#5: Farming as Reciprocity in the Colombian Amazon

Barbara’s Note: When Kristina was a student  in my creative writing class at Middlebury College a few years back, it was clear that she  would devote her life to doing good for the world through her passion for workers’ rights, social justice and the health of the earth.  And sure enough, she has spent  the years since college trying to make a difference wherever she is–which, for the past years, has been Colombia.  Now that she’s back in the States to work on her PhD dissertation at UC Davis–an ethnography of soil–I’ve had a chance to reconnect with her and learn about her powerful work and read her moving poetry. Kristina brings us a beautiful narrative of farmers and farming in the Amazon and a recipe I look forward to trying!

Farming as Reciprocity in the Colombian Amazon

Thick fingers, nails cracked open. Dirt-laden knuckles riddled with fungus. I imagine these organisms nibbling away at Heraldo’s hands, serving up the perfect meal. Sometimes his knuckles make him feel self-conscious, and he tries spreading a mustard colored mineral over the flaky patches. Once I even foolishly brought him rubber gloves to use on the farm. He accepted them graciously, but I never saw them again. The fungus was tenacious, he would say, and did not budge. However, it never grew past his knuckles either. Secretly, I think he took pride in playing host. It meant that his hands frequented the soil while other peoples revealed the wear and tear of scrapping coca leaves off of branches. What they refer to as raspando coca.

Maní Estrella (Star nut): viny plant autochthonous to the Amazon

It isn’t that Heraldo thinks coca plants are bad or coca growers either. U.S./Colombia anti-narcotics policies have coined the phrase “La mata que mata”- the plant that kills- in a misleading campaign that criminalizes a shrub and small growers for the complex and violent phenomena surrounding the global cocaine trade. What ensued are military-led eradication and alternative development strategies that intend to replace coca crops with equally “profitable” legal ones. However, for Heraldo, and an increasing number of farmers in the Colombian Amazon, coca plants are only a problem when grown as monoculture for export. Hence, they reject commercial coca cultivation and their substitution by export-oriented cacao, vanilla and heart of palm. Both increase farmers’ dependence on chemical inputs, global market prices and buying rather than growing their own food. For these farmers, coca is the most recent bonanza within a long history of extractive economic activities in the Amazon (quina, rubber, timber, oil). Not only have these activities attracted illegal armed actors and impoverished rural communities; currently they prompt aerial fumigation campaigns and development models that continue to sever farmers’ relations with the jungle.

Amazonian farm near Mocoa, Putumayo

“Jungle, rain, acidic soils. They say this land is unfit for agriculture. What they don’t  understand is that these are different soils with different nutrient cycles and food chains. We can produce here, but it won’t look the same. There are other markets besides a capitalist one,” Heraldo said. We were at a meeting of small farmers in the southwestern frontier department of Putumayo discussing the possibility of achieving food autonomy in a region that had been home to coca since the 1970s. When asked how many people had been directed by USAID agronomists to “correct” the pH levels of so-called “poor soils” on their farms, almost everyone raised their hand. Another farmer, Nelso, stood up and posed the question, “What if we stopped considering the humidity and the acidic, low mineral content of the soils to be a problem? What if we stopped correcting and started nourishing?”

Toasted Maní Estrella

Nutrir. I often heard this group of farmers use the concept rather than more conventional terms such as fertilize. They talked about nourishing, feeding, and not only themselves. Rather a whole array of hungry mouths eating together: microorganisms, insects, roots, animals and humans. One day I heard Nelso explain his vision of Amazonian agriculture to an indigenous friend. It was full of practices that permitted eating and shitting to go on uninterrupted. He described farming as an activity where everyone, all living beings in an open yet entangled ecological system eat, shit, die, regenerate and eat together again. When humans come to the table, inevitably many other meals are interrupted. However, they could strive to extract less and give back more.

Farmer in the Bota Caucana harvesting tubers

For Nelso and others, this inspires altogether different practices of cultivating and eating based on what we might call an ethics of reciprocity. For example, alongside crops, Nelso grows “weeds” that heal compacted soils. Álvaro recovers non-commercial seeds that return plant diversity, and consequently, snakes, bees and other insects to his farm. Heraldo follows the direction and intensity of the sun to design a multi-scale foliage system capable of showering the ground with compost. A group of farmers in the Ecuadorian Amazon imitate the natural NPK cycles of the jungle, mixing palms, legumes, and plantains with other trees. Elva experiments, preparing meals and remedies out of wildflowers that have been disregarded as animal feed or “poor” people’s grub.

Thus, after decades of witnessing coca plants and their substitution homogenize a diversity of agricultural practices and the ways of life they defend, a growing number of farmers propose alternatives to extractive-based relations with the jungle. Notably, these alternatives emerge from ethical-ecological interactions on farms, and not from traditional political arenas or development policies. Furthermore, they may be creating possibilities for farmers to achieve relative autonomy from state and global market imperatives. As these farmers say, much is in the hands. Strong hands must also be hospitable ones.

Recipe for Tacacho

Thanks to my friend Rocio Ortíz (Mocoa, Putumayo) for sharing her family recipe.


  • Green plantains (finger sized)
  • Yellow potatoes
  • Long onion
  • Garlic
  • Green Pepper
  • Shredded Cheese
  • Salt
  • Vegetable Oil

Cook the plantains (without their skins) and the potatoes (with skins) in a pot until they are soft.
While you are waiting for them to cook, prepare a separate sauce. After you mince the onion,
garlic and pepper, sauté them in a frying pan with oil. Add salt to your taste. Also, you can add
water to the pan, but only about half a glass. Once the plantains and potatoes are ready, remove
them and mash them together in a bowl. Then add your sauce and mix well. If you enjoy cheese,
you can throw shredded cheese on top before you serve.

This is a side dish often eaten with meat in Putumayo. However, some people like to add the
meat to the tacacho. If so, you can fry small pieces of pork or beef with the onion, garlic and
pepper. Then the tacacho becomes a meal in itself. You can decide on the quantity of ingredients
you need depending on how many people you plan to invite to lunch or dinner.

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