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The ESX/COCA project documents the Nasa indigenous rituals for the coca plant in Colombia in the context of widespread global use of narcotics and decades of an old and failed War on Drugs. The coca plant is native to South America and has been regarded by native peoples of the Andes for millennia as sacred plant regardless the opposition of colonial and postcolonial policies imposed to them by western civilization. Among the Nasa indigenous coca or Esx (in Nasa Yuw language) is employed in ritual ceremony, for medicinal purposes and as a mild stimulant in daily life as part of their culture and traditions. 


In 2018, with the support of a grant given by the Ministry of Culture in Colombia, I traveled on three occasions to the Nasa reservation of Toribio in the southern region of Cauca, where I was invited to photograph a pilot school called Wasak Kweweks. There, thirty-two children from three to 14 years old are learning the Nasa Yuwe language, Nasa cultural traditions, and traditional uses of the coca plant. These youth are taught by a traditional doctor called The wala, six teachers, one counselor, and one cook. Coca rituals that have been inherited from the Incas are practiced to train these children to become the walas, midwives, or cultural leaders and thus ensure the continuity of Nasa culture.

I also did photographic documentation in the Nasa reservation of Kite Kiwe, which was settled by 300 displaced people after the 2001 Naya massacre committed by paramilitaries operating in Colombia’s brutal internal conflict. In all, a total of 3,800 people were displaced and 30 to 100 people were killed. Due to this atrocity, the Nasa of Kite Kiwe lost their culture and their coca rituals, they have worked for 19 years to recover from the tragedy. Before the massacre some of the community’s walas were targeted and killed by the paramilitaries. ESX/COCA looks at the efforts of the Nasa to recover their sacred relationship with coca in a context of cultural survival, threats, and the assassination of Gerson Acosta, Kite Kiwe leader in 2017.


I photographed this project using a large format film camera and printed the images with the antique Platinum-Palladium process.  This approach links the images to the past and evokes the long history of struggles by the indigenous in the Andes to defend the sacred coca plant and their cultural heritage. As a Colombian-American photographer, with this project I seek to educate audiences about the values and practices of Nasa indigenous people on coca and to provoke reflection about alternatives to the War on Drugs. 

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