Commoning to face Covid-19, the experience of the Monquentiva Páramo Community

Mónica Amador

Research Associate, University of Bristol

In this blog, we are going to talk about how the inhabitants of the high Andean forests in the eastern mountain range of Colombia have experienced and faced the Covid-19 health crisis. Regarding this experience, we will reflect on the notion of communing, a discussion that has gained relevance in recent years among Latin American thinkers, to understand socio-environmental relationships in the Latin American context.

On March 24th, Colombian President Iván Duque introduced mandatory national quarantine for all the country’s residents to prevent further spread of the coronavirus, a quarantine (focused on the most vulnerable people: elderly and ill people), that has now been extended until October 31st .  . As of September 30th 2020 there are 824,042 infected, 25,828 dead, and 734,154  recovered, Colombian Ministry of Health Report). Colombia is one of the countries with the longest quarantine in the world.

As mentioned in a previous blog, during the national quarantine we have observed that the forest and forest communities have experienced different effects of the lockdown (Amador & Millner, 2020). In some places, we have observed that lockdown has triggered deforestation, as in the case of the Amazon (FDCS, 2020; El Pais, 2020; Mongabay, 2020; Semana Sostenible, 2020; The Guardian, 2020;). In other places, we have observed a trend of over-militarization and infringement on civil rights, as in the case of the Inter-Andes Forest (Amador et al, 2020), particularly in Middle Magdalena, Cauca, Catatumbo, and Nariño. However, we have also seen that in other places the forests have not been affected. From the undamaged forest,  hrough the media, we have seen images of endangered animals such as spectacled bears, crab foxes and deer occupying areas closer to human settlements, and the trap cameras have recorded more wildlife activity in open spaces (Semana Sostenible, 2020; DW, 2020; France24, 2020). There was also a sense of an abundant presence of birds and insects proliferating after the reduction of human activity and air pollution (The Washington Post,2020; The Telegraph, 2020).

In this blog, we will take a closer look at the situation of the Paramo of Monquentiva, as a window to understand the trends in the high Andes of Colombia. We will argue that the Covid-19 crisis has amplified already existing situations, and in this case, it has amplified the disposition for autonomy, mutual care and the deep intertwinement with their environment. This socio-ecological community has manifested a great capacity for resilience and creativity in resolving the negative effects of the pandemic and lockdown conditions. This response is based on a profound relationality between people and their environment produced by historical and material practices in this fragile paramo (approximate translation: moorlands) ecosystem.

Monquentiva is a small village inhabited by campesinos (peasants), or descendants of the Muisca indigenous people that once populated these highlands. In fact, Monquentiva is a Muisca word that means: “The Lands of the Chieftain Where the Forests Take a Bath;” and during colonial times (from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries) it was part of the Guatavita Encomienda (Mandate). This vereda (village) is a green corridor located in a valley surrounded by hills closely located to a bog (Pantano de Martos) that used to be a sacred lake for the indigenous Muisca. Today, the peasants continue living between the municipalities of Guatavita and Gacheta at different altitudinal gradients unfolding a micro-vertical social and economic dynamic to access different ecological niches for their subsistence (Langebaek, 1987), as the indigenous did as well. The people of Monquentiva are highly organized and the economic and social life of the village is joined around a dairy cooperative focused on milk production (Colega). The people of Monquentiva are very close, they are extended kin constituted by family, neighbors and compadrazgos, in which they have integrated their people, animals and vegetation through practices of care. For example, the village children adopt a calf to look after them for years. They have great respect for the sacred lake and for the mysterious mountains that surround the village.

The Monquentiva people are a community as a result of the daily practices that allow them to survive, sustain their relationships of kin and affection, of mutual care and the feeling of belonging among them. So, beyond a static identity that lends to objectification, we understand community not as a predetermined entity (Federici & Caffentzis, 2013), or a group of people living in a politico-administrative area. Community is not a thing to find out there, Community is a network of relationships tied together by common interests, affection, and routines. Similarly, the nature they share: the common goods are not only things or natural resources in a place, but precisely commons are found with communities of practices that have historically looked after nature for reciprocal common good. Monquentiva is a community to the extent that it shares fundamental practices for its continued existence (Zibechi, 2013; Tzul Tazul, 2013). Monquentiva is a community of practices, and doing so, they form a common ground; the vereda, the lake, the paramo, family, and the cooperative where they get their subsistence with the cows, so joining efforts through commoning (the verbalized form of community as practice). They integrate humans and other non-humans in relationships of reciprocity, mutual care and the share of benefits.

Immediately after the declaration of quarantine throughout the country, the governors of Cundinamarca and Boyacá, as well as the environmental authorities, decided to close access to their departments and to regional and national natural parks, including Chingaza National Natural Park, by means of resolution 137 on March 16, 2020. This resolution has resulted in an unexpected mild passive ecological restoration of the forest due to low human presence during the last five months. However, the rangers of the Encenillo Natural Reserve expressed that the lockdown has affected ecotourism and the peasant’s dependence on this economy, a phenomenon that has occurred in other conservation areas worldwide during the health crisis (Bates et al, 2020; Spenceley, Forthcoming). The lockdown has also slowed down the anthropic drivers of forest degradation, for example timber and mining extraction have been stopped or reduced periodically during the first five months of the quarantine due to the restriction of mobility and cargo transport. Economic activities that harm the environment like the extraction of sand, limestone, or coal for construction, which involve dredging or grinding mountains, were temporarily reduced.

Historically, peasants from the high mountains of the Cundiboyacense Plateau of the Colombian Andes have been characterized by a social ethos as shy and introverted, as well as respectful (Fals Borda, 1984). They have lived with limited infrastructure and their settlements are dispersed over the landscape, another indigenous Muisca characteristic that has survived until the present, so these peasant communities live in relative isolation. However, these settlement and character patterns do not mean that they are not reciprocal and supportive; on the contrary, as confirmed during fieldwork, the people of the paramos have strong roots with their territory, relatives, and neighbors, where the role of women constitutes the connecting bridge between groups, as in the Muisca organization of a matriarchal society (Broadbent, 1981).

However, the idea of isolation should only be associated with its remote location up in the mountains and the lack of state infrastructure, but not with an isolationist or individualistic character; on the contrary, their autonomy, which differs from the liberal notion of self-sufficiency or individuality (Esteva, 2011, Escobar, 2016), rests on local and regional connections and the exchange of goods and services with surrounding villages, as well as the formation of national and international links that stimulate the development of new capacities and collective actions for sustainability and resilience, for example with institutions and NGOs in the Netherlands to produce Gouda cheese. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, the people of Monquentiva decided to build a silo to guarantee food for their cows. The silo is a common property and a collective provision.

The economic autonomy of the people of Monquentiva is associated with the dairy cooperative and robust family and communitarian organization. Decision-making is carried out in assemblies, and direct democracy is practised, guided by old men and women such as Don Elias, Abigail or Cecilia (who died recently and was a loss for the community). So, through these forms of decision-making, the inhabitants of this village have been able to respond rapidly to Covid-19 and the economic and social constraints of lockdown. The fast decision to close the village, regulate hygienic measures, and ensure food helped limit the spread of the virus.

Among the municipalities of Ubaté, Sopó, Villapinzón, Guasca, Utica, Mesitas del Colegio, and Villeta, the respective mayors and organized peasant communities have revived the tradition of bartering (trueque), a Muisca indigenous practice of exchanging food, products and services (Semana Rural, 2020). The peasants are currently exchanging vegetables, fruit, milk, and fertilizers. The pandemic in the high Andes region has revealed the fragility of life by the restrictions of the “normal economy” but have encouraged ancestral practices and feelings of re-communalization to thrive among the inhabitants of these forests. We have observed the awakening economic re-locality emphasizing the importance of exchanges at closer geographic distances to guarantee food autonomy and mutual care for safety, rather than military securitization or surveillance (as developed in the cases of Pinto & Ojeda, 2020; Amador et al, 2020). The people of Monquentiva have done this by strengthening their bonds of solidarity from their ancestral and modern social relations and mutual support, which is visible in their practices and institutions.

The rural areas of high Andean forests in the eastern mountain range in Colombia have had a respite of deforestation and degradation during the Covid-19 lockdown, with a minor or null negative impact on communities. The moral economy (Polanyi, 1944 (2007)) of this mode of relationality unfolds from affective practices tying people, animals, mountains, lakes, and water together through communing, and it has greatly contributed to the reduction of environmental damage during the health emergency and has controlled the spread of the virus without risking collective welfare in terms of food and care.

In times of Covid-19, in the Cundiboyacense Plateau, we have observed the re-emergence of ancestral practices with new practices of social organization (the cooperative) as socio/ecological forms of relationality that have been able to protect this environment and its inhabitants from this virus and promise to do so for future disturbances. Covid-19 has this double condition of having been caused by disruptive human-nature relationships, but at the same time in some place, Covid-19 is creating new waves of environmental degradation, so a public policy that addresses the current health emergency and prevents future emergencies must seriously consider environmental problems and promote harmonious human-nature relationships through strategies of re-communalization, promoting commoning (making community), re-locating the economy, and prioritizing the ethos of care instead of securitization. The Monquentiva example is an opportunity to replicate this smallscale experience worldwide.