by Walter Gabriel Estrada Ramírez and Juan Manuel Rosso Londoño
I was born on the 2nd of May, 1989, in the Guadalajara community, along the Paca River in the Colombian Vaupés, Northwestern Amazon. I belong to the Siriano ethnic group as for my father-line, and my mother belongs to the Bará ethnic group from the San Gabriel de Caño Colorado community in the basin of the Pirá-Paraná River.
I was raised in different communities where my father was a teacher, and that is why I understand and speak many of the languages that are spoken in the Vaupés. I began school at the age of five. When I was in second grade, I was sent to a boarding school in Acaricuara that was managed by the Catholic Church.
I studied there and spent time with my parents during school vacations only. Then I would see the preventive dances done to ensure the health of people and the land and the important Yuruparí rituals that took place in the community, but did not understand their meaning, although I did like the chants and sounds that came from the maloca. Then we went to live in Mitú, the capital, and we lost contact with our culture, although at bedtime my mom would tell us stories and traditions, and sometime my uncles (the ones that are Kumuã or wise men) would visit us and tell us many things about our culture. But in our heads, those were only like fairytales and myths. They were not real. This was the result of the education we received in elementary and secondary school: there, we were taught to love Western or White culture and forced to forget our roots in order to become, some day, professionals capable of building important businesses to “contribute to the development of our region and country.”
I was born in 1975 in Bogotá, Colombia, surrounded by the high summits of the northwestern Andes. The growing city was my main playground, but I retain my countryside experiences among my best early memories. My father’s hands and voice guided me in the encounter with mountains, plains, rivers, and seas, mixed with grandpa’s stories of horses, hunts, cowboys, and long travels within the vague, rough, and magical bounds of “civilization.”
I found a form of delight in my contact with these spaces. They were an important influence in building my thoughts, practices, and perceptions of nature.
I decided to study Animal Husbandry in my search for a broader approach to the rural world. As a city person, I had a limited view of the manifold realities and imaginaries about peasant life and food production. I thought my career choice could fill this gap.
Long after graduating, I understood that all the information we received was mostly related to a particular view of “rurality,” stemming more from industrial and technological perspectives than from a reflection about better ways to live and feed ourselves. The Green Revolution (along with other similar development promises) left its legacy in many generations of Colombian technicians, professionals, and scientists from institutions dealing with agriculture and livestock.
When I finished school, I longed for university studies. I wanted to become a professional and get a good job in town; but I was not able to do so then because I did not have the money to pay. So, I opted to study for a livestock technical career.
During that time, even though I still used my own language, our teachers taught us that our culture and customs did not matter because they were not “civilized.” Even more, our knowledge about the world had no real foundations.
It was very important for me, personally, to get to know about beekeeping. At last I was finding something compatible with my thoughts and with the things I was willing to do for my region; I felt that to work with these bees was an opportunity. I learned about how to manage them, their biology, and the value of their products on the “green markets.” I wanted to devote my time to this, and with lots of enthusiasm I helped in all the project’s activities.
My first encounter with the rainforest was in a special place called Sierra de La Macarena, a colonization area since the 1950s, in the transition zone between the Amazon and the Llanos, the eastern great plains of Colombia. As a schoolteacher, I had the privilege to witness intense social and natural processes in this “other country,” unknown to me until then. As a consequence of a complex string of events, doña Eneida, my local “mom,” expressed her desire to keep Africanized honeybees. Could beekeeping be an interesting productive activity for the settlers, in alternative to the totally non-profitable conventional agriculture, or the illegal coca plantations for cocaine production? Could it help to link conservation and economic benefits?
The beekeeping drove me to an enchanted approach to biodiversity. Under the patient but rigorous guidance of my profe Guiomar in the Bee Laboratory at the Universidad Nacional, I discovered there was more than one bee species: nearly 20,000 in the world! Bees taught me many interesting and useful things about biology, and I realized they do something more important for providing food than making sweet honey: pollination.
Since then, my professional activity and my research interests have been linked with knowledge, use, and management of native bees and stingless beekeeping. Bees have been my best pretext to visit and meet very interesting and beautiful people and landscapes.
I saw the Vaupés River for the first time in 2008, a few months before the beginning of my doctoral studies. I went to Mitú to accompany a group of student technicians, expecting to teach them about meliponiculture and production of special goods. I intended to show them how native “resources” could generate alternatives for “sustainable development,” linking conservation and economic competitiveness in a context of high biological diversity like the Amazon Basin. Walter took part in this group.
The Other Bank of the River
When I finished my technical studies, the institution where I studied offered me the opportunity to become instructor in a project with the NGO Tropenbos. The objective was to build capacity among Indigenous instructors that would work with the communities in their social, environmental and cultural development. Thanks to many different friends, at this point of my life I was able to find many answers and much strength to return to the culture I had left behind. These persons shared with us many experiences in which our culture, knowledge and traditions seem as valid as the Western ones we were learning of. The encounter with “different” white people helped me to change attitude towards my own culture. It made me be aware and look over my shoulder, value traditions and knowledge, something I had lost because of Western education.
Although I had always kept inside me some of the Indigenous sparkle, during this time I finally learned about what I really am, about what we own, about everything.
Finally, while I was working in my communities, I was talking to them about maintaining and recovering our traditions, and sometimes people asked profound questions about our customs . . . and I did not have the answers. So then I asked myself, “What am I doing to recover our culture?” From that moment many more questions arose, and I wanted to know all about our culture, so I didn’t spare any opportunity to talk with the Elders.
One afternoon we were chatting, and Walter asked me, “Profe, what do you think of us Indians?” I was caught totally by surprise and stammered something, realizing that I didn’t know much about the people I was working with. Walter, wistfully, began to share some things about his culture and his world vision and some thoughts that astonished me. I began to discover the symbolic and perception abyss that separates our cultures, and I asked myself how much my work was contributing to the extinction of their knowledge and culture, as I was leading them to incorporate my own models, concepts, and practices.
In those days, I had also met the woman who is now my wife and the mother of my Juan Miguel and Guadalupe. She was working in the Vaupés, too, dreaming and finally managing to build a different school, one in which Indigenous children would not have to be like children in the cities. Natalia introduced me to Belarmino, also an Indigenous person, and an officer of the Association of Traditional Indigenous Authorities of the Yapú Zone. They were making strides in the process of thinking of new ways to maintain their culture and territories while trying to establish relations with the Western world.
We invited Belarmino to visit us and get to know the bees and the butterfly house owned by a biocommerce company on the same farm. The process begins with butterflies flying freely and laying their eggs on plants, from where they are carefully collected. After that, caterpillars are fed and cocoons are stored until butterflies emerge. At this point, a factory worker breaks the insect’s thorax (where flight muscles are located) to avoid damage by wingbeat, and then he puts the butterflies in glass jars until they die. Then they are prepared for distribution to collectors and craftsmen. When Belarmino saw a dying butterfly in a jar, he tried to open the jar, thinking the butterfly was suffocating. He was unaware that dead beauty was precisely the goal. His disconcerted expression made a deep impression on me, which later forced me to review carefully the ways in which our culture and our science see and understand nature.
Pushing Dominos Backwards
With Juan I shared and talked about life, about our stories and traditions. We remained in occasional contact for a few years. So when I decided to have my initiation ritual, Juan gave me many reasons for doing so. I decided that I had to start with myself. So, I did. I have been transmitting this to more young people, such as my younger brother. Cultural initiation was an important milestone to experience living the tradition. It was like pushing dominos backwards.
After a few months of being in Brazil for my doctorate, I decided to change my thesis focus. It wasn’t easy because of academic and social pressures. I shared my dilemma with Walter, and he gave me a simple but wise answer, as if from a storybook: “Do what your heart dictates.”
Originally, my research aimed to contribute to knowledge about intensive rearing systems for stingless bees. It was then that concepts such as mechanicism, positivism, and utilitarianism took shape in my mind for the first time. A buzz from ethical and aesthetic dimensions of research and fieldwork pollinated the idea of including other perspectives in my academic efforts. Why and for what do we do research? What is the nature of nature?
Flying in Light and Shadow
I was part of a group of initiates who leapt into the challenge of trying to attain the knowledge and maybe some day be like our fathers. This makes me feel so proud because I am giving myself to the continuation of our traditions, of our wisdom. Knowing secrets revealed to initiates only gives me strength and pride about who we are.
If some day I could become a Kumú, I too could be so valuable to our people because that implies taking care of them spiritually; enhancing a permanent communication between our world, our brothers, and people from different dimensions; and making life possible in our territory making buena vida possible.
Three years later, the bee project was finished. The hives disappeared, and the young apprentices started other journeys. Nevertheless, in a chagra close to Mitú, some hives of nitî dobea and tõ dobea remained solidly placed on sawhorses, and worker bees moved in and out in droves, revealing a healthy colony.
On my last trip to the Vaupés in 2011, I met Walter in San Gabriel, the most remote community in the Yapú Zone, where I was working the previous year. Walter and his brother were ending their first cycle of cultural initiation, guided by their uncles, some of the few Kumuã elders that are still alive and revitalizing their culture. For three days, I witnessed the preparation of the ceremony: the harvest of pupuña; the inhalation of pepper and the visits to the river to vomit for cleansing the body; the prayers on foodstuff that could then be consumed again after weeks without eating any fat, hot, or roasted and burned foods, consuming mainly casabe and manivara.
Finally, the awaited day. The semi-darkness in the maloca, illuminated just by the soft light from the resinous breo. The dance, following the rhythm of the sticks and the pit jingles tied to the ankles; the feather crowns; the singing sounds and the whispering of the historian relating the origins; the dense smoke from tobacco and breo. The sacred plants: mambe for good thinking and overcoming fatigue, yopo for clearing the mind, and caapi to purge and learn; the chicha to cheer up and nourish, diligently and abundantly prepared by each woman, and offered again and again in cuyas. The happiness of the cane flutes, inviting youth, elders, women, and children to participate in the life-renewing party.
And in a special space, Walter, together with the other initiates, younger than him, but everyone ready to walk through the threshold of adult life, receive the knowledge, and be bearers of an old power, today at risk of extinction.
Reflecting About Reflections
Now I am in university, in the city, learning about white people’s perceptions and concept of a “good life.” I’m learning things so as to make an intercultural dialogue possible. Along this line, when Juan and I were doing ethnobiological work about stingless bees, it was the bees who were connecting our two sides.
I think my life has moved within both worlds. Now I think I can understand my Indigenous world and am willing to do anything to preserve our traditional knowledge. But I also want to be able to move within the Western world because I feel that by knowing that world I will be prepared to better understand and help outsiders to recognize and validate us and our ways of life.
Today, Walter is studying biology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. I imagine he no longer has doubts about who he is. Maybe he understands that just writing or recording some cultural facts could not be the way to preserve them. It’s necessary to live traditions to keep culture and territories alive. He turned and flowed in a different way than many of his young contemporaries in the Vaupés and had the bravery to row into his origins.
Thanks to the fortunate encounter with Walter, Natalia, Belarmino, and many other friends from the river and other corners of the world, I understand intercultural dialogue as a research methodology, giving shape to the idea of research serving the preservation of diversity, which is far more beautiful than the homogeneous. Beauty, goodness, and truth: these are the three principles guiding thoughts and actions, as I learned from great friends and healers. Moreover, I am recovering the sense of my own tradition, taking a historical and critical view of my origins, and reconciling ideas and spirituality. My life has taken a radical turn and navigates in turbulent, but illuminating, waters.
From Both Banks of the River
Our dialogue has expanded, in time and space, to this day. From time to time, we meet in places as diverse as Cartagena or Montpellier, trying to share the seeds that germinated after lots of conversations along the river, on the jungle trails, in the city, and in the mountains. There are many questions, thoughts, contradictions, and transformations on each side of the river. Each one tells and retells himself and the other, and some change emerges after that sifting.
As the black river reflects the jungle and the sky, we encounter in each other an image of ourselves and the strength to rebuild our own internal landscapes, revealing new ways to inhabit and being in the world.
Despite the risk of oversimplification of concepts, we offer a short orientation on some of the terms used in the text:
Breo: combustible plant resin, sometimes collected by bees
Caapi: Banisteriopsis caapi (Malpighiaceae) vine
Casabe: kind of bread made with bitter cassava
Chagra: slash-and-burn crop field
Chicha: fermented manioc beverage
Cuyas: Crescentia cujete (Bignoniaceae) or Lagenaria vulgaris (Cucurbitaceae) vessels
Kumuã: plural of kumú; shamans or payés
Mambe: powdered preparation with coca and Cecropia sp. (Urticaceae) ashes for chewing
Manivara: some species of termites
Meliponiculture: stingless beekeeping
Nitî dobea and tõ dobea: stingless bees genus Melipona
Pupuña: Bactris gassipaes palm
Yopo: in the area designates powdered tobacco for snuff; in other zones this name is given to Anadenanthera peregrina (Fabaceae)
Yuruparí: complex concept encompassing an essential or primordial force that creates the universe, contained in sacred instruments and celebrated in a very important ritual
This story first appeared in Langscape Magazine 4(1), Summer 2015, pp. 23−28.
Walter Gabriel Estrada Ramírez (Sioro in his language) hails from the Siriano and Bará Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Vaupés. He’s studying for a degree in biology at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá. He has experience in ornithology and botany and has done research in his own community on traditional knowledge of stingless bees.
Juan Manuel Rosso Londoño holds a PhD in entomology from the University of São Paulo, Brazil. He’s a lecturer at the Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas in Bogotá, Colombia and a field researcher in the Reserva Natural Hacienda El Paraíso. He has worked on rural, environmental, and sociocultural issues — almost always with bees buzzing around.
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle: Share Your Story with the World!
An Invitation to Young Indigenous People
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from young Indigenous people who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:
- reaffirming cultural identity;
- breathing new life into their ancestral languages;
- reconnecting with traditional knowledge and practices, values, and ways of life; and
- reclaiming ancestral links with the land.
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read more stories from Indigenous Youth.
If you are a young Indigenous person who would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!