Although the chagra is a space settled by the indigenous communities to cultivate, it’s value is not restricted to that function. The relationship with the cultivated plants is comparable to the relationship with human beings linked by blood or affinity. In this sense, food-related activities are not limited to practice or technical matters, instead they are conceived as a network of practices, knowledge, and behaviors where the plants, animals, minerals and other entities interact.
Since we are talking about an integrality of these interrelations (ecosystemic, social and spiritual), we must speak of a food system that includes horticulture, hunting, harvesting of fruits and fishing. This integrates knowledge and practices that are specific to women and men, in a complementary and interdependent way.
Even though there are many types of chagra, this model replicates with variations in all the Amazon indigenous communities of Colombia. The communities’ traditional knowledge on the relationship between crops, plants, and soil, as well as the production cycles, illnesses, and plagues, is essential to make the chagra a dynamic cycle that benefits every single organism of the forest.
Credits: Stefan Ruiz
The first step is the identification of the place where the chagrashould be settled, depending on a series of criteria like the vegetation, location, inclination, etc. Once the place is identified, the traditional must heal (curar) the field and negotiate its use with the spiritual owners.
The next step is the socola and tumba.The socola consists in cutting down the small vegetation and the tumba is the tomb of the larger specimens. Burning is the first stage in which women intervene in the field by setting fire to the soil that is about to be cultivated. It is important to let the soil cool for a couple of weeks because, if they plant the seeds early, it could burst instead of sprout.
Since women have knowledge and property over the seeds, sowing is their job. A variety of seeds was given to each indigenous community which are inherited through female lineage. Women take care and plant the seeds to provide food for their family and community.
In the chagrawomen plant tubers and fruits while men plant coca and tobacco. Taking care of the chagrameans to weeding it, check for plagues, and if it’s the case, scare them off.
The first product to be harvested is the cocaand it’s a men task since women are not allow to manipulate it. Cassava is one of the common products of the chagraand its size is indication that the soil was useful and must be restored. The abandonmentand devolutionare the last stage of the cycle when the rastrojo(soil re-planted) stops being useful so it must be returned by the traditional to their original owners.
One family can own many chagrasbut they need minimum tree of them in order to have food for a year: One recently cut down, one bearing fruit and a rastrojo.
When someone stands in front of a chagra for the first time, is usual to think that the delimited land is a sort of chaos without structure. The diverse crops are settled considering the connection between each other, the indigenous social relationships and the spatial pattern of the forest. This system avoids the erosion of the soil, benefits the photosynthetic efficiency and prevents the emergence of plagues.
It is important to mention that thechagracycle corresponds to the ecologic calendar made by the indigenous communities according to a wider and complex system of World Handling by seasons which is the base of ecologic balance and cosmic equilibrium.
All of these practices and knowledges have survived over centuries in spite of changes in the social organization, the contact with western cultures and other agricultural systems. The high rates of conservation of a fragile territory in terms of soil fertility its prove of the efficiency of these food systems.
Finally, women’s knowledge and practices in terms of food and nutrition have help to position them in the governance processes of their territories and the survival of culture and traditional knowledge.