The coffee in Wuasikamas is drunk in a clay cup in the center of Bogota. But it comes from southern Colombia, from a town on the corner of three departments historically plagued by armed conflict and the scourge of drug trafficking: Nariño, Cauca and Putumayo. This coffee, one of the most exclusive in the country, was made with the Inga resistance, an indigenous reservation that saw blood spilt for poppy plantations, and to which the land made a “call” destroying half of their houses. That’s why they now grow coffee.
The 1990s came to the Inga with a rich red color, they thought at the time. And they went from being a small town of about 1,400 inhabitants to more than 30,000 in four years. The reason? The rise of heroin and morphine in the ruthless drug market. The mountain range was covered with poppy gardens. Gone are the crops of peas, potatoes, beans, maize, cane, granadilla. And the easiest money they could find arrived, accompanied by strangers, weapons and alcohol.
“In 1991 they started with 6 hectares located in the mountains, about 6 hours walking from the town. A year later there were already 200 hectares that were taken around the reservation. And in four years they increased to 1,000. We had 2,500 hectares of opium poppy, which could produce between 2 and 3 tons of heroin each week. The money also came in, up to 4 million dollars a week,” said taita Hernando Chindoy, leader and former governor Inga.
The buyers came from all over, from Medellín, from Cali, from La Guajira, from abroad. They did not know very well who they were, whether they were drug traffickers, guerrillas, paramilitaries, or none of the above. But what they did know for sure, Chindoy told Infobae in an interview at his Café Wuasikamas in the center of the capital, is that the illicit crops arrived with the armed organizations. And so did the pain.
By the end of the 1980s, the guerrillas of the M-19, the EPL and the ELN were in their territory. Everything was relatively calm until the 1990s when the FARC arrived to stay until 2002, and later the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). To these last two groups, the poppy growers had to pay a kind of tax for marketing the product. Even so, there was still enough to spend on liquor. After all, they were the country’s main poppy producers.
Every week between 1 and 4 people were killed. They were shot inside their own houses in front of their families, at the entrance to the school, on the church platforms, in the middle of the main square, day or night. The 48th front of the FARC did not allow the entrance of the institutions, that did not even exist before its arrival. The authorities stigmatized them as drug traffickers, and they ignored them, Chindoy said. The Bolívar Central Bloc of the AUC waged a war against the insurgency.
There were 6,090 victims registered during the armed conflict in the Nariñense municipality of El Tablón de Gómez, where the indigenous reservation is located, according to figures from the Single Registry of Victims. Chindoy, who is also president of the Tribunal of Indigenous Peoples and Authorities of southwestern Colombia, said that there were more than 120 Ingas, out of just 900 families.
“When the glyphosate fumigations began, all crops were lost, without distinction. There was no food to eat or buy. Add to that the displacements, the massacres, the bombings,” Chindoy said. After 10 years of war and mafia, the Inga culture was weak enough, in the minds of its inhabitants there were memories of bloody scenes in which they saw a family member, neighbor or friend die.
“Throughout history, indigenous peoples have received constant humiliation, which made people distrust their ancestral knowledge, and weakened the people in their spirituality. And in the face of such painful moments, there was no one to reflect on identity issues. In this way, we began to talk with the people to understand how their spirituality was supported and how they saw the world,” Chindoy said.
It was about a year and a half into those conversations. Through encounters with yagé, the sacred plant they use to connect with the earth, a millennial concoction of hallucinogenic plants that is part of their rituals. They began with a struggle to recover their culture materialized in their native language, Inga, and the traditional dress, a white set with a kind of black tunic down to the knees in men, and black skirt and white blouse in women.
The change would seem insignificant, but it was everything. That proved to the people that their culture was worth more than money. “If it was for money, we would have kept the poppy. The government proposed giving each grower some 500,000 pesos (160 dollars) per month to replace the illicit crop with a legal one. But people could make up to 3,000 dollars a week with the illicit crop. What would they prefer? The path was not for the money, but to preserve us as an ancestral population,” Chindoy explained.
The first thing they did was to recognize that their territory was sacred, it was their home, and they had to ask permission to enter. They began a struggle so that the 22,283 hectares where they lived would be titled as resguardo, and in 2003 the former Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Incora) established it as such. Now came the hardest part, convincing growers to voluntarily replace poppies with other legal products. Some opposed the initiative, but 90 percent of the people joined.
“We could feel sorry for ourselves that we are poor, that we don’t have how to get our products to the market, that the state abandoned us… but none of that justifies that we are accomplices to the death of other human beings by the consumption of heroin; and that this is the only way to make a difference.
They then organized mingas (a pre-Columbian tradition of voluntary community work) of between 200 and 300 people to uproot poppy crops with their own hands, no matter how many shots were thrown into the air by those who opposed the action, and between the cries of those who finished their own livelihoods. Not even the threats of guerrillas and paramilitaries mattered. They eliminated all opium poppy and thus became the first successful case of voluntary substitution of illicit crops in Colombia, which continues today, 15 years later.
The red flower was replaced by peas, which were sold in the Bogotá market between 2004 and 2006, tons of them after a 28-hour truck journey. Also for granadilla, avocado, fish and coffee. Without knowing it, the thermal soils of the mountain ranges on which their territory lies, which offer a climatic variety from temperate to moorland, allowed them to harvest one of the highest quality coffee beans in the country and, therefore, one of the most expensive. They learned that after visiting the country’s coffee belt and talking to experts. Thus, the grandparents’ 2 hectares became hundreds, with the capacity to produce 1,000 tons per year.
With the money given to them by the state, they made a collective fund and created an investment plan to divide it into the needs of the people. They built health centers, created their own IPS (Instituto Prestador de Salud), provided the schools, designed educational modules, financed housing and productive projects, and sent their young people to university. “The resguardo mobilizes some 4.5 billion pesos annually. Before, that was done in a month with poppy, but that didn’t mean an improvement in people’s quality of life. Now there is progress.
It was this model of collective will, in which they turned cultural identity into an economically sustainable strategy, that earned them the Equator Prize in 2015, awarded by the United Nations to 21 community-based initiatives around the world to highlight the struggle that combines poverty reduction, nature protection and strengthening resilience to climate change.
But the damage was already done.
The “call” of the earth
He armed conflict and drug trafficking introduced the Inga reservation into the list of 36 indigenous communities on the verge of physical and cultural extinction established by the Constitutional Court. The violence almost exterminated them. It could not, but the land was resentful, as the grandparents maintain. In 2015, at the height of the coffee boom for which foreigners from many countries came to Colombia in search of coffee, a crack began to divide the people in two.
A geological fault in nearby regions extended to their lands – without logical explanation of scientific studies – and began to crack the houses. The cracks in the walls of the houses suddenly appeared and have already knocked down 485, plus the school, the church and the government house. The crack in the ground, about a kilometre long, runs through the village on the main street.
“It is a dividing line between what stood and what collapsed. The grandparents say it is a call from the earth, because the earth speaks to us. We never asked her for permission to exploit her resources, we poisoned her soils with illicit crops and glyphosate. We say that the earth washes the blood and with it the anxieties. It has been a very hard call for the community,” Chindoy explained. After praying and asking for forgiveness, they are now trying to rebuild their shelter. And they do it with coffee.
Chindoy created an enterprise with the participation of families from several indigenous reservations in the Nariño region. He baptized it as Wuasikamas, an Inga word that in Spanish means ‘Guardians of the Land’. It is a small shop located in the center of Bogota that sells coffee of the Inga of Aponte, panela of the Awá of Tumaco and crafts of the Kofán and Nasa of Sucumbíos and of the Eperara of Tumaco. Forty percent of the profits go to rebuilding the town.
So they went from selling the coffee beans, one pound at 8.5 euros, to processing it to collect higher profits like those of their European buyers. The place was set up with financing from the Taiwanese government, this year they will start exporting it and are preparing to open a café in Madrid or Santiago de Chile. That’s why they have ambassadors to help them raise funds, such as Argentine singer Piero, who donated tickets for two concerts he organized last December in Colombia.
With wholesale sales and cafes in the world they hope to raise more and more money to rebuild the town that the land knocked them down for abusing it. And as they do so they avoid the death of their leaders, threatened by the Black Eagles, the dissidents of the FARC and the ELN for becoming Wuasikamas (Guardians of the Land), and reject the illegal mining that deforests their forests and the coca that makes their soils sterile.
In less than a year, 15 indigenous leaders have been assassinated in the south of the country, including the departments of Cauca, Putumayo and Nariño, according to the accounts of taita Hernando Chindoy. He himself is threatened, had already been held by the FARC and the AUC during the conflict, and in 2011 he suffered a shooting attack by hitmen. “But now we refuse to be imprisoned in our own home. The territory is ours and we must protect it, even with our lives. Because we already promised the land to be wuasikamas.