Colombia Postcard: Native Plants And Caribbean Values

Older people in San Basilio de Palenque know 64 edible plants native to the region. Their grandchildren, about half. How can the agriculture past of this region not become history?

Fruit sellers in Cartegna
Fruit sellers in Cartegna
Mariana Escobar Roldán

SAN BASILIO DE PALENQUE“Everyone needs to eat from agriculture. The pope, the bishop and the priest. Silversmiths and cabinet-makers, clothing clerks, storekeepers and the farmer, too. Who can take care of us — who, if the farmer doesn’t sow?”

Domingo Rocha, a farmer in San Basilio de Palenque, in the Bolivar region of northern Colombia, is singing the nostalgia brought on by the ever-decreasing importance of his lifelong profession. Like many other older people in this town south of Cartagena, Rocha — who is known locally as Mingo — is worried that the younger generations have lost the local peasant traditions. Worse, he says, they don’t even know the names of the different plants and fruits that grow in this inland stretch, 50 kilometers from the Caribbean coast.

In fact, a recent study showed that older people in Palenque know, on average, 64 edible plants native to the region — while their grandchildren only know of 36, and the majority of those they don’t ever eat because they consider them unappetizing.

Young people in Palenque admit their ignorance when it comes to the plants that grow in the hills and dry forests in this small town, which were analyzed by the Interdisciplinary Center of Development Studies (Cider) of the University of the Andes as part of research on edible plants in Afro-Colombian history.

Palenque is an important town in that history. It was founded in the 16th century by escaped slaves, and is considered the first free town in the Americas. The residents of Palenque were able to live relatively isolated — and thus free — from outside influences for centuries, and most residents today are of African heritage.

Margaret Pasquini, the research director, said that, “rescuing the knowledge and culinary traditions is of vital importance, if you keep in mind that these plants can bring food and nutritional security to the communities, and in addition, contribute to the creation of a cultural identity for the descendants of Africans in Bolivar.”

Protecting banana plants on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia (Fairsing)

But consumption of native plants is low in Bolivar, according to the Cider study, as it is in many other places. That could explain the concerning levels of malnutrition that plague the region.

What's been lost

According to a report from the United Nations Development Fund, in 2012 the rate of malnutrition for children 5 and under in Bolivar was 9.%, higher than the national average of 7%. That means that almost 10 out of every 100 children are either moderately or severely underweight.

“Why have these things been lost?” asks Guillermina Gonzalez, a 68-year-old woman from Palenque. “Because your grandparents did it, your mother didn’t and now the daughters of your mother don’t do it either. The woman used to go out to the hills together to harvest plants, and now they have to go to work."

Gonzalez continued, with an eye on the modern kitchen: "Women think that food doesn’t have any taste unless they throw in a bouillon cube, even though some chilies and cilantro used to be enough. Now people are worried that they need garlic and they have to run to the store to buy it, because no one grows anything in their yard anymore.”

According to Josefa Hernandez, a Palenquera and a language advisor with the Ministry of Culture, there are plenty of plants that can grow in Palenque: spinach — used to prepare a juice to strengthen the immune system — sapote, cucumber, pumpkin, guazuma, avocado, yams, mamee apples, and beans for everyday consumption, traditional medicinal plants like balsam apple, and the famous bleo (a leaf with high nutritional value that the older generation used to add to soups).

Pizza came to Palenque and it stayed,” Hernandez said. “Now everyone wants things that are easy to prepare and prefer to buy them in the store rather than growing them and cooking them.”

Fiesta Palenque (Steven Joyce)

Hernandez explained that, even if the legacy of traditional plants has been lost for cultural reasons, farmers also don’t have any incentives to conserve their knowledge. “When farmers go to sell their products, they encounter a market with very low prices, that don’t even allow for subsistence. Who is going to continue growing under those conditions?” she asked.

School gardens

Hilson Baptiste, the Minister of Agriculture in Antigua and Barbuda was recently quoted as saying that the region around the Carribean has "a nutritional crisis” that requires every country figure out ways to feed its own people.

That is why in Jamaica, Haiti, Bahamas and other Caribbean nations, residents are reclaiming their agricultural past.

In Jamaica, for example, food imports doubled between 1991 and 2001 and farmers went broke. Now stores label local products with signs meant to incentivize buying them — while the government has given out thousands of seed kits meant to kickstart domestic agriculture, and 400 schools have food gardens that are tended by the students and the teachers.

In the Bahamas, around $350 million is invested in food imports every year, representing between 80 and 85% of the agricultural market in the country. The Bahamas is creating a Nutritional Sciences Institute that intends to teach students about better agricultural practices.

According to Erecia Hepburn, the development coordinator for the Institute of Marine Sciences and Agriculture at the University of the Bahamas, the academic program will include training in making a profit with agriculture, aquaculture, agricultural management, environmental conservation and agro-industry.

Back in Palenque, the schools have established a student garden program, and a group of women are trying to sell desserts based on traditional plants. For Joaquin Valdez, a local resident of African heritage, the disappearance of this culinary and nutritional legacy is alarming.

“The first thing that gave us security when we came to America from Africa was the forest and the hills, where we found the solutions to our health and nutritional problems," he said. "That is where we were able to put into practice the one and only thing we were allowed to bring from our continent: knowledge.”

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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