In Episode One of Cosmology & Pandemic, “Colombia: The Body as Territory”, the profound cosmovision of the Kamëntšá, and the interrelated health of their culture and ancestral lands, played a central role.

Indigenous Peoples have a well-developed, centuries-long history of responding to novel pathogens. To learn of the response of Indigenous Peoples to the COVID-19 pandemic, The Esperanza Project, with the support of Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Mongabay, The One Foundation and the SGE Foundation, created the transmedia series “Cosmology & Pandemic: What We Can Learn from Indigenous Responses to the Current Health Crisis.” 

Myself and film-maker Hernán Vilchez, in collaboration with local and Indigenous film crews and photographers, uncovered diverse traditional techniques and inspiring holistic interpretations of health and Mother Earth, that have so far allowed these communities to both survive the COVID-19 pandemic and strengthen their traditions. In Episode 1, we worked with local producers in the Arhuaco, Misak and Kamëntšá communities of Colombia, producing a short film and three in-depth stories. In upcoming episodes we’ll be getting to know the Kallawayas and the Q’eros and the Qhara Qharas from the Andes; the Siekopais, Waoranis and Shipibos of the Amazon; the Bororo, Yawalapiti and Xavante people of Brazil, and many more ethnic groups whose remote communities are rarely visited and whose perspectives on global issues are even more rarely sought. 

Our collaborators in the cities also interviewed academics, scientists, health professionals and other experts. Collectively they came away with rare and insightful indigenous perspectives on the causes, prevention, treatments and lessons from the pandemic. Their reflections and shared experiences elevate the question of what we as a society must do to avoid the future health and environmental crises that threaten the survival of humanity and the intricate web of life on the planet.

The Kamëntšá Biocultural Territory

The Kamëntšá-Biyá and their neighbors, the Ingas, traditionally inhabited a vast area in the Putumayo region that includes the Sibundoy Valley, a biocultural corridor that has long served as a crossroads connecting the Colombian Amazon with the Andes Mountains. But like most Indigenous peoples of the Americas, they have endured a five-century series of dispossessions that has left them with about 20 percent of their ancestral territory.

Taita Angel Pasuy Miticanoy, architect, land use planning specialist and Kamëntšá leader, is one of the main land-use planners for the two communities. With hopes of heading off the worst of the impacts of a multimodal highway project, together the Kamëntšá and Inga have managed to drive a fundamental shift in the management of their ancestral lands, starting with a process of territorial recognition in 2010 of 84,000 hectares divided into six indigenous resguardos, or reserves, that now officially belong to the Kamëntšá and Inga peoples.

The Sibundoy Valley connects the Andes Mountains and Amazon Rainforest. Source: Esperanza Project

That allows Pasuy and his colleagues to map out their territory and manage it according to their own cosmovision. The process reflects a radically different view of land use — one that is integrally connected with their view of public health.

For the Kamëntšá, and many other indigenous communities, the separation between the human body and the territory that it inhabits is a contradiction. The interconnection of land, water, air, and living beings is intricate and profound, and no healing can occur without first acknowledging that relationship.

“The territory is what allows life. So, if the territory is poorly conserved, in the future it will be difficult to preserve and protect life,” says Pasuy. “If the territory is healthy, we will be able to grow nutritious plants that help us strengthen our organism as a body, as people and as members of a community and a territory.” 

For Pasuy, it is a reciprocal and synergistic relationship, and it works both ways: in healing the human body, the territory is also healed — and knowing, caring for and organizing the territory also provides well-being to individuals and human communities. The Kamëntšá are far from alone in holding this concept. 

From the Misak in the southeastern Colombian Andes to the Arhuaco in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range of northern Colombia, the human body is its own territory, but one whose health is inextricably linked to that of the land it inhabits. This profound and reciprocal interpretation of human and territorial health was found to be common in the diverse and compelling stories of the nearly 30 indigenous communities in six different South American countries that we spoke to and learned from during the research and filming of Cosmology & Pandemic.

The knowledge that is still practiced in these ancient cultures emerges today as a key to help us explain the current pandemic, prevent imminent crises and prepare to navigate future uncertainties.

Maintaining Balance

“The Western culture sees the territory as something very physical — a collection of objects to be taken advantage of for an individual benefit, to be converted into elements of capitalism,” said Pasuy. “But for our elders, it is a unity; it’s a home – where the natural and vital cycle of the life of living beings is recreated.” 

Mountains, rivers, valleys, biodiversity — what Western observers consider natural resources — all have their own spiritual significance. But for the Kamëntšá, Tabanók, as they know their place of origin, has its own spiritual meaning, and each of these elements and actors has a specific and symbiotic function in the territory.

“If we affect something so primordial as the water; if we extract the most precious, which is what maintains the energetic balance – for example, the gold that is buried there – the elders say that the Mother Earth in some way is going to return to you the treatment you are giving her. So diseases are precisely answers from Her.”

Vannessa Circe – “The Messenger of Water” – Oil on Canvas – 2018

That’s why, for Pasuy and the people he represents, territorial management is sacred work, encompassing not just a physical but also a spiritual dimension. The territory is home to an entire network of symbology and meaning that revolves around the sacred sites — the places that were identified by the ancestors as having special significance — that must be mapped out and given special protection, points on the ground that mark the water sources and the beginning of the hydrological network, source of the great rivers that feed the Amazon basin.

Disruptions to the balance between these water sources, hydrological networks and the rich cloud forests of the region, through megaprojects like the IIRSA-backed multimodal highway, are what Kamëntšá elders believe has brought on the current health crisis, climate change and other modern ills.

The Putumayo River, a major and sacred river within the Amazon Basin, rises in the Sibundoy Valley. Source: Esperanza Project

Maintaining these symbiotic relationships are among the opportunities also seen by scientists such as Rodrigo Botero, an expert in zootechnics and sustainable development, and who was the territorial director of Colombia’s National Parks for 10 years. Botero has insisted for years that the health of the territory must be seen as a factor in the symptoms of the human populations that inhabit them. If we continue to fail to make that connection, he said, we will have lost the lesson brought to us by the pandemic. 

The reasons behind the health crisis are clear to Botero. “It has happened in large areas of Indigenous Peoples who have lost their forms and customs… And unfortunately, this has generated a very high vulnerability of large population groups with cultural and territorial losses, with very high mortality and morbidity levels due to the Covid issue.”

Strengthening Traditions, Territory and Health

Paradoxically, the current pandemic has helped the Kamëntšá and many other indigenous communities throughout the continent to reactivate their traditional medical practices. “For us it generated a very good opportunity to investigate internally, to rescue medicinal plants that had been forgotten,” says Pasuy. Those plants were an important part of the response in their community, he said, allowing traditional doctors to prevent suffering, psychological effects and even deaths.

A return to the plants and healing traditions with the onset of the pandemic is a trend that has been seen all over the region as Indigenous Peoples throughout the continent have gone back to the heritage pharmacopeias they have developed over the millenia, drawing on the experience of previous epidemics such as smallpox and measles.

Likewise, the pandemic has served to reactivate another key element of territory: subsistence agriculture, which researchers are increasingly seeing as essential to food sovereignty and resilience in times of crisis. Medicinal plants are traditionally a part of that system, which is typically rich in agrodiversity.

The Kamëntšá jajañ is central to human and territorial health. Source: Esperanza Project

The concept is the same for Indigenous Peoples everywhere: the chagra, the milpa, or for the Kamëntšá, the jajañ, is much more than a simple cornfield; it’s a complex and integral ecosystem and a sacred manifestation of the relationship between Mother Earth and humanity.

One must cultivate their thoughts in the same careful way that one cultivates the land, explains Edgar Chicunque, artisan and leader of the Kamëntšá community: with mindfulness of the integrity of the whole, and the connection to the Mother Earth always present.

“That is why it is important that all indigenous and non-indigenous peoples also begin to cultivate our thinking and our words, and also the integrality of the jajañ,” says Chicunque. “We cannot separate the two things; jajañ and the word have to be embodied. So in a very respectful way, I invite you all not to dissociate ourselves from these two terms. And that is where we are really going to find a cure: in being united with Mother Earth.”

The Kamëntšá concept of healing encompasses this idea: When the traditional doctor corrects an imbalance in a person, he or she is simultaneously working through that person to correct a corresponding imbalance in the territory, which is the origin of most disease, according to their cosmovision. “The ultimate goal of all these traditional medicine treatments is to be able to heal the territory,” says Pasuy. “To be able to rebalance all the imbalances that have happened against Mother Earth is to return to the essence.”

Mama Emerenciana Chicunque, respected traditional authority of the Kamëntšá. Source: Esperanza Project.

As the Kamëntšá traditional authority Mama Emerenciana Chicunque declares, “It is time to use everything we have, what we are and with our own medicine, trying to avoid this disease and not go to hospitals, because there is a lot of mistrust… Many enter the hospital and they don’t return.”

Future episodes of the Cosmology&Pandemic series will include: Andean Cosmovision, An Ancient Path to Health; Amazonian Wisdom, The Territory as Healing Source; and Diversity and Crisis in Brazil. See the film, read all three stories and sign up to follow the series at

Banner Image: Taita Juan Mutumbajoy within his jajañ. Source: Esperanza Project.

Tracy L Barnett is a writer, editor and the founder of The Esperanza Project/El Proyecto Esperanza, a non-profit bilingual online magazine and media empowerment project covering social change in the Americas. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Yes! Magazine, Earth Island Journal, Intercontinental Cry, USA TODAY, Reuters, and Esquire Latin America, amongst others. 

Esperanza Project Film and TV is an international interdisciplinary team committed to producing films and series that raise awareness in our society.