Serranía de las Quinchas: Indigenous Embera and Spirits Entangled


Mónica Amador-Jiménez, University of Bristol

Travelling from Puerto Boyacá to the Serranía de las Quinchas Regional Park, about halfway to las Quinchas you arrive at a farm called “Triple G.” This farm, which looks like most other cattle and pasture farms in this region, is close to the Embera Cabildo, an indigenous settlement that was established about 17 years ago and whose governing council is recognized as an indigenous authority by the municipality and the Ministry of Interior of Colombia. In this blog entry, we will share impressions from our encounters with the inhabitants of this settlement, a group of Emberas that had been forcibly displaced from other parts of the country and who, upon reaching the mountain range of the Quinchas, settled down and soon initiated a deep relationship with these forested mountains.

On our way to the Cabildo in August 2019, we met along the road an indigenous couple who worked hard under the scorching sun producing charcoal. Charcoal is one of the main sources of income of this region, being sold to restaurants and on the market place in a nearby town. However, the couple told us that they do not make much profit from it, as they sell a package of charcoal for 8.000 Colombian pesos while intermediaries sell it in Puerto Boyacá for 20.000 pesos. The intermediaries, who can reach the buyers in Puerto Boyacá as they have access to means of transportation, do not run the same risks that the producers do, both in physical or legal terms. Producing charcoal is an activity that is illegal in this area as it is considered to be causing deforestation.

Picture 1. Charcoal, Picture was taken by Mónica Amador, August 2019.

The couple we met, Juan and Ana, had settled in the municipality of Puerto Boyacá about ten years ago, both having been violently displaced from their regions of origin. The stories they told us were heartbreaking. Juan comes from Risaralda in the West of Colombia and Ana from Caquetá in the South-East. Before being displaced to the centre of Colombia, where Puerto Boyacá is located, Ana’s second husband had been killed by someone in their community who had accused him of being a sorcerer. Also, her first husband had been killed. Juan’s story is even more dramatic as he is the only survivor of a massacre where his entire family was killed, including his children. After escaping the violence and the war, they met here and decided to take care of each other and to make a family, mindful of the fact that the war could also reach them here.

According to Astrid Ulloa (2004), the Embera are an indigenous group that inhabits the Biogeographic Chocó of Colombia, but also in parts of Antioquia, Risaralda and Caquetá. Within this group, there are two subgroups, namely the Chamí and Katío. Since colonial times, this indigenous group has resisted the onslaught of colonialists, dispossession, slavery, and diseases. Essentially, their drive for life and persistence has led them historically to migrate to isolated places where they can reproduce their cosmology, practices and way of life.

The social and magical-religious world of the Embera is deeply rooted in nature, and it is especially connected to rivers, water ponds and the flows of water and spirits. According to anthropological studies and narratives of the Embera, the river keeps secrets and upstream there are powerful and hidden forces that the Jaibaná (the shaman, usually a man, connoisseurs of medicinal plants and of the magical forces of nature-spirits) must control and take care of. The Embera usually prefer to make their settlements downstream the river and distant from freshwater springs, but they establish a profound connection with the river and a relationship with the nature that is entangling it, a type of connection that both implies respect and distance.

The indigenous Cabildo (Council) of the Embera in Puerto Pinzón-Puerto Boyacá is constituted by Emberas belonging to both the Chamí and Katío subgroups. Only the youngest members of the cabildo are born in the municipality as practically all the adults originally hail from the departments of Chocó, Risaralda, Caquetá, and Putumayo, some having been in this region for almost two decades while others have arrived more recently. According to the Colombian anthropologist and Linguist Daniel Aguirre, the Emberas from different areas of the country are able to communicate with each other despite regional linguistic differences, something which has made it easier for this group of people to form a functioning community in spite of internal tensions and subdivisions. This is, however, a process that has taken more than 17 years and there have been a number of painful incidents during these years. The Embera in Puerto Pinzón are thus a heterogeneous group, made up of uprooted members of the two subgroups that have been expelled and displaced by violence and armed conflict in their different regions of origin.

To analyze the sense of cohesion and at the same time the reconfiguration of the Embera in Puerto Boyacá, I will refer to the studies of the anthropologist Sidney Mintz, who, while studying the formation of voodoo religion in Haiti, argued that voodoo is part of a specific black African slave identity-community, which emerged through the slave experience and not through the transmission of a common monolithic past from Africa to America. As Mintz and Price (1992) show, the diverse social groups of slaves did not have a common identity or place of origin before slavery. However, after the traumatic experience of slavery, they formed an underlying ‘cognitive grammar’ that oriented their subsequent responses in the new context. They formed new relationships, institutions, and a sense of community, being new in a new territory. This sense of identity and territoriality emerged only in America, so voodoo was an American creation rather than an African legacy. In a similar manner, the Embera Cabildo emerged after a common traumatic experience, and despite their internal differences they do today, in their practices, endeavour to be a collective entangled with this territory.

The cabildo consists of a number of makeshift wooden houses on a small and dry area with very little land suitable for agricultural purposes. While walking up a steep slope to get up to the centre of the settlement, we saw a group of women, teenagers, and children sitting outside in the shade making Embera necklaces and bracelets of colour beads, called shakiras, forming beautiful colour combinations. These necklaces, bracelets, and earrings are sold in the city of Medellin-Antioquia, and constitute another precarious form of economic income for this community. While making figures and colour combinations with the beads, the women talk, teach their children to select the beads, and one of them was breastfeeding her baby while continuing to make a necklace that she was working on. Most of the designs are ancestral but there are also some contemporary. Ubaldina, one of the women in the group, told us that her son occasionally searched the internet for new designs in order to bring innovative and attractive products to the market.

The whole cabildo consists of no more than four hectares of land, and we were told that when the Embera first arrived here they started cultivating banana, mamoncillo, guava, yuca, lemon and medicinal plants, but they soon discovered that the land was less fertile than where they had come from. One of the oldest women in the community, who is also the person who knows most about how to make traditional medicine and who during our visit entertained us by singing some traditional Embera songs, told us that she had planted the first trees on this land and that the land now was infertile, dry and arid. Some standard crops would simply no longer grow on the infertile land. The old woman did with certain uneasiness explain to us that this land did not formally belong to them. The municipality had allowed them to settle there and use the land, but the Emberas did not have property rights to the small area of land where they lived. The land still is the municipal ​property and it depends on the will of the mayor if they could continue living here or not.

While trying the ácid mamoncillos fruits, we walked by the house of Byron, the Jaibaná of the community (shaman). Byron is a young man and he was sitting on the porch in front of his home while his two small children were inside watching TV. He stood up and walked toward us to greet us. He told us that many children in the community had become very sick as no clean water had been available for the past 15 days because the municipal aqueduct was damaged. They had complained to the municipality and other local government entities, but they had so far not received a response. Both children and adults were now drinking water from a contaminated stream which was surrounded by garbage. Because they had to drink this water, many children in the community had diarrhoea and fever and they were becoming weaker and weaker. Not a single doctor or health worker had visited the community since the aqueduct was damaged, and there were literally no medicines available in the area. The Jaibaná, therefore, had to take care of their community on his own using traditional medicine, just as his predecessors had done for thousands of years. He told me that he had recently returned from the Serranía de las Quinchas where he had gone to find medicinal plants to prepare curative baths for the children and to give them a traditional medicine in order to remove the evil from their bodies. The Jaibaná also do ceremonies to force the negative energies out of the patient’s body. The Jaibaná mentioned that in the Serranía very powerful spirits were present, and added that they have to be treated with care. He underlined that he had committed to appeasing them so that they would remain calm up in the mountain.

The Jaibaná was still in a process of exploring the Quinchas in a fresh way, and to establish a dialogue with its spirits. So far some of its plants had revealed their powers to him, while others had not yet done so. He explained to us that he had to ask the spirits for permission before extracting medicinal plants. Without such permission, the plants would not cure illnesses. What he had to do was to talk with the spirit of the plant, to set up a line of communication between his spirit and that of the plant. The Jaibaná had discovered that there are also dark powerful spirits in the Quinchas that could hurt you, and he preferred not to communicate with them. Or at least he wanted to acquire more knowledge about these spirits before approaching them. Quinchas had similar plants to those he knew from the Risaralda mountains – where he grew up – but he underlined once again that some of the plants had not wanted to talk to him yet.

In the streams, rivers and the rest of the nature of the mountain range of the Quinchas, the Embera people have reconfigured their cosmogony and their practices of life after the forced displacements. These displacements have a historical backdrop that goes back all the way to colonization and the displacements have continued up until today due to the internal armed conflict that still is going on. The strategy of the resilience of the Embera has traditionally been to leave the area where they have been living and then establish themselves in a new region where they can reconfigure themselves, establish a dialogue and form a new ecology-ontology of practices with natures-spirits, just as they are doing in Quinchas. These dialogues with spirits and medicinal practices are also forming new territorialities and new socio-ecological compositions in the encounter of the Embera with the Quinchas mountain range.

Arturo Escobar refers to the disposition towards intertwining and emerging with others (humans, natures and materialities) a condition that allows persistence, which he terms as relational ontology (2015). So, in spite of the violence and dispossession, the Embera display this disposition to connecting with a new environment. The relation Embera-Quinchas, which is not only between people and nature, is one that requires a symmetrical spiritual dialogue. By establishing such a dialogue one grants agency to the beings of nature – that is to say to plants – a dialogue that also eliminated the asymmetric difference between humans and other nonhumans (nature). This would imply that socio-ecological relationships are not only human and nature interactions (instrumental or resources extraction interactions), but that they also manifest the presence of other forces or agencies such as, in this case, of spirits. And in the dialogue with the spirits, there are interactions of mutual benefit or reciprocity.

By considering identity-territoriality as an emergent process, a historical and situated experience, I want to encourage the reader to consider that the relationship between Embera- Quinchas is one of mutual co-constitution, where reciprocities of care and benefit are formed.  In view of the above, the nature of the Quinchas should be considered a subject of rights for the benefit of the environmental conservation of this ecology.

The Environmental Management Plan of the Regional Park Serranía de las Quinchas, approved by the regional environmental agency CorpoBoyacá, was designed 2 years ago after the establishment of the Regional Park in 2015. The plan does not include the relationships between the Embera and Quinchas, neither in the diagnosis nor in the definition of the social projects. These relationships are thus absent from this environmental policy instrument, the reason being that as long as the indigenous do not live inside Quinchas they are not part of Quinchas. This alleged absence is based on a conceptualization of identity-territory and environmental conservation as limited to them whether or not one has a residence in a delimitated land or geographic area; the rights are handed over to the person when he or she is living inside the limits of the Regional Park. However, even the biophysical processes that nourish or constitute the Serranía de las Quinchas do not end in the scientific-political administrative parameters that have determined the limits of the park, neither do the socio-economic processes and the spiritual (“cultural”) relationships with the Quinchas finish in the limits of the park. The Quinchas is formed by forces-processes and materialities that exceed the mindset of inside/outside. So, I propose that we think about environmental conservation through the mindset of connections and fluids, putting the focus on relationships that constitute the Quinchas by affecting, benefiting and nourishing this ecology at different intensities.

We would like to suggest to understand identity-territoriality and nature from the perspective of Becoming. So in order to protect the Serranía de las Quinchas we should listen and make visible the other ways of being with the Quinchas, like the ontological practices between Embera-Quinchas. Ecological thinking in its democratic spirit suggests that either should include these other configurations of human and more than human relationships. The above exceeds modern-scientific thinking and modern constructions of the indigenous identity and of territoriality as static over land;  in this case, it is showing us resilience as a disposition to mutual learning, dialogue and entangling a fluid process, like the water of the river that displays the thought and form of territoriality of the Embera. This expresses mutual care and learning, as the Jaibaná explains: a dialogue with spirits-mountain-plants to cure their children, while he promises to take care of the powerful forces that inhabit the mountain.


Escobar, A. (2015). Territorios de diferencia: la ontología política de los “derechos al territorio”. Cuadernos de antropología social, (41), 25-38.

Mintz, S. and Price, R. (1992) The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. Rev. ed. Boston: Beacon.

Ulloa, A.  (2004)  La construcción del nativo ecológico. Complejidades, paradojas y dilemas de la relación entre los movimientos indígenas y el ambientalismo en Colombia. Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia (ICANH)- Colciencias.