2007 - 2022

From Guambía to Govan: Reflections on indigenousness, immigration and cultural memories

The territory is the centre point from which resources flow – resources which make up communities, livelihoods, animals, plants, ancestors, the land and the emotional fabric of the people who inhabit it. We find ourselves in a circle, passing cotton string back and forth to weave a pattern, sometimes chuckling, sometimes heavy with sorrow about the future, while we collectively identify vital building blocks that make up a thriving community connected to the land.

‘We’ were a group of community activists attending a workshop in November 2016 in Ibrox (Glasgow) on the indigenous Misak people’s unique grassroots toolkit for community planning named Plan de Vida (Life Plan). The two-day workshop was facilitated by Jeremías Tunubalá and organised by Life Mosaic, who run these workshops in Indonesia and other places.

Plan de Vida is a comprehensive visioning and planning tool for communities to shape their own futures, gaining autonomy and integrating culture with the land in a way that departs from our familiar linear view of time as an arrow heading to the future. The grassroots, bottom-up inside-out and ultimately spiritual nature of this community planning strategy is deeply subversive and stands in sharp contrast to top-down imposed development strategies that are driven by economic incentives and targets. Communities collectively look at their past, memories and identity, and create future strategies which are responsive to their needs and protect their cultural traditions. The approach is based on collective thinking, which is an important part of Misak culture. While an understanding of the Misak mindset is not a requirement for Plan de Vida, it has inherently informed their strategies for autonomy which are now presented in workshops around the world.

The workshop started with a water ritual, where we all tried to connect with water brought from river Clyde, which set an open and reflexive tone for the whole experience. This was the first glimpse of a different view of time: in spite of a delay in the train bringing taita Jeremías to Glasgow, the ritual was not rushed. Everybody took all the time they needed to connect with the water. Everybody was heard, everybody’s experience was important. The ritual also helped us focus on another important point: our relation to place (Govan, Glasgow or other places where people lived), and our relation with other places in the past. Plan de Vida starts from reflecting on our past, where we belong, and on our relation to the places and communities we have lived in. These reflections are conceived as memories rather than linear narratives, so collective cultural knowledge can be accessed to inform future pathways.

The Misak’s own cultural memories can help us understand the relationship between a place and its past. In 1537 Spanish conquistador Sebastián de Belalcázar found a thriving city in a beautiful valley by the Cauca river in Colombia. After a violent attack, de Belalcázar imprisoned chief Payán, leader of the prosperous Misak community, who refused to surrender. After killing Payán, de Belalcázar destroyed his house and had a church built in its place, the Catedral del Reloj. Centuries after that, taita Jeremías still visits the Catedral, in the former centre point of the ancient Misak country, and pays respect to his ancestor chief Payán without asking the Archbishop for permission.

After the colonial takeover, the former Misak city became the city of Popayán. Nowadays the Misak territory has been shrunk and pushed out of the most fertile lands, and Popayán is no longer part of the Misak territory. However, unlike many other indigenous peoples in Latin America and Colombia, the Misak people themselves have not been exterminated. Even the attempts of Catholic priests to suppress their language have not been successful, perhaps thanks to their non-violent but defiant attitude. During the 1980s, the Misak reclaimed part of their territory from the large landowners’ estates. In contrast, other related indigenous peoples, like the Pastos in the south of Colombia, lost their language, territory and most of their memory, and are only now starting to regain part of it.

The Misak people’s recently elected leader is Liliana Muelas, a 30-year-old mother, who joined the workshop in Ibrox via a live video link from Bogotá to explain to us the different ways in which the Misak’s own Plan de Vida had taken root. The Misak farm the land to sustain themselves. As their quest for autonomy progressed, they continued developing their own education system taught in schools in the Misak language, and a health system based on their ancestral knowledge. They founded a Misak University, designed and built in the shape of a traditional Misak hat, where young people can progress to higher education as part of the Misak education system.

It is easier to romanticise or even fetishise elements of non-Western cultures than to pay attention to them on their own terms. The Misak want to share with the world an approach that has worked very well for them, and they are aware that people from different cultures can interpret and use this approach in different ways. So how does the Misak’s Plan de Vida relate to ourselves and the situation in Scotland, and what can we learn from it?

We explore our responses to the workshop in a dialogic form to reflect the differing backgrounds of the authors, two immigrants in Scotland – Alvaro (Colombia) and Svenja (Germany).

Svenja: I find the story of the Misak incredibly inspiring, but how does it translate to the European situation? If I think of my own family, the small part of my ancestry that I know of involves farmers with a smallholding on my grandmother’s side. Nowadays, as in most of Europe, much of the traditional farming practices and knowledge have been lost. We have become completely dependent on importing goods from other parts of the world, mostly as the economically dominant and oppressive trade partner.

So I wonder how we can adopt a Plan de Vida in today’s Europe deprived of much of its traditional knowledge, and with the environmental, economic and cultural debts we have towards the cultures we dominated – and still are dominating today in different ways. In Scotland, we have the Community Empowerment Act and small successes for land reform, and the need for food security is becoming more and more urgent with the increasing environmental pressures we face.

How does that compare to your experience?

Alvaro: I have a less proud relationship with Popayán than taita Jeremías. My ancestors were the people pushing his out of their lands and trying to annihilate their culture, and maybe even their population. I have not digged deep into my family history, but I know that part of my mother’s family were rich people in Popayán, including an army general who was in charge of the country in 1884. I am not in contact with that part of my family, but it is probably easy to find muffled echoes of this unjust privilege running through my life.

This made it a strange experience to attend a workshop where Jeremías showed me and others the amazing community organising toolkit his people have developed to find their own way in a hostile world, the Plan de Vida.

Svenja: Given your landowner ancestry, it was fascinating that you ended up playing the part of the ‘territory’ in the part of the workshop which involved weaving the parts of life, culture and nature which make up a community connection to the land, guided by Jeremias. It was as if we were tapping into some deeper dynamics.

Alvaro: Yes. There I was, beholding how one part of my background has resisted the other. It is almost certain that I have an important amount of indigenous ancestors from the southwest Colombian mountains. My own path brought me to clumsily try to do what the Misak have done with astounding success: help a community of oppressed people stand up to take charge of their future, together.

Svenja: So we need access to land and resources to gain more autonomy in our bioregions. But it’s harder in the cities to know what to do. How does your work Glasgow relate to all this?

Alvaro: I work in projects that directly work in solidarity with migrants. Migrants in Glasgow are in a very different situation to indigenous communities cornered in their own territory, but the wisdom of the resisting Misak and other peoples can give us inspiring insight into our own situation and unacknowledged power.

Svenja: We will continue to experience an increase in migration as climate change and other issues that were primarily caused here in the West are starting to bite. So we need new narratives of solidarity in our communities, accessing shared and diverse memories and establishing a united call for land rights in the face of historic oppressions. In some ways, people like the Misak probably share more with Scottish highland communities than they share with the wealthiest landowners in Colombia.

Rather than learning and reciting linear histories which are usually constructed by the dominant culture, I think the idea of memories is incredibly powerful. In the diverse places in which we live, shaped by generations of migrants, we can weave lost or near-forgotten indigenous knowledge in with the knowledge and memories of people from other places. I think this can be one of the most powerful tools in resisting xenophobic narratives, which is so important in this day and age. The aftermath of the lorry attack in Berlin, when the far right exploited the public horror and shock for their own racist causes, was just one recent example.

From your perspective, how can we make sense of all this? How can we bring together past and present from different cultures who’ve been oppressed or dominant in various ways, to move forward together here in Scotland and specifically Glasgow?

Alvaro: Being cut off from their roots is in most cases a heavy sorrow for migrants, and it is never easy to find a way of connecting to our new temporary or permanent place of residence in a significant, fulfilling and fruitful way. However, even before the workshop I witnessed the power of looking into one’s past with new eyes. Cut off from the society that pushed them to hate their opponents in a violent conflict, some asylum seekers find themselves living together with the kind of people they were taught to demonise, and learn to find in their past a sense of identity which allows them to accept these people.

Even migrants with less tragic reasons to move, like myself, find unexpected connections with our place of origin, different to the often oppressive clichés we have adopted without noticing. Plan de Vida is a powerful and methodic way to let our diverse memories bring us together in the weaving of our collective future. We all find that our roots, however different they might be, can bring us together, by helping us imagine where we want to go and how others can join our journey.

Svenja: From my perspective, and as was clear in the workshop from the inspiring work the participants are involved in, there is so much work already happening on the ground in Scotland which reflects and is receptive to a Plan de Vida approach. It’s very much work in progress and the obstacles can feel overwhelming at times, so it’s good to take stock from time to time. While much of the land still isn’t accessible to us and the dominant paradigm is a consumerist one, we struggle in our little corners to reclaim whatever nurtures life: community food growing, reclaiming and celebrating cultural heritage from here and elsewhere, solidarity projects like the ones you work in, efforts to reclaim the common good and community ownership of assets, educational organisations and projects that teach skills which are useful in their own right and not just to succeed in increasingly competitive workplaces.

Through a workshop like this, we get to appreciate how these things are all connected – we’re already actively participating in creating our own Plan de Vida. We just need to grow as a movement in our quest for autonomy and solidarity. Looking at where the wider political trajectory is headed, it’s going to be absolutely essential.

Dr Alvaro Francisco Huertas Rosero coordinates the Unity World Cafe and Food Project, and is on the Board of the Glasgow Night Shelter for Destitute Asylum Seekers.

Dr Svenja Meyerricks is a Director of the Centre for Human Ecology and Propagate Scotland, and works as project co-ordinator of a community garden in the North of Glasgow.

Comments (3)

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  1. Alf Baird says:

    “…to connect with water brought from river Clyde”

    This reminds me of the offshore bankers who own and regulate the river and firth and much of the land running along its ‘banks’, one of many unfortunate legacies of unionism, colonialism, exploitation and oppression still controlling and holding back Scotland and its people and culture. Until we see effective land reform, ideas like this stand no chance.

    1. Alvaro Huertas says:

      Land reform is absolutely necessary, no doubt. But there are other forms to resist than appealing to the government to change the rules, and this post talks about one of them. Had the Misak people waited for land reform to recover their territory, they would still be waiting. They started recovering their land by what was described by oligarch landowners as illegal means (which is technically correct) and ended up a major actor in the drafting of a new national constitution in 1991. Extensive land refor still has not happened in Colombia (the peace aggreements are expected to push it through) but many indigenous peoples have already recovered their territory.

  2. Fay Kennedy. says:

    This is such a positive project and it would be a great model to begin to recognise and maybe heal some of the trauma that the indigenous peoples have suffered here in Australia which has a history of appalling land theft. Then there is the refugees, migrants and others who make this place their home who would also benefit. So many poor people (the majority of us on the planet) have been affected by our past and to begin the journey even on a personal level is the beginning of empowerment and respect for self and others. Thanks so much for this article.

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