Fresh Leaves by Kristina Lyons


I. The fatigue of chasing money

Each month ends in a choice between running water or currents of light. Will they stumble around in the dark sandwiched between rows of lit windows? Or walk around dirty, no shadow behind which to hide the stains on clothes or grease in hair?

It is like chasing your own tail.

Sister-in-law, corner store, milkman, gas vender, landlord.

If there is any money left in a pocket after paying off last month’s debts the decision turns to: rice or oil? milk or coffee? the school uniforms, the bus fees…

This is how Carlos describes it. Allá afuera [Out there].

A never-ending list, constant question of this or that, an unpaid grocery credit pinned to the wall even under the best of conditions when the family has some form of daily earnings.

Allá afuera. Entangled with the state. On the grid, tracked down by bills and tax forms: electricity, phone reception, city water, and school registration. There is nothing public left in public services.  

Out there where people spend their days rummaging through garbage cans, selling newspapers and bubble gum, pushing carts of gadgets and food stands. That is, the lucky ones who have a frialator or streetside sugarcane press.  Out there where young men like him, coated in grime, direct traffic at the bus terminal: dale, dale, dale. Then run alongside driver side windows to coax out a few coins: deme, deme, deme.

A woman stands with a shovel in the middle of an unpaved highway, tiny piles of dirt and stones at her feet. She fills in the holes left behind by the weight of crude oil trucks. Almost five hundred tankers press down on this road every day. When buses, motorcyclists or truckers approach she raises a thin string intended to pause traffic. Just for a moment, one brief expectant moment. This woman – reflection in the rearview window – dusty outstretched hand, sunburnt face, and thinning piece of string. 

Rarely does anyone stop to pay for her public works.

When Carlos thinks about returning allá afuera he remembers this woman.

The man he was, the young boy.  His former life.

The system is a joke. No heart in it. It doesn’t sneak up on you. It screams from all directions: You’re not meant to be there. Out there is not a place for someone like you!

I listen quietly. I feel myself compelled to say something that neither one of us will believe.  I think about why it would even make sense to go back to school. What can one do with a GED?  As if reading my mind he says: There were nine of us. No one got beyond fifth grade. Besides, there are lawyers driving taxis you know.  And even if I could get ahead, what good would it do knowing that everyone else is still eating shit?   

I stare at this man and feel how the grinding weight of patriarchy came to curve his back.  To be poor and male, the sole breadwinner, unemployed, a father of three small children, bound by necessity, renting in an urban periphery of Colombia with a never-ending list, cycle of debt, and frantic tail to chase.  

He turns to me with a drained voice.  Just remembering is exhausting.  When I arrived here five years ago I felt like I was in paradise. Not necessarily a tranquil place, but a paradise because it became my refuge, a rest from the fatigue.

What may sound incredible begins to sound just about right.

It is the kind of rest one achieves when living under the logics of an explicit war: the planting of landmines, possibility of armed confrontation, manual eradication brigades that descend from helicopters, distant and not-so-distant military bombings, community rules enforced by the insurgency, and the risk of being confused with a so-called network of support for terrorism.

Other men refer to it as freedom.  Even when their families, mired in debt growing coffee back in the interior, say: You live in the jungle! (And they really do mean jungle.) Look around. You have nothing

But nothing is something.  Not forever. Not in the deepest crevices of a heart. Not even in the reasons for being there in the first place.

Maybe it feels like happiness, like being set free.

Free from constant consumption and the cash flow it requires. Free from acid-reflux at the end of each month.  Free from chronic unemployment. Free from urban vanity.

Everyone wears rubber campesino boots. Everyone’s hands and nails are stained burnt red from scraping the coca leaves. No one has electricity. And water, water flows down hoses from the mountains.   

A day laborer scraping coca leaves off the branch earns 25 mil pesos ($12.50 USD), not including the $2.50 more for every arroba of coca he or she harvests.  All meals and board are included in labor arrangements in the coca fields.

You walk away with 25 mil pesos libres libres [free free].  Not 20 or 15 or 10 subtract the cost of three meals a day, transportation, the rent…

When would this happen in the city?  I never had my own home. I was never going to own a piece of land. This when city folks complain that coca growers have become spoiled by “easy money,” and unwilling to work for anything less, drive up the cost of labor. But any less means working for nothing. How would these people understand? The kind of people who own homes and motorcycles, who buy their children new school notebooks, and eat meat with their lunch. Families that never have to feel the shame of being the only pitch black house on the street.  The kind of people that can compete.

It is possible to die of shame.  I am not exaggerating.  Out there they keep changing the rules. Anything is possible, yet everyone is hopeless.

We fall silent and the world is filled with the intense hum of an orchestra of crickets. Every now and then the high-pitched call of mochilero birds erupts out of a dense canopy of trees. The low growl of howler monkeys maintains a steady beat.  This sounds nothing like the urban jungle.   

I never ask people why they keep growing commercial coca crops.  Even when prices decrease, criminalization intensifies, and the cost of gasoline and fertilizer goes through the roof. The risks multiply.  The economic benefits invariably diminish.

I know that it still allows them to get by and pay for the things that no other “unskilled job” or neoliberal state will ever provide them. I know that it fuels the energy necessary to move on after you have been chewed up and spit out by a system that says be productive a las buenas o las malas [for better or for worse].

Tonight different feelings creep up inside of me though. 

A man has stopped chasing his tail.  It is not a triumphant moment. It is a moment like this:  sunset from a hammock, company of fireflies, the blink of their white light against a dark night, a sky without the color show of a military air raid.       

Tardecer San Miguel


II. Will you eat the coca leaf?   

A two-week game of cat and mouse has led to a standoff in the middle of the pasture.  Tensions run high.  For the last seven nights the antinarcotics police has not gotten any rest. They stayed up yelling, banging pots, firing machine guns, and letting off 40 mm grenades. Any noise that might drive the farmers mad, scare them off, or wear them down. Five hundred meters away, the farmers c
amped in a ravine with a melodic brook that eased them to sleep. Someone played a guitar next to the campfire.  Others gathered in small groups to discuss the upcoming national agrarian strike. They awoke well rested, well fed, and prepared to firmly defend their coca plants.        

The arrival of the manual eradicators and their police escorts comes as no surprise. They appear fifteen days after the crop duster planes fumigate overhead, a second wave of attack against stubborn cocaleros [coca growers] and even more stubborn coca plants.  Black Hawk helicopters circle above surveying the area for an open pasture.  This is the first and last time they will touch ground until they are allowed to land twenty days later to rescue the eradicators and lift them out. The farmers cover the pastures with their bodies blocking any attempts to drop food, water and supplies. Even when the Black Hawks hover low threatening to descend on their heads, no one flinches.  The farmers imitate military strategy: attack the vital resources of your adversary.  The police officers and eradicators look ragged. They have not been able even to gather firewood. The winter rains are brutal. Every last sock, boot, and pant leg are drenched.  

What began as thirty farmers soon grew to fifty, one hundred, now at least three hundred people, and more families from the neighboring municipality are on the way.  It is definitive.  Not one coca plant will be sacrificed. Not one more plant ripped out. The farmers are willing to chase the eradicators and police all over the territory if necessary.  Unfamiliar with the terrain, it is relatively easy to corral them into high ground and close off the exits with three-meter long plastic tents.  Inside the tents, the farmers organize into committees that link up to a central working group: logistics, security, and human rights.

Even when the eradicators change tactics to cover more ground – trekking five or six hours a day instead of moving laterally from one community to the next  – there are more cocaleros waiting to relieve fathers, sisters, cousins, and neighbors on the other side.  This kind of community-led mobilization – what they call internal confinement – is a recent phenomenon. Only a few years back it would have been too dangerous since armed actors who imposed a highly volatile urban/rural divide were already confining local communities.  Paramilitaries converted the area, ironically named El Paraíso [Paradise], into what people still refer to as El Cementerio [The Cemetery].  A large white cross marks the site of a mass grave, the remaining visible scar of a thousand indiscernible wounds. 

Even if the farmers succeed in fending off the eradication it is not lost upon them that they are fighting an unlikely battle. They not only risk their coca harvests and sole sustenance, but being caught in the crossfire of a guerrilla offensive against the police units.  Antinarcotics police that will inevitably return to rip out their crops another day.

 Who pays you? The people pay your salary and look how you treat them, says Iván, one of the farmers standing at the front of the group. A sea of navy blue uniforms sways before him. Some of the manual eradicators shift their body weight. Others drop their gaze. A number of them are demobilized paramilitaries.  Most of them are also from the poor, working class.  They ask themselves how and why they ended up doing the dirty work of the state…again.  The demobilized paramilitaries have heard of other reinsertados [reinserted into civil society] placed in a cacao project just down the highway: 100 hectares of land for 20 men. While 100 widows, many having lost their husbands to paramilitary violence, scratch out a living on a collectively run 20-hectare farm not far down the road. It is hard to say whether or not they are lucky bastards. With these kinds of odds, would even a Christian upbringing compel “neighbors” to shake hands across a fence?

Who is the leader here? Who’s the most revolutionary? demands to know one of the police lieutenants.

That skinny little white guy. He talks a lot, says a sergeant, gesturing in Iván’s direction. You talk a lot. What are you around here? 

As agreed upon, another farmer quickly intercedes: There are no representatives. Somos todos!  And what, we don’t have the right to speak?

His words dangle in the air like fresh bait.

It doesn’t take much.

There are fifty sleep-deprived police officers, more a unit of zombies than of men.  It is like watching a stick of dynamite, the fuse burning down to a blast cap. And then…

Don’t fuck around! Let us pass, dickhead! All night long enduring the mosquitos so that these maricas [fags]… 

Iván cuts the sergeant off midway through his insult: You guys make me laugh. Supposedly defending the nation, and you come down here to offend a bunch of poor farmers.

The sergeant grows even more aggressive, stepping daringly close to a row of coca bushes: What? If I rip up this plant, what are you going to do? If it were a corn crop I’d know that it was going to become fuel or food or something, but this shit…what are you going to do if I rip it up? You can’t eat it, marica.

It is faggot this and faggot that.

Yet there are no guarantees: Who is going to buy their corn for a fair price? Were the antinarcotics police going to buy it?  The government surely was not.  Not to mention that it had become illegal to grow just about anything, coca and otherwise. Last month a truck of brown sugar on its way for sale in Pitalito had been decommissioned, and that was even with a state sanitation certificate.  Last week it was a shipment of rice from Puerto Asís.  How to insert oneself in an ineffectual and biased bureaucracy? Where to pay taxes from already limited earnings? Should every block of brown sugar be packaged the same?  Could they really weed out all traditional economic practices?  Would they arrest people for sowing uncertified seeds? No one said they wanted to produce corn for ethanol to begin with. Their slogan is clear: food or fuel.  And no, it is not fair to say that you can’t eat coca leaves. 


You are stealing the food right off our plates, the salt off our tables. We have a right to clothe our children and for them to study. How can it be illegal for us to feed our families? asks Iván.

A woman who lives two farms over jumps ahead to the sad and desperate conclusion: You would have us begging on street corners in the city.

The sergeant isn’t paying much attention to them though.  He is more concerned with the sudden movement at the rear of the eradicators. A single voice sounds the alarm: Watch out, they are pushing from behind!  A young patrolman rapidly approaches the lieutenant, bending his head to report something in a low voice. A single bead of sweat drips down his forehead.  What he says sends the officer into a rabid flurry: I need to speak with someone who is in charge here because we are going to eradicate this shit! Planting landmines in the middle of the crops, you sons of a bitch! With or without mines we are going to eradicate this shit!

The community does not know all the details. Just that they are there. Just that they were told not to work the fields for a week.

Drastic measures. Dangerous measures.

The eradicators must know this.

The lieutenant gives a signal and the eradicators attempt to advance around the other side of the pasture, but the farmers speedily assembly and block their path.  One of the police patrolman growls at the crowd, Stop fucking around!  A man who looks like he might be in charge of the eradicators tries a
nother tactic: Don’t fight with us. Go get a camera. Go get the media to film this. Go fight with the government. Who is going to solve your problem here? He turns to the woman closest to him, and in a conspiring whisper adds, Listen, we’ll just rip them up and leave them lying there.  No one will prevent you from planting them back.

But it is too late. The woman is already incited by the police officer: The only ones fucking things up are you! The last time you came I cried. I begged you not to destroy my plants. My daughter had to drop out of school.  You left me with nothing!

The eradicator remains silent as if he recognizes that his own salary might be put to better use.

During their first confrontation with antinarcotics police, the farmers argued that the eradication could not proceed without a contingency plan in place. They cited the tenth paragraph of a 2006 law, Auto 218, passed by the constitutional court: the public forces are obliged to take preventative measures against displacing the civilian population.  Neither the police nor the eradicators had heard of the law. They made a call to antinarcotics headquarters in Bogotá, and returned saying that it was the mayor’s responsibility to provide food and shelter for the families that would be inevitably displaced once their livelihoods were uprooted.  It wasn’t their problem that the mayor had failed to take appropriate measures to prevent a humanitarian crisis.  Moreover, the mayor wasn’t going to feed and shelter them forever.  Bags of rice and cans of tuna aren’t a real solution. How many nights could they sleep on the cement steps of the town stadium?

The farmers already know this.

Either way it doesn’t matter.

All things can be justified if it will stop them in their tracks.

This is how life gets knotted up: soils littered with landmines, grenades launched into the air, sleep deprivation, short fuses.  A million reasons to scream until tears of anger spill from their eyes.

The lieutenant goes on shouting at the group of farmers. Now more of a desperate plea, he wants to understand: Who finances you? The guerrillas? How are you getting food?

Iván’s answer appears far too simple. The people are on our side. The storeowners are on our side.  They know that if we don’t have cash, their business will suffer. He fails to say that the cattle on their side too. Last night they ate grilled beef.

The sergeant is now waving his M16 automatic rifle in the air close to Iván’s head.  You think because you carry weapons you intimidate us. No señor. Go ahead and point that gun at me, but we are in our territory.

The sergeant laughs at Iván, practically spitting as he speaks.  What territory? What fucking territory? In the middle of the night or at dawn we are going to rip out these plants. Then what will you to do? He directs his next words to the lieutenant. This guy, this guy from Miraflores, the big mouth, he’s the one with the revolution.

Iván’s neighbor yells back, Careful with the finger pointing! Careful with the stigmatizing! Is it a crime to speak up and defend our rights in this country? 

This time Iván’s wife joins her: Put your guns down, put them down, you rat bastards! You should thank us. We’re protecting you. If we weren’t here the insurgency would have shit all over you.

One of the patrolmen mutters under his breath. Womanwhat a mouth!

She quickly swivels around and states matter of fact: When you start acting polite, so will we.

By now the lieutenant has stepped away from the escalating noise to make a call over the radio.  A deliberation is going on.  He could threaten to burn it all, but these cocaleros seem well informed about their rights. There are too many of them. The situation could get ugly.  It would be best to try and negotiate, propose eradicating the less attractive plants, and leaving intact the ones in best shape. Or he could give them the option of ripping the bushes out themselves. This way the farmers could sow them back once the police had taken photos of their effective uprooting.  It wouldn’t be difficult to make it look like more. Different angles could augment the heap of leaves and branches.  On the other hand, he could demand money, perhaps even five million pesos ($2,500 USD). No, these people won’t be blackmailed. Besides he can’t really control the eradicators. They might be so pissed off at this point that they tear everything out, deal or no deal. The renewal of their contract depends on results.  And the police, the police are hoping for bonus vacation days.

The lieutenant signs off the conversation and returns to overhear Iván say: You think there aren’t thousands of us? Today we are here. Tomorrow it will be others.  What can we do? You have guns, and we have shovels, sticks and machetes.  The lieutenant takes advantage of a brief pause. It cannot hurt to try and neutralize the situation. Let’s all calm down. Let’s see if we can negotiate.  I can call a major to come down here and explain things, talk it out, even with a lawyer. Let’s try to negotiate something so that we can do our job and you all can go home.

The farmers would like to laugh. Instead they remain unaffected. They have heard it all before.  It is a broken record.  Literally broke, cracked right in two.

We have nothing to negotiate with you unless you are President Santos or the US Ambassador. What can you negotiate? This is international drug policy. 0 coca! We have been demanding real alternatives for God knows how many years. What alternatives can you provide our families?

There is a lasting silence.  Even the lieutenant has run out of words.  The police officers look deflated. Their backs slouch. The sky turns shades of grey. It is about to rain.  Again.  Was it somehow unseemly to call it quits, accept defeat?  Stomachs growl.  Feet are soggy. When will the helicopters come back? The farmers are probably right. There is nothing more to do. 

Except make a final appeal.  An assumed sense of solidarity inflects in the eradicator’s voice.  I also have a family. I left my family at home to come work here. Just let us work. This when Iván replies with no hint of sarcasm: Brother, you’d be better off coming down here with us to sow some coca.


III. Cooking

The fumes are noxious, a reeling cocktail of lime, diesel, fertilizer, sulfuric and battery acid.  It is worse than vomit. Worse than fresh dog shit plastered across a heel.

Peor que el diablo.

Worse than the devil, however wretched he might smell.

As soon as the lime is thrown down, water sprinkled about, and the weed whacker revved up, a stench rises off the heap of leaves, burning our nostrils and throats.  It spins me dizzy until bits of leaves splay from the blades, pinching my face and neck.  Tiny instants of pain draw my focus back in on the work. There are no goggles or facemasks.  Occasionally the men tie a T-shirt or bandana around their nose.  With the free hand that is not swinging the weed whacker to and fro, the boss – el mago [the magician] – gestures for me to climb up into the black water tank already replete with shredded leaves.  Carlos shouts to me above the piercing buzz, He wants you to stamp down, make more room.  Apriétalo.  I think of crushing grapes with my bare feet.  Juice oozes between my toes. Do people still do that to produce wine?  No, that was a movie. Those weren’t my feet.  This is a whole different scene. Just climb up into the basin.  

El mago turns to me, and smiles. He gives me the thumbs up as I begin a tiny dance, my feet move around in circles. Now I feel like an Irish clogger stamping all over the dark green heap. Carlos shouts to m
e again, and his voice booms loudest just as the weed whacker winds down. I imagine his words tripping up the blades as they give a final spin or two.  Good thing you wore your boots to the chongo!

The men lose their appetite when they work in the laboratory.  They walk around gaunt and pale.  The women have to keep on cooking either way.  

Doña Carmen does not have to say anything. Her whole body respires tedium: hand on her back supporting a pregnant belly while she stirs the Nescafé, expressionless mouth with no energy to scold her young son who spritzes the month’s supply of rice with her best perfume. Then she does speak, pronouncing the words slowly, and with a certain light in her eyes as if the whole situation is somehow amusing. I think she wants to put me at ease.

Couldn´t stand that rancid smell?  I don’t blame you.  There are days when I have to come up for air too.  Her voice rises only slightly above the sound of the knife as it dices through a row of cabbage and taps against the slab of wood below.  I like eating salad, but I really don’t like to prepare itThis gets boring.Peeling yucca three times a dayI would much rather be working the field.  Our other farm is bigger.  There is some privacy.  I don’t know where the workers even find a corner to curl up in at night.

The other farm is where they have cattle and family, but the cattle do not provide a steady income, and the family cannot visit them now without a letter of recommendation and curriculum vitae. Old rules are newly enforced. 

The situation is rough. Just imagine. It’s like this every time they catch an infiltrado [undercover agent]. I suppose it’s necessary, but I don’t like it when they come around the house. I don’t go to the meetings either. I hardly talk to anyone here.  I know to whom she refers. There is no need to mention names.  We change the subject when a neighbor appears to ask if he can make a call and charge his cellphone.  Only a few farms have solar panels, and even fewer have points that catch the spotty reception.  Doña Carmen signals towards the back of the house where a large avocado tree serves as a community phone booth. Try not to fall.

Our attention shifts to the front yard again when she says, Look at my brood.  Newborn chicks teeter past the porch behind the mother hen. A scruffy dog napping in the sun exerts a sudden burst of energy. He lifts his head as if to acknowledge their parade, and sends a swarm of flies spinning off his neck and back. 

It must be four o’clock, and here we are gabbing. I forgot to put on another pot of rice. It is almost time for the workers to eat again. She winds her long black hair at the nape of her neck and gently stands, straining her arms towards a bucket near the door.  The running water fails to reach the house, and I offer to go down and fill a pail at the washing station. On my first attempt back up the hill, I embarrassingly spill half its contents all over my jeans and boots. Tiny specks of coca leaf slide off, encapsulated in the drops of water. They bob around and settle into quickly evaporating puddles. 

Is it too heavy? She calls down to me, a question that does not expect a ready answer.   

staiont    spill hald thw ng himrge bucket down to the ows of coca.trees, across a orada. Run to the mountains, lice had em are

Her husband cannot return to the other farm even if it would make Doña Carmen happy.  She could say, I want to go home. Instead she says, Perhaps we are here to stay.

El mago is under surveillance by the criminal investigation police after leading a protest against an oil company that began seismic testing without consulting the local community.  The police investigators sent a letter to the house requesting that he appear in their office for questioning. On three different occasions strange men were seen lurking around the farm and asked the neighbors for his whereabouts. El mago hid for a month under a plastic tarp in the forest. He doesn’t say it like it is any particular kind of feat. Doña Carmen scaled the mountain three times a day to carry him a tupperware filled with white rice. She doesn’t tell me this at all.

El mago and I are conversing under the zapote tree on Sunday afternoon.  Sundays are a half-day of work during the coca harvest.  Children climb up to jostle the branches, sending ripened fruit crashing to the ground.  Thick roots that protrude out of the soil are littered with plastered rinds of fruit.  Bright orange zapote meat stains our jaws, hands and mouth.  I watch the fibrous strands stick to the stubble under el mago’s nose:  If I had a chance to do things differently, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten so involved in the protest. I don’t know. There weren’t really any options.

Carlos would say: See what I mean about allá afuera.

But instead el mago says: So here we are, getting on.

More than getting on, they are sowing as many hectares of coca as they can. It is the only way to eventually sell the land and make a profit. If not, these yellow, acidic soils are worthless. It is simple math.  One hectare without coca crops is worth one million pesos ($500 USD).  This same hectare with coca is worth around seven times more.

El mago is not the only one avoiding trouble with the law.  They say the owner of the pool table and only store in the vereda has a warrant out for his arrest. This is why he never travels too far up the river.  I avoid asking why. Does it even matter? 

Such explanations downriver are excess.

Río San Miguel


Come Monday morning we are back in the rustic laboratory.  Any minute the raspachines [coca harvesters] will come barreling down the hill, bundles of freshly harvested leaves slung over their backs.  We hear the bursts of laughter before seven sweaty bodies tumble into the open shed. They look younger than they are. The one they call el mudo [the mute] is the fastest. He can scrape twenty arrobas on a sunny day. 

A competitive banter circulates among the workers as they unload their bundles of leaves and catch their breath. One by one el mago calls them by their nicknames – el indiogorilaramón, el flacocuyel gato – and they heave their sacks up onto the scale. There is a moment of silence as the needle rotates, slowly bobs, and comes to rest on the final weight. We are anxious to hear the number.  El mago keeps track of the quantities and earnings in a small black notebook. Today, el mudo sheepishly stays to the back of the group. It was a slow morning even without the rain. Ufff, says el mago as the needle steadies. It is the only sound he makes before he scribbles down the number eight. 

These seven workers are known as the súper raspachines.  The day before they arrive I can only imagine seven Japanese ninja cartoon figures stepping off the boat. Either that, or Edward Scissorhands: a whirl of arms, fingers, hands, scissors, leaves, branches, the sack on the ground goes from zero leaves to coca mountain in only a matter of seconds. I offer to bring them watermelon under the burning sun of mid-afternoon just to get a glimpse.  Even though I manage to balance the tiny plate piled high with juicy slices all the way up the steep and treeless hill, I ironically lose two pieces walking on the flat meseta as I weave between the densely planted shrubs.  They almost seem to grab at me, wanting to pull me in.

Effectively this is what happens.

You have to clasp her, bend her over, and saddle u
p like this.
 You start from the base to the rear.  Don’t worry. She likes it rough.  Carlos takes note of my hesitation. I am not at all convinced. There is no need to stretch the imagination. This sounds suspiciously like a raunchy porno flick.

Really! The worse you treat her, the prettier she gets. Rip away. Next harvest this bush will be a beauty.  Enrique laughs.  Enrique is a neighbor who joins Carlos and el mago scraping leaves to pay for his university tuition. They will rotate between each family’s plot over the next two weeks until the coca harvest is complete.

It’s like they say about all femalesYou gotta give them tough love. Enrique’s eyes dart in the direction of his nineteen-year-old sister, Yaneth, but she doesn’t react. Yaneth stands a good distance away with a pair of headphones plugged in, purposefully ignoring her younger brother.

I pay attention though.  I watch hands. Or rather fingers. Fingers wrapped with scraps of pillowcase or beat up shirts. Any piece of cloth will do. Almost all the raspachines wrap their hands to protect them from the bleeding blisters.  Index fingers ripped raw after so much friction, seven hours or more a day scraping leaves off the branch.

No cloth for you. Newcomers have to learn the proper way. You need to feel it against your fingers. She may not irritate you. Some people don’t use anything, el mago instructs me.

If you ask, it looks to me like milking a cow. You need to use both hands. One over the other, branch by branch, pulling down, tugging back, ripping at the leaves from front to back until the plant is almost naked, but not fully bare.  She needs some protection to endure until the next harvest two and a half or three months away. Depending. Different varieties have different growing cycles. These belong to the Tinga María family.  Less bitter. Faster turn around. 

Don’t be afraid to treat her the way she likes. She likes it hard. She likes it fast. She eats it up.  Enrique is so enjoying this.  All the chauvinistic jokes find an audience in the coca fields.  Everyone is laughing now: the seven raspachines, Enrique, el mago, even Yaneth.  They urge both Yaneth and I to join them. Despite the arrival of the súper raspachines, they are down workers given the new security regulations. Every set of hands can help. 

At first, I resist bending the plant, but as soon as I pull her towards me a flexible stem gives way.  She’s like a gymnast that can fold up into all kinds of contortions.  I, on the other hand, am less limber. I try to get my weight around a thick, densely packed bush, but it is impossible for me to straddle her girth. Carlos takes over, and I am sent to mount a thin, stubby plant. 

The work is hard, but not impossible. Your back begins to hurt. Your index fingers lose sensation.  Calluses form. The sun beats down and you sweat through your clothes. Hands are indeed stained a burnt red.  There are insects, especially leaf-eating larva that survive the pesticides, and plenty of bites, sticky seeds that prick, among other critters.  

The hours pass this way.

Branch by branch, bush to bush, row by row, hectare to hectare. 

Music escapes a cellphone. An occasional joke is launched in the air.

Some are more funny than others.         

But when the sun rounds down to about 4 o’clock, it is time to carry our sacks of leaves to the lab. The súper raspachines are eager to play soccer at the school. They have an hour before dusk creeps up and Doña Carmen gets their supper ready.  The boys always forget their headlamps, and have to cautiously pick their way through darkness, back to the farm across cornfield, felled trees, muddy stream, log bridge, and rows and rows of coca plants.

All these freshly harvested leaves are transformed into pasta básica [coca paste] or the base product of cocaine. Covered with diesel, filtered through acid, impurities removed, water fried out, and dried out on plastic sheets.  About fours hours and several rinses later quimiciándola [chemically working it] – from foliage to puddylike white ball. This when the merca is good. The chalky stuff weighs less, and thus brings in smaller profits.  You’ve got to taste the battery acid. You have to dip your finger in and make sure it is just the right amount.     

The men follow a careful recipe to get their merca [merchandise] from rustic lab to cocina [kitchen].  This is a kitchen with a different class of alchemists, protected by armed guards, and run by the powerful bosses who make the real money in the cocaine business.

Later that night over our last cup of coffee, Doña Carmen tells me she has a final pre-natal appointment to attend on the Ecuadorian side. Her due date is two months away. She is hoping for a girl. But the doctor’s appointment will have to wait until the harvest is over, and the súper raspachines move on to the next job.  She shrugs her shoulders, and climbs back into jogging pants. There is rice and lentils to cook, yucca to peel, plantains and eggs to fry, cabbage to slice, panela and coffee to stir.  5 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m.

Women cook for men who have lost their appetite to the recipes of other kitchens.                    

Manos raspachín 2

IV. Beneath skin and bones

There is a dog named Cusco named after the historic city in southern Peru. His owner said the coca leaf would pay their way to witness those Incan ruins. What a trip! What a dream! Of course Cusco would travel south with him. How could he not, the mutt was always two paces ahead or four paces behind.


Blown to pieces by a bomb.

The military conducted the operative on the Ecuadorian side if there even is a border.

Nothing like being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The man crossed the river to do an errand for the guerrillas at the crack of dawn.

When he was landless and decided to settle down with a wife, they granted him a parcel. That’s how he got his plants.

He was an orphan. So was Cusco.

That dog didn’t appear for months after, and then one day he swam back across the river.

Wandering from farm to farm, he stays on several days where they feed him cucayo, the leftover rice that hardens to the pan.  He still walks two paces ahead or four paces behind.  But no one knows how long he will remain a rotating companion.

Cusco sleeps calmly on Carlo’s porch until he hears the sound of switchblades slice up the sky.  Men come running out of the labs, heads tilting left and right, to inspect if the military helicopter is Ecuadorian or Colombian.  What a relief! It is Ecuadorian this time.

For Cusco though, there is no easy escape.

One bang later, and it is that morning all over again.

Ears bent back, nose to the ground, beady eyes, frenetic tail.

Nothing to do but bolt…run like the wind, run to the mountains, run, swim, pant, swim, run. 

Do you remember that dog when he had a belly?  

Sure do, poor fella.

When he returns from his flight, hair still on end, we find a ball of terror tucked under skin and bones.


V.  Peace not Poison

It rains hard and heavy for short spurts.  It sounds like a can of nails pelting against the zinc sheets of the roof.  No, wait. Not one, but one hundred cans of nails.

You know the kind of rain.

The kind that comes and goes, and when it comes no one even tries to speak.  It would be like shouting next to a waterfall, all h
ands and exaggerated gestures.  No use in straining a voice. So instead we sit nice and quiet, listening to the heads of nails crash against zinc.

The hens and turkeys keep up their jabber though.  They roam about the house, lay eggs on the bed, nest in boxes, warm the guitar case.   

I’m pretty sure they’re waiting for us to move out.

I really hate these birds, even with the eggs and meat. They’re like little thieves, attacking every scrap of food, seedling, flowerpot, every grain of rice.  I try to toss rinds, pits and eggshells at the base of the plantain and banana trees, but the hens and bimbos peck away before I can even turn my back. 

Shooh shooh, this is not meant for you. This is food for the rootlets of plants. 

They don’t care.  They don’t have to share.  And at least the plantains don’t seem to mind. Their generosity limitless, they keep tossing out fruit.

When the rainstorms begin, Carlos and I take refuge from the fowl.  We sit on the wooden bench that serves as chair and table, our tiny island in the hall. Wooden planks divide the kitchen and the bedroom.  The rest of the house is made of cement.  At one point there was talk of moving the kitchen up to take better advantage of the natural light, but the project was left half-constructed, and the wood has begun to rot from all the rain.

We sit looking at these boards because they tell stories.  Stories carved with knives, drawn in marker, and charred with lighters and matches.  Stories of when this farm was one of the largest cocaine kitchens along the border, stereotypical stories of planes landing on jungle airstrips to carry off white gold.  Children who remember the air raid that killed Cusco’s owner drew other stories in bright red marker. A house pelted by machine gun fire. People are running for the hills.  Let us live in peace!  Let us all live in peace.  There are always hens and turkeys in these drawings.  It makes me hate them a little less.

The wooden boards remind me of a mural in one of the last towns you pass before beginning the trip downriver.  Painted by children in the first years of the “War on Drugs,” it portrays life before and after the aerial fumigation campaigns.  It is not hard to imagine what the crop dusting of entire landscapes with herbicide can do to life. 

There is a decisive before and after. 

After dead rivers, dead animals, dead grass, dead plants. Vacant houses. Leafless trees. Skin irritations, inflamed eyes, bronchial conditions, birth defects, and dying cells.      

Children know this. Everyone knows this.

Monsanto certainly does. Its Roundup-Ready product label provides a long list of hazards if the chemical is inhaled, swallowed or enters into any other direct contact with humans and domestic animals.  SEEK A POISON CONTROL CENTER!  SEEK FRESH AIR! IMMEDIATELY RINSE OUT EYES! DRINK MILK!

Beside the mural someone has spray painted the words: Peace, not poison!

It is the same message I see scrawled near the entrance to a rural boarding school built so that students would no longer have to shuffle between disputed zones in the middle of the war.  But the war trampled all over the school, leaving bullet holes in classroom windows and doors. The day I visit they are constructing a tribute to a student who died when stepping on a landmine left behind in the soccer field after a showdown between guerrillas and paramilitaries. The smoke from a cocaine kitchen rises above the crowns of nearby trees.   It is the view from sixth grade.       

A teacher explains: The kitchen will move on in a week or two. They always do.  They don’t want to become conspicuous.

The evening before I leave Carlos’s farm to go back out there, or rather to come back here, it rains deep into dawn.  I contemplate whether or not to head to the tiny beach to catch the only boat that goes upriver.  It passes at 7 a.m. sharp.  If not today, then I will have to wait until tomorrow.  All the better, says Carlos, but I know the hens would rather have me gone.

I have known not to write, not to carry a notebook, not to even walk around with a pencil.  Leave no marks on paper, only footprints in the mud.

When I am pulling socks up over pant cuffs to put on my boots, Carlos appears in the doorway.  An almost dried up indelible marker in his hand, he gestures towards the wooden planks.  I understand.  This morning he means to draw something.  I only have a second before I need to be off.  He too must begin the day’s harvest.

Which story will it be?

And what he draws is a leaf.

Not the lucky kind of four-leaf clover. Not the withering and inviting pile you dive into like an open sea. Not the vibrant and arresting leaves painted in a million shades of autumn.  Just a leaf.  A single, veiny and resilient coca leaf.

Mural La Hormiga


Commentary by Dara Culhane

“Each month ends in a choice between running water or currents of light”.  Kristina Lyons’ opening line hooks me.  I read on.  Page 1 continues describing the “choices” available to “Carlos”.  He may eke out a living in the city: “…run alongside driver side windows to coax out a few coins”; “…dusty outstretched hand, sunburnt face, and thinning piece of string”; “…a never-ending list, cycle of debt, and frantic tail to chase…”  Or, “Carlos” could opt for what “…other men refer to as … freedom”, working cocaine in “the logics of an explicit war: the planting of landmines, possibility of armed confrontation, manual eradication brigades…”. 

“A man has stopped chasing his tail,” Lyons writes.  “It is not a triumphant moment.”

In these first pages Lyons effectively constructs an analytic scaffolding contextualizing the story she is about to tell, positions herself as witness/narrator, introduces readers to “Carlos”, and begins a journey along the global “commodity chain” that is the cocaine trade.   I’ve read ethnographic and historical accounts of “drug worlds”, so I am familiar with the basic historical, political and economic skeleton of the trade, the routes that cocaine travels from “southern field” to “northern desk”, and social theory that analyzes this “global network”.   I have read auto/biographies /ethnographies, and work called fiction and performance, and I am particularly interested in the shifting zones among fictions and ethnographies.  I’m asked to write a commentary on “Fresh Leaves”.

Lyons introduces herself as narrator through reflection on a conversation with “Carlos”.   “I listen quietly,” she writes.  “I feel myself compelled to say something that neither one of us will believe…why it would even make sense to go back to school. What can one do with a GED?”  Lyons does not write herself in as “The Academic Authority”, or as the “shame-faced anthropologist” confessing privilege and/or offering a “ready solution to the problem”.  Rather, Lyons positions herself as a listener/learner who senses she may have little to offer in return. I trust an ethnographer/witness who positions herself thus.

As an ethnographer/reader I am drawn into Lyons’ story as soon as I begin.  I too am located on the researcher side of the researcher/researched divide. I too am a well-intentioned, critical and privileged witness confronted by ethical questions about scholars’ and artists’ political responsibilities. I am, like Lyons, one of “the kind of people that can compete.”

As an ethnographer/writer I am intrigued by Lyons’ language.  She describes her sensory experience, embodied labour and conversation, and represents daily life infused with fear and hope, lov
e and rage, determination and despair as she travels from farms to kitchens, into and out of “the field”.  I find Fresh Leavessimultaneously enraging—(the relentless brutality of the “war on drugs”, the unremitting cruelty of ordering lives and lands for greed and profit)—and inspiring— (how people create homes and lives and struggles for justice and survival)—and instructive– (how and why would ethnographers do the work Lyons does, and why write about it the way she does?) I read Lyons as writing theory through ethnographic description and story, an often-elusive goal pursued by those of us working towards an “imaginative”, or “creative”, or “experimental” ethnography reaching towards a politics of hope and change. 

What am I left with?  Reading this piece I learn details about organization, movement, economic processes, and coca farmers as people “here, making do”.  At the same time, I feel horror, anger, hope, affection, confusion, humour, and humility. I am moved as well as informed.   Moved to what, though?  As a teacher, I am inspired to encourage students to work towards subverting mind/body and analytic/creative divisions in doing and telling ethnographic research.  As a political citizen, my tasks appear less clear cut but no less crucial.  I appreciate a deepening sense of solidarity stimulated by Lyons’ successful evocation of affective resonances.  And, I am left with questions:  How does Lyons grapple with questions about the political value of creative ethnography?  What is my responsibility as reader/witness/anthropologist to her work?  I ask these questions of my own work, and feel invited by Lyons to continue to grapple with these perpetually troubling issues, and glad to be part of a community of persons who do. 


Commentary by Lina Pinto

I am Colombian. I was born in 1984 and my sister in 1982. My mom was born in 1950 and my dad in 1953. Two generations who have uninterruptedly lived in a country experiencing a dreadful armed conflict. Back in the 60s and 70s, my parents witnessed what started as a low-budget, low-tech, less devastating (if something like that can be said about war), and highly ideologized classic guerrilla conflict from the cold war era. Although other countries in Latin America went through similar armed confrontations, all of them dissolved before the end of the twentieth century. In the Colombian case, however, the conflict has been perpetuated, mostly by the illegal drug business that started to spread throughout the country in the 80s.  It became not only the most important means to finance war, but also the promoter of new territorial, economic and political disputes that drifted into the deterioration of the armed confrontation. As a result, my sister and I have witnessed a very costly war that is much crueler and bloodier, employs more elaborated war technology, involves more actors and interests, and has less ideological burden attached to it.

The “War on Drugs” deployed by the Colombian government with immense support from the United States, has led to the oversimplification of this drama as a division between good people and bad people.  This kind of picture about the Colombian reality ignores the complex factors behind the conflict, masks the reasons of the expansion of cocaine production, points at scapegoats as a widespread war technique, and punishes victims as if they were victimizers. By contrast, Kristina Lyons’ Fresh Leaves invites us, through a close-up to the personal experiences of people involved in coca growing, to consider a more enriched understanding about this activity and its varied implications. She carefully selects her words to open a window that gives us a glimpse of cocaleros’everyday life, which take place in a very harsh environment where growing coca is the only means available to earn a living –to make something more than nothing. Kristina’s delightfully written text makes clear that being the primary link in the production line of cocaine, which is mostly sold and consumed in North America and Europe, does not mean to opt for the easiest way out of poverty, let alone the most profitable or safe. On the contrary, that is just another of the hard ways farmers have to survive in rural Colombia, where easier or better ways are almost inexistent.

What is more, Fresh Leaves does not leave the reader with a single side of the story. The confrontation between cocaleros and eradicators that Kristina portrays, suggests that it is not much better to be on the other side either. Eradicators and their escorts are also forced to enter into a perverse logic that compels them to deliver results in order to keep their jobs –whether real results or false positives– and obtain an insufficient salary that must be very similar to the one that coca growers receive. The ones holding the arms in this “War on Drugs”, the ones in the battlefield, are forced to be cannon fodder in a conflict that has left far too many victims, and sentenced a country to see their dead as normal, to naturalize war, and to be indifferent to the suffering of others.

Fresh Leaves ends with Carlos, one of the coca growers, drawing a “single, veiny and resilient coca leaf” (p.19) on the wooden planks of a farmers’ house somewhere in a rural area of southern Colombia. Through the veins of this coca leaf runs a long and complex story of inequity and violence, the same inequity and violence currently embedded in other Colombian stories such as the ones about gold, nickel, emerald and coal mining. In the end, it does not matter if we are talking about illegal drugs, metals, gemstones or fuels that are exploited in both legal and illegal ways. While Colombia’s story remains narrated in oversimplified terms, neglecting the complexity behind the armed conflict and addressing peripheral issues while overpassing essential ones, violence will hardly be eradicated from our country. Fresh Leaves does a great job at looking at the problem of coca growing in greater depth, broadening the perspective and enabling a wider outlook of the Colombian reality, while offering a beautiful piece of literary quality.