Indigenous Coffee Farming in No-Man’s Land

In Coffee Farming, News & Research by Karl Wienhold0 Comments

Southward view from Resguardo Ondas del Cafre meeting house

Southward view from Resguardo Ondas del Cafre meeting house

We arrived last night to steamy Mesetas from Bogotá, about 5 hours by jungle truck through the Eastern plains of the Orinoco river basin, to the one hotel in town whose hallways double as a nail salon and a dentist office. It’s basically a ghost town after the cocaine economy dried up and put most merchants out of business. A few blocks remain commercial, featuring knock-off clothes, hardware stores, animal feed, and more than anything, pool halls full of inebriated cattle ranchers from morning to night.

This morning, after an enormous and hearty cow heart and liver soup, we drove through trails an hour and a half until our ‘97 Mitsubishi 4x4 couldn’t make it any further. About an hour walking through the indigenous reserve Duberney mentions as we round a bend over a cliff that last week he heard the duende right here. The duende is a dwarf, part of the Nasa indigenous cosmology, a guiding spirit of the land. It shows itself by crying when it feels the humans are doing wrong, and in extreme cases, will take and hide small children for days on end. Nevertheless it is a positive force, and an honor when the duende elects to let one hear its cry. We are told that it is only audible to those Nasa most connected to the land, but we strain our ears to listen anyway. Jorge and Duberney explain in a playful tone, expecting us to find it comical. We don’t.

Some 70 years ago many Nasa people of the Nasa Yu’ksa cabildo were displaced from their ancient home in what is now Cauca department by “La Violencia”, fighting between Colombian liberals and conservatives that later gave rise to the FARC and other guerrillas. Exiled from their traditional territory, they landed in this mountainous corner of Meta department. Since then, Nasas have been pushed out of many areas, massacred by various armed groups and found refuge in the mountains west of Mesetas. They are a hodgepodge of refugees, today speaking with each other a mixture of Spanish and the traditional Nasa Yuwe language since there are so many dialects represented.

Our jungle truck didn't make it very far before meeting its match and having to retreat

Our jungle truck didn't make it very far before meeting its match and having to retreat

Life amid the white-man’s war

What is now the Ondas del Cafre was a no-man’s land for some time, surrounded by coca, controlled by outlaws and/or insurgent groups, and marginal land for coffee production. The town of Mesetas grew thanks to coca. The guerrilla came to the area to hide and raise money controlling the coca trade. In fact, during Pastrana government, the hills inhabited by the Nasa Yu’ksa was part of the “Zona de Distensión” officially administered by the FARC from 1999 until 2002 when the national armed forces once again invaded, though the FARC maintained a strong grip over the area until 2015, and remains quietly present. Right-wing paramilitaries were are not absent from the area’s history, arriving under the guise of communist-bashing to take control of the lucrative cocaine business. All 3 groups killed indigenous civilians, we are told, and pushed them further up into the inhospitable jungle-covered hills.

As we arrive to the old school-house were we give our feet a rest and let the mules take over, our guides tell us the story of when the army was patrolling the valley in its re-conquest effort. They took cover in the indigenous school when the FARC charged on them from the mountains despite the students inside and a fierce shootout ensued. We pass ruins of FARC encampments just steps from indigenous houses.

The FARC were not easy to remove, and the indigenous continued to suffer. Their understanding is that the continued infiltration was due to private interest in the area for extractive exploitation, and they were in the way. It was supposed that they were involved with the guerrilla, so as to justify their removal. Mortar fire and aerial bombings on the peaceful, helpless indigenous family homes were common for years and many were killed. In 1999 the reserve was, at last, formally recognized.

The old schoolhouse where the army took cover from FARC onslaught with children in the crossfire

The old schoolhouse where the army took cover from FARC onslaught with children in the crossfire

The End of Coca

People eventually stopped farming coca in the area, not because it was illegal, or because the government dropped thousands of gallons of Round Up on them, but because market conditions made it impossible. The FARC, Paramilitaries, and according to some, military-affiliated groups all obligated farmers to sell them their “pasta-base” coca paste under threat of death. Unable to please more than one of the groups and facing murder by the others, farmers had to stop farming to stay alive.

Our contact, Jorge, a member of the Nasa Yu’ksa cabildo, came to the area as a raspachín or coca picker after narrowly fleeing the Alto Naya massacre in Cauca. After many years in Colombian society on the margins of the law, he realized his past errors and was accepted by the local Nasa people. He now has a family, built a house, and lives contently without the distractions of modern society.

The long, beautiful, muddy march into the indigenous reserve, just past where Diviel heard the duende. Left to right: Diviel, Karl, Jorge

The long, beautiful, muddy march into the indigenous reserve, just past where Diviel heard the duende. Left to right: Diviel, Karl, Jorge

Coffee in The Post-Coca Era

The indigenous of the Ondas del Cafre reserve remain uninfluenced by modern “technified” yield-maximizing farming techniques. They continue to harvest and replant their own seeds of a tasty traditional varietal and grow organically. Being so secluded, barely anything from outside exists. There are no agro-chemicals, building materials aside from a few nails, and some shared tools. There are no power lines, aqueduct, or refrigeration.

There is no higher education, though some families send their children to work-study programs in a nearby town. Education was never an issue in traditional Nasa society, as all can be learned from the community. However, today there are some unavoidable touch-points with the outside monetized world. The indigenous must sell coffee into formal supply chains, lobby the government to maintain their autonomy, and manage the unavoidable external media influence.

Heavy flowering in April, if well cared for and with favorable weather, these will be the cherries we harvest in December

Heavy flowering in April, if well cared for and with favorable weather, these will be the cherries we harvest in December

The Nasa Yu’ksa are admirable for their resilience, solidarity, and respect for the madre tierra. Nevertheless, we are beginning to work with them to improve coffee quality and ecology. Some tribe members have burned sections of jungle to expand planting. Others have planted coffee in monoculture without diverse native shade. This is not disregard for the environment, rather a lack of technical ecological and agronomic knowhow. With DOT technical accompaniment, they are committed to improving the environmental responsibility of growing practices, recuperating native hardwood shade, as well as ensuring the social stability and economic optimization of these activities, laying the foundation for many more generations to come.

Jorge Rivera, posing with his organic Colombia F4 varietal coffee trees under native hardwood Yopo shade.

Jorge Rivera, posing with his organic Colombia F4 varietal coffee trees under native hardwood Yopo shade.

We are confident that specialty coffee roasters will appreciate the outstanding flavors, environmental impact, and caring indigenous hands that send these exceptional beans to them. We will strive to establish international alliances with conscientious, discerning roasters to allow the Nasa Yu’ksa people to thrive in their traditional way of life despite modernization and conflict that surrounds them.

Growing up in the resguardo is an experience like none other. These two watch their parents play football after lunch.

Growing up in the resguardo is an experience like none other. These two watch their parents play football after lunch.

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