The wonderful thing about looking back is seeing the turning points when our lives changed. In those moments, we didn’t know what the future would hold, but we sensed deeply that something important was happening. Through the lens of time, it comes into focus just how pivotal these moments would be.
With the occasion of ACT’s 25th anniversary, Maria del Rosario Chicunque—Charito, the formidable leader that some of you have met—and I want to share the wonderful, glorious, painful, and ultimately extraordinary path that led to the creation of ASOMI, the Association of Indigenous Women, and their private reserve in Colombia. ASOMI’s headquarters is aptly called La Chagra de la Vida, or the Garden of Life. As with all gardens, it nourishes us with blessings of food, beauty, and joy, but it needs proactive tending and weeding in return—never-ending tasks that can give us scrapes, blisters, and scars.
That path to the Garden began in 2002 when Taita Pacho—a powerful healer of the Siona People of the northwest Amazon—insisted on visiting me in Arlington. He was a member of the Council of Elders, the guiding force that had led to the formation of UMIYAC, the Union of Yagé (ayahuasca) Healers of the Colombian Amazon. ACT helped establish this groundbreaking organization in 1999 and, in turn, UMIYAC helped guide ACT’s work.
I didn’t want Taita Pacho to come, though; it was a long and difficult journey from his home in the Putumayo, and he was in his eighties. Nevertheless, he persisted and finally arrived, a short balding man with a wicked sense of humor. After a couple of days of long conversations and all-night rituals, he declared that he had “come to grow seeds.” This sounded so…vague. Looking back, this was one of those turning points.
Taita Pacho continued, announcing that an even greater priority than UMIYAC was the establishment of a women’s counterpart. There needed to be a balance, he said, a harmony. Certainly, the women’s healing practices, which often deal with childbirth and death and are separate from men’s knowledge, needed to be preserved, but he had also observed that women carried the discipline needed to ensure the proper transfer of wisdom to future generations. To strengthen and rebuild their communities, he said, the women must have their own organization.
In the history of the Amazon, as with other lands that have been colonized, women have borne the worst consequences of avarice and exploitation. In dealings with outsiders, the women were moved to the background in an effort to protect them. Imperceptibly, this shielding became a disempowerment of women’s status, their voices, and their unique knowledge. Through the lens of his lifetime, Taita Pacho saw this.
I told Taita Pacho that ACT didn’t have the resources to assume such a responsibility. He quickly answered, “The resources will come and it will happen, but you need to trust.” He reached into his pocket and took out a manilla, a multi-colored beaded bracelet. He blessed it with tears streaming from his eyes, and he instructed me to wear it night and day.
A few months later, we were working in our humble little ACT office, located in an alleyway, when there was a knock on the door. A woman representing a small foundation had come to talk to us about conservation, the sacred, and indigenous women. We were given the money we needed to start working.
The process to establish the women’s union was not easy. It was to begin with a Gathering of Women, a multi-tribal event similar to the Gathering of Shamans that preceded the formation of UMIYAC. The elders that took charge of the organization, collectively known as the mamas, were Mama Conchita, Lola, Natividad, Delia, and many others. Though they were all acknowledged matriarchs of their communities and had authority and knowledge, their vision first needed the blessing of their husbands and the Taitas. Because women’s knowledge had long been highly guarded, the “permission” needed to move forward was blocked by obstacles, skepticism, and outright boycotts. But the mamas were undeterred. They quietly, patiently, and with immense determination endured two years of trials and many challenging ayahuasca ceremonies.
In 2004, we were ready for the glorious launch event, the first gathering, to be held outside Mocoa. We built a simple, comfortable shelter to house the gathering. Sixty-five women elders from five different groups—the Siona, Kofán, Inga, Kamentsa, and Coreguaje—traveled with their apprentices to attend four days of beautiful celebrations. They shared arts, traditional foods, crafts, storytelling, dancing, and sacred ceremonies.
The most profound moments came from the sharing of powerful teachings of the ancestors, the pleas for peace and the urgent need to safeguard their knowledge. Quietly, the women demanded respect for their ways of knowing and the protection of their forests—the Territories that they regard as the almighty teacher and provider of all their needs.
The women wanted their own space in which to “plant the seeds” of their future. There was initial skepticism among some of the most conservative women who had endured generations of empty promises made to their indigenous communities, but gradually and cautiously, they too joined the chorus of ideas on how they could improve life for all. It was ambitious. The women wanted to preserve traditional plants that were endangered, to strengthen the forests that sheltered them, to aid the restoration of ecosystems and wildlife, to transmit their own knowledge and wisdom, and most of all, to renew their Territories.
And with this, ASOMI was formed. We purchased a small plot of rainforest to be owned collectively by all the members. This was their Chagra de la Vida, their Garden of Life, which became their headquarters.
Along the way, extraordinary human beings believed in the vision of ASOMI and stepped in to support it at the perfect moments. Almost all of these beings were women. One was our beloved Mo Maxfield, at the time a board member and a staunch believer in the power of indigenous wisdom. Others are Laurie, Sylvie Chantecaille, Debra, Margaret, Elizabeth and others who, in their anonymity, have unconditionally provided the resources to achieve the women’s dreams. Through their generosity, we were able to purchase more land, piece by piece, to add to ASOMI’s Garden.
In the seventeen years since ASOMI’s labor pains, the mamas in partnership with ACT have established a cultural center where women can gather to exchange seeds, both literally and metaphorically. They learn from each other and receive trainings in different disciplines ranging from basic computer skills to the use of plants of knowledge. Their Territory safeguards the seeds that have been cultivated by the mamas, ensuring that the next generations will have access to sacred and healing plants. Their restored forest now provides water to the surrounding communities.
The love and stewardship of the land led to the creation of Mamakunapa in December 2020. Forty-five acres of ASOMI’s Garden is now formally protected under Colombian law as a “Civil Society Nature Reserve”, which recognizes and honors the worldview of indigenous women. Taita Pacho, Mama Conchita, and many others did not live to see their vision become real, but looking back, I know in my heart that they dreamed it into being.
📷: Photo: @pvelasquezfranco on Instagram
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