The voice of the Nasa people resonates in the Colombian Amazon

20/09/2017 D-Day +293


Kiwnas Cxhab Reservation


Puerto Asís



From the paramo’s lagoon emerged the son of Thunder and the stars. He, who was breastfed with blood from virgins and who, in the name of the Nasa people, faced successive invasions: from the Pijaos, the Guambianos and the Spaniards. After battling and delimiting the territory of its people, the son of Thunder disappeared, dissolving, once again, in the waters of the lagoon while a powerful voice resonated all around: “I never die, I never die.”

Before departing, Juan Tama, the son of Thunder, shared all his knowledge with the elders and taught them how to pass on their knowledge to the new generations of Nasa people. That was a long time ago. Since then, the sound of Thunder has been heard rumbling through the mountain range and the frailejons that guard the paramo like enormous soldiers. One day, the Thunder ended up in the Amazon, in the border of the mighty Putumayo River, far south from that sacred lagoon that gave birth to the legend. The Thunder resonates with force and, even though everyone in the community can hear it, only Misael, the Thê´ Wala, an expression in Nasayuwe that translates to something like the “The Great Man,” can understand it.

The Thunder came to the Thê´ Wala’s revealing and lucid dream for the first time a long time ago, back when he was still a kid and lived in Cauca, before his mother and brothers headed south, like so many others, to discover the jungles of Putumayo. That time, the Thunder was disguised as an old man. He approached from behind the hut walking heavily and carrying his jigra* filled with coca leaves. Misael had been chosen. The road that led him to search for the power and knowledge of father Thunder started then and there. He learned to distinguish plants, to read them, to see the harmony or absence thereof in people’s bodies and in that other body as well, that one which is formed by societies of men and women on Earth. He learned the correct way to perform rituals: rituals of refreshing, offerings, cleansing, those that serve to appease the volcano and bring about rain, those that preserve history and the power of culture.

Jigra: a traditional bag that the Nasa people knit with threads from fique plants.


The night has fallen in the indigenous reserve. In front of the fire that quivers in the maloca, the Thê´ Wala chews leaves of Esh –as they call the coca leaf in the Nasayuwe language—, the sacred leaf that for millennia has been a part of the lives of the people of the Andes and the Amazon

When all who are meant to be there are settled, the ritual begins. Before taking a handful of toasted leaves to his mouth, the Thê´ Wala “turns” them. This means taking the leaves in his hand in a series of twirls around his body, starting with his right foot, ascending towards his shoulder, then over his head and descending through his left side until he reaches that side’s foot. Only then does he put the leaves in his mouth. He chews them a few times. They start accruing in his inner cheek, as if he had a golf ball hidden inside. Now, with decisive movements, his hands turn his poporo  over the pocket formed by the base of his thumb and index fingers. Inside the calabash, the mambe, the powdered limestone that will be applied directly to the ball of coca leaves, moves around. The Thê´ Wala chews slowly and rhythmically. While he moves among his assistants, he extends in front of them some coca so that each one can repeat his movements. They receive the leaves in their left hands, “turn” them by making them travel from the right to the left side of their bodies, and put them in their mouths.

Everything is silent, someone says. That’s the way it should be to sense the signs. Inside their mouths, the mambe spills over the leaves. The ball becomes slightly sweet and there are some who become aware of a wound in the inner part of their lips. The features of those present can be seen in flashes. The bodies can be guessed at when a ray of light from a faraway lantern bounces against a Roman nose, the curved line of a shoulder, or a hand laden with coca leaves that hangs suspended in the air.

Poporo: a container fashioned out of the fruit of a dried calabash. The powdered limestone that is mixed with the coca leaves while they’re chewed is stored inside.

Before he became Thê´ Wala, Misael used to travel the roads of Cauca with his grandfather. They walked the old man’s properties on the skirts of the mountain, in the warm lands, and also further up, where the range caresses the clouds and the cold is king. Now, almost an old man, though vibrant and fibrous, he remembers himself in those days, small and silent, a tiny child sitting in front of the fire. In his memories, he shakes nonstop an object made from knitted fique, whose name he already forgot, to spark the fire. Over the tullpas, those round stones, there was always a ceramic pot where his grandfather cooked everything they ate. He never used salt because salt was bad for the body and it was hard to come by. When his grandfather died, his younger daughter remembered a traditional rule that said that, after death, the properties of the diseased belonged solely to the younger child. The rest had no claim whatsoever on the inheritance. That’s how Misael was left with nothing. No warm or cold land. Misael’s mother, along with five other children, headed south to those lands where, centuries before, his people lived and moved around with no frontiers except those imposed by other tribes.

–There were Nasas here already, so they brought us here and when we arrived we saw that it was very different, that it wasn’t what was there. Here, the land was better and food grew quicker. This land is to live lazily, because if I don’t want to plant cassava, I’ll just throw it there and it will grow and bear its fruits. If I look at a hole, I throw a green plantain plant there and grows and bears a bunch of plantains. That’s why we came and after us came more people, more Nasa, and, later, peasants. This was jungle, pure jungle!


In the half-light, those attending the ritual continue chewing the bitter, smoke-infused leaves. To the juicy ball that swells their cheek, they add herbs, flowers and seeds that come from the sacred lagoon, very far away from there. They take them out of the jigra delicately, with two fingers, and place them on their left hands. They “turn” them and put them in their mouths. An explosion of flavors, aromas that rise from their mouths to their noses, halos of something dense but subtle that starts rising to their head and falling to their stomachs dissolved in thick and charged saliva. The intense and titillating reds of the cigarettes move in silence, up and down, growing in a tower of ash that almost everyone tries to prevent from falling. After spilling some in the ground, a warm and corrosive spurt of firewater falls on the ball of coca leaves and herbs. It floods the mouth and then, slowly, with the soft movement of the jaw, fuses with the ball, which becomes malleable and moveable in the cheek.

The Thê´ Wala tells stories in a dialect that mixes Spanish and Nasayuwe, pasty and whispered stories told through green-stained teeth. He speaks of the old man who came to see him in Dreams: father Thunder. He mentions signs, says that with the “coquita” and the help of the rest he can see if the others, the foreigners, are sick, if they’ll be saved. He can see if they lie or if, on the contrary, they come with good intentions. Every so often they must come outside to receive the chonta * and the jigra, turn them and spit with force, towards “the house further up.” There are four houses in the Nasa universe, four “yat.” There is the house further up, where the supreme beings live; the house of spirits; our house, where there are wild territories inhabited by spiritual and powerful beings, and mild territories where the Nasa people live and farm; there is another house underground that can be accessed through caves and depressions.

Chonta, or command baton: an identity symbol of the Nasa people. It’s a wooden baton made of chonta wood.

To our house, to the house of the Nasa and other indigenous people of Putumayo, the rubber traders came first. Then the wood and fur traders, and those who came and keep on coming seeking oil. One day, the lands that saw Misael become a man received many colored coca seeds. And with coca came people.

–Here, in Putumayo, in 1980 or 1979, the coca started appearing. Before, there was coca, but only for the mambe. There was for that because the Nasa people, wherever they go, bring along their coquita to chew on. But then came the bonanza of the other coca, the coca to sell, and they planted hectares and hectares of it.

With the business, the violent, the armed people dressed with insignias from all sorts of troops arrived: some had flags from the Colombian Army, while others had a blank map of Colombia crisscrossed by two rifles, FARC’s flag. The Masetos (MAS, Death to Kidnappers, for its Spanish initials), also came to finish with everything that smelled of the left. Then the men bearing the acronyms of the paramilitaries also arrived: ACCU (Self-defense Peasants from Córdoba and Urabá, for its Spanish initials) and BCB (Bolívar Central Bloc).

With the weapons, the excesses from all fronts began. The dead, trunks drifting with the current, traveling down the Putumayo River, or appearing in the middle of the road. The accusations started, the finger-pointing. The suspect had to be eliminated, the collaborator, the one who seems like one, the one who doesn’t collaborate, the one who doesn’t participate in the business, the one who does, the one who sells coca to the other. Eliminating the other.

–Here, it used to be a wonderful place. It was beautiful here in Putumayo and Puerto Asís, in the 70s. The houses were like this, all made of wood. There were maybe a hundred small houses and the church. That was before the mafia arrived. Back then, you came to Puerto Asís and right there, in those tables where they chop meat, you could sleep there and wake up without a problem. Back then, the bonanza was rice, corn, plantain and cassava. All of that came from the Cohembí River. There, in La Carmelita, he transported boats filled with 150 parcels of corn, rice, boats with two or three tons. Those traveled to Puerto Asís. Everybody grew corn, rice. And the rice that arrived was bought, because there was a firm and you were never stuck with it. It was the same with the corn. When the coca arrived, those crops started diminishing. All the food was over.

With the profits from the coca that was taken to the labs to become cocaine, some, like Misael, even managed to buy some cattle, but the cattle and the money were lost for the majority of those who sowed, and the violence kept lurking from all sides of the river.

–That the coca leaves you money? So they say. But, you know, looking at it, I have nothing. We all have nothing and that’s because that coca was not for chewing, it was for selling as merchandise or bazuco. That’s why many people were taken to jail, and others were killed. Because a problem was formed there. It turned out that if I have coca plantations, I worked that coca, but I could only sell it to them, to the guerrillas, and if they realized that I was selling it somewhere else, get over here, and they would give us chumbimba *

Chumbimba: in coloquial language, to be murdered.


The circle formed by those attending the ritual is now enveloped in a thick fog formed by the tobacco smoke. You can make out the lethargic bodies, as if bogged down in a thick and heavy reverie, but in truth, the Thê´ Wala says, the sacred plants, after every chew, have made them keener. Now they are more alert to signs.

The Thê´ Wala, assisted always by a muted attendant, takes the jigra and the chonta in his left hand. Then he “turns” them over the bodies of everyone in the ritual, using his right hand to guide him. Right foot, leg, shoulder, head, shoulder, leg, left foot. After he finishes the turning, he approaches the top of the head of one and blows forcefully a gust of wind to the left, as if he was drawing air from a container and then expelling it. The four houses of the Nasa universe, like four malocas located one on top of the other are also connected horizontally. There is a right side and a left side, and, in the middle, there is equilibrium, harmony. In the left side, there is the sun, the paramo, the wild, the ancients, father Thunder, the sacred plants, good omens. In the right side, there is the moon, the cold plants, the omens that are not good. Now, the Thê´ Wala passes in front of each of those taking part in the ritual. There is a garbled murmur: one points at his left foot, another at his ankle, that other one points at his foot’s instep, yet another at the tip of his right foot, a left toe, the left shoulder. The Thê´ Wala draws very near to those who point at their own bodies. He listens attentively, aware that they have sensed the signs, but that he is the only one capable of interpreting them. Everything is well. The foreigners are not lying, but there is more work to be done. More coca leaves are needed, mambe for the coca, herbs from the lagoon, more tobacco, firewater, turning, turning, chewing, turning, chewing, chewing, and spitting until the energy is in harmony and the word can flow.

In March, 2000, one hundred indigenous groups from twelve different ethnicities of Putumayo put together and presented the government with what came to be known as the Indigenous Initiative Root for Root. In this plan, the communities agreed to eradicate with their own hands all coca plantations deemed illegal. They also agreed to replace them with crops that would guarantee their food security and strengthen their social organization and the survival of their culture. This was a result of years of work among the communities, of aerial fumigation and of soldiers eradicating by force the bush that was no longer Esh, but the raw material of cocaine hydrochloride.
According to Misael, it was in the maloca, in front of father fire and with a ball of coca in their cheeks, thinking and thinking, chewing and chewing, hearing the voice of father Thunder, that they took as a certainty that they had to change their course.

–With Root by Root, all of us tore out [the coca plants] from the indigenous part. The peasants said that no, that the Indians were crazy and stupid because they were tearing out the coca. But we, in order to decide to tear it out, concentrated a lot. We studied spiritually and saw that we were hurting ourselves and said: We’re going to tear out these plants. Coca, if it’s not merchandise, isn’t bad. Coca has lots of protein. It gives you strength and helps your spiritual side.

Men and women from the indigenous reserves started tearing out the coca bushes and sowing, instead, and once again, food. The cows returned, the corn, the cassava, the sugar cane, the chontaduro.; the plantain returned, the rice, the borojó, the avocado, the zapote, and the papaya. The sacred plants also returned: the yage, the aloe vera, the mata ratón, the spearmint. But, as it happened years before, soon the airplanes also came back, spreading their poison wakes. Glyphosate fell again over the jungle, over subsistence crops and medicinal plants; over fish and cows. And when the poison comes, jungle animals flee for they see polluted waters and forests.


Suddenly, people had nothing to sustain themselves. Many migrated to other areas or headed to Ecuador. Abandoned huts and poisoned people, sacred sites, and ceremonial locations.

After fights and reversals, barricaded roads, documents, complaints and endless lines of indigenous people firmly holding the command baton, as if blandishing swords, coca flourished in Putumayo: Bitter, Red Bolivian, Black, White, Chirosa, Pomarrosa, Sweet, Red-footed, Tingo María, Tingo Pajarito, Tingo Black, Ruffled, Gigante Llanera, Caucana.

Misael’s reserve, despite the poison that fell from the sky, fulfilled its promise. Their gardens –tul, as they are called in Nasayuwe—keep growing the coca they call Caucana or birdie, the original, they say, but only enough for toasting in huge pots in the reserve’s communal kitchen, only enough for the community, the authorities, the indigenous guard, and the Thê´ Wala to chew. Sacred coca so that in the fights that keep raging for the territory, men and women can think clearly and walk strongly; so that the Thê´ Wala can bring harmony to the territory and its people, which is ultimately the same thing; so that they can talk to father Thunder and gather the strength of the community’s elders and past chiefs.


The Esh comes from the tul, which in the ritual is mixed with firewater –before, it used to be corn chicha or guarapo made from sugar cane—and the tobacco that in ancient times was acquired bartering with other communities. The medicinal plants and the limestone come from the wild and sacred spaces. The Thê´ Wala, the Nasa say, through the study and performance of the rituals, moves among the four houses, visits them and traverses them from right to left like the river that cleans and purifies.

–These are sacred plants, medicinal and powerful. Our coca does not hurt, it cures.

For indigenous communities like the Nasa people, thousand-year-old practices associated with the growing and consumption of coca leaves for medicinal and ritualistic purposes are a fundamental part of their culture and, therefore, a cultural heritage of the Colombian nation. These ancestral practices are harbored by the Constitution, even though they are in constant conflict with national norms and international prohibitions ratified in agreements signed by the United States and Colombia as part of a shared policy to eradicate drugs and drug trafficking.