In Colombia, ‘yatules’ are the Misak people's pantry and pharmacy

Photo of Mamá Adriana Velasco and her mother, Mamá Ascensión in Silvia, Guambía reserve, Colombia. Photo taken by the author.

The Indigenous Misak people call themselves sons and daughters of water and rainbows. They are known for their traditional agricultural practices known as yatules, family orchards around homes.

Traditionally, they have lived in the Cauca province, in southwestern Colombia. However, land scarcity has forced them to move. Now, they also live in neighboring departments such as Valle del Cauca, Huila, Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta, and Cundinamarca. According to 2018 national data, there are about 21,703 Misak, and they are one of more than a hundred Indigenous peoples in Colombia. Most of the Misak live in the Guambía reserve, a collective property near Popayán, the capital of the Cauca province.

Other than yatules, the Misak are also known for having a Misak University, located in the Guambía reserve, and most recently for toppling monuments dedicated to conquerors during Colombia's National Strike in May and June 2021.

For the Misak, the ancestral practice of yatules is essential. As they rely on agriculture, forgetting these farming practices may lead to economic and food failures. So they recover this knowledge and make it known to the whole community, especially to the younger generations. Women play an important role in preserving yatules.

When walking on their reserve, you can see diverse crops on the side of the road. Generation after generation, the Misak people have maintained an ancestral practice of the yatul. The yatul is made up of associated crops such as potato, corn, beans, and onion, among other medicinal plants, whose nutrients complement each other and keep the land healthy.

As they learned from their elders, preserving these yatules is paramount to the Misak peoples’ survival. Through seed planting and tending, this practice requires being respectful of the land, following earth cycles and moon phases as well as considering the altitude of their farms.

Yatules in the Guambía reserve, Colombia. Photo taken by the author.

An ancestral practice

Standing on the land of her ancestors, Mamá Cecilia Tombé states that her people's connection with Mother Earth begins in the mother's womb. Growing up, parents teach children how to take care of the land, milk cows, and do other agricultural labor.

Remembering ancestral ways helps the community avoid economic failure and prevents Mother Earth from falling sick. This may also involve practices regarding women's reproductive cycles. Tombé explained:

No se podía caminar sobre la tierra cuando se tuviera el periodo de la mujer. Esto era grave pues, aunque es señal de vida, a la vez es un “sucio” que ella expulsa. Como la tierra es muy sana, tiene su espíritu, no debemos ensuciarla.

We couldn't walk on the land while menstruating. This was serious because even if it is a sign of life, it is also something “dirty” that women expel. Mother Earth is very healthy, she has a spirit, we shouldn't dirty it.

Yatul and fire are essential in Misak life. Around the fire, the mother, father, and children spend time together at sunset. They have supper, talk about their activities, and plan the next day of work at their yatul.

Maria Victoria Muelas, a member of the Misak group Siembra (“Seeding”), emphasizes that each new family should take into consideration their 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 working.

Family orchards are not just found in the countryside. They exist also in urban areas. In the yard of her home in Silvia, the town of the reserve, María Antonia Muelas from the Misak people has a small yatul. She uses eggshells and plantains to make organic compost to fertilize the soil.

Traditional medicine

Mamá Adriana Velasco. Photo taken by the author.

María Antonia Muelas lives with her daughter, Mamá Adriana Velasco, a traditional doctor. Velasco's father was a well-known traditional healer among the Misak. At the age of 23, she followed his footsteps and broke down walls that prevent women from becoming whatever they want, including doctors.

At first, it was not easy, but now she is respected by her community, she said. She continued:

Ahorita estamos en ese tema de repensarnos la fuerza de la mujer. Ya las mujeres están saliendo a los espacios y las mujeres se están auto-reconociendo como sabedoras. Eso está bien porque se fortalece ante la gente la idea de que las mujeres también pueden ejercer la medicina propia.

Now, we are rethinking women's strength. Women are occupying spaces and we are recognizing ourselves as women of wisdom. This is good because it strengthens the idea, among people, that women can be traditional doctors too.

She uses the seeds cultivated by her mother to heal people who ask for help when they feel ill and “disharmonized,” meaning when people are feeling emotionally or physically out of sorts.

The succulenta (echeveria elegans). Photo of the author.

The succulenta, colloquially known in English as the white Mexican rose, is used to reduce fever; the pansy helps students keep their minds sharp and avoid confusion; avocado seeds cure insomnia, and an infusion of the native arrayán tree leaves helps with throat ache.

Misak people of Guambía have plenty of options to stay healthy. They can opt for traditional or western medicine, as both are provided by the nearby Hospital Mamá Dominga.

The hospital is managed by Mamá Ascensión. She also coordinates a health program that promotes a network of traditional doctors whom people can access nearby.

The network offers midwifery, emotional and physical harmonization practices, traditional medicines, and alternative therapies.

Ascensión said:

Esto se maneja desde la familia. Casi no van al hospital, sino que manejan la planta, la espiritualidad propia y con su médico o médica de confianza hacen refrescamientos o armonizaciones para no enfermar físicamente y para vivir en armonía con la familia, el entorno y la comunidad. Eso es lo primordial.

These practices are done within families. People rarely go to hospitals. They use plants, follow spiritual practices and, along with their trustworthy traditional doctor, they do refreshments or harmonizations to avoid falling ill and to live in a balanced way with their family, the environment and the community. This is very important.

Mamá Ascención picking succulentas

Misak people consider all plants special and serve as medicine or food. Yatules are essential to their culture. Plants accompany them at all stages of life: before they are born, during growth, and at death.

María Victoria Muelas says:

Unas horas antes del parto, la mujer consume plantas medicinales para calmar el dolor y después del nacimiento del bebé se utilizan para el baño de él y de la madre, para que ella se reponga y produzca más leche materna. Además, durante el primer periodo menstrual son utilizadas y a la hora de la muerte preparan sahumerios antes de que los espíritus retornen al inicio.

A few hours before childbirth, women take plants to reduce the pain and after the birth they use them for the babies and the mother’s bath. It is also used for women's recovery and to produce more breastmilk. Plants are used during the first menstrual period and at the time of death, a sahumerio [a smoke bath] is prepared before the spirits return to their origin.

Mercedes Tunubalá, the Mayor of Silvia, learned from her mother how to plant and harvest produce from the land. During her current tenure in local government, she wants to strengthen Indigenous and farmer economies based on the yatul, which helps families save 80 percent on essential foods.

In Colombia, local Indigenous economies work differently from the mainstream, neoliberal one prevailing in the rest of the region. Tunubalá said:

Desde la visión nuestra, la economía no es de mercado, sino de conservación. Siempre pensando en el medio ambiente, en el entorno, en el relacionamiento de los espíritus de la naturaleza y el respeto de la madre tierra, respeto que debe tenerse en cada uno de los pasos del ciclo de la producción.

From our perspective, economy is conservation, not a market. We are always thinking about the environment, our surroundings, our relationship with spirits of nature and our respect for Mother Earth. Respect that must be taken into account in each step of the production cycle.

*This story was produced with support from the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, along with Diana Jembuel.

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