now be done from home, from the communities, and the border-control lines would be lifted. However, they make something clear: “We do not want this pandemic to allow other historical threats to advance while the elderly and the community are told: stay home, don’t go out, and take care of yourselves. We want to know what is happening with the territory, ” says Sirley. “Here there is still racism, here we still have to strengthen and unite our community, and in those challenges at the organizational level, and defending our autonomy as indigenous peoples, we will continue working from now on.”

The Indigenous Guard, which has cared with dignity for the territories of this country abandoned by the institutions, has become a protection system that is increasingly organized and to which more peoples are added. Women and men, young and old, respectful of their millenary tradition, who seek to promote their own justice and respect for their territory also join the cause.

“Little by little we have been multiplying,” says the coordinator of the Putumayo guard, Luis Jansasoy. “Today, as caregivers of mother earth, we already have a formation, a symbol, we carry a cane that is a symbol of life and millennial resistance.” “This guard that was born and that has begun to make a presence in the territory is very complete. Because we know about first aid, jungle rescue, water rescue, justice and self-government, and co-work with the councils, reservations and all communities, ”says guard Rusbel Falla.

For Vanessa Torres, deputy director of the NGO (non-governmental organization) Ambiente y Sociedad, “the indigenous guard has assumed the role of protection of ethical peoples and also of those who visit their territories, they have welcomed us with all the love and dignity that their baton of command gave them. Having the opportunity to share with a man or woman from the guard is synonymous for learning and security. ” she points out.

In the same way, she assures that those of us who live in the cities have the commitment to get closer to these forms of struggle that, although they were consolidated as a defense mechanism in the framework of the armed conflict, they represent the fight of the indigenous peoples of Colombia. “It is our responsibility to inform ourselves and support these defenders of the environment and life who travel the national territory with the wisdom that their peoples grant them,” she concludes.