Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Report By
David Curiel
Alan Ereira and Fiona Wilton for reviewing prior to publication.
May 4, 2009
May 4, 2009

For the indigenous peoples living on the steep slopes of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, sustaining the balance of the spiritual and ecological world is their sacred task. They call themselves the Elder Brothers, the guardians of the Earth, and the rest of modern civilization are the Younger Brothers, whose exploitative practices are destroying the mountain’s ecosystem and, by extension, the rest of the planet. The four indigenous groups of this region—the Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo—believe the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the beating heart of the world: what happens here happens everywhere, and when its rivers run dry, its ice caps melt and its endemic species disappear, so do the rest of the world’s. They maintain their deep commitment to restoring equilibrium to the Earth through daily meditations, ritual practices and mental discipline, and they have continued this vigilance even as the Younger Brothers have encroached into the mountain with logging, mineral extraction, commercial plantations and drug-crop cultivation that placed them at the center of violence between warring factions in Colombia’s protracted civil war. Protecting the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’s water resources is now their focus, as they protest projects that will dam two mountain rivers and a massive ocean port development that will export natural resources mined in the region while also blocking access to a sacred site by the sea. In 2007, the four tribes issued a joint statement condemning the projects: “From the beginning of these projects we have expressed in many ways our opposition … They negatively affect our way of life, they degrade the environment, and they violate every part of the Constitution that pertains to the fundamental rights of our people.”

The Land and Its People

The four existing indigenous tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are the remnants of a sophisticated pre-Hispanic civilization known as the Tayrona. When the first Spaniards set foot in Colombia in the 16th century, they found a civilization that practiced sustainable farming through crop rotation and vertical ecology, built terraced drainage systems that minimized erosion, and produced exceptional gold and pottery work. But the conquistadores drove the tribes high up into the mountain, where they tried to protect their culture through isolation. The Kogi were able to maintain the most traditional culture while the Wiwa and Arhuaco experienced different levels of acculturation. The Kankuamo, who had all but disappeared, are now working to recover their language and culture. Estimates for the total number of native people living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range between 35,000 and 51,000.

Though the tribes speak different languages, they have nevertheless retained a common spiritual tradition. According to this tradition, when the great Mother created the world, she spun a spindle, and the threads that unspooled crossed to form the four Tayrona peoples and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta itself. Within the indigenous communities, every action and behavior is informed by what they call the “Law of Origin,” an ecological philosophy that governs their relationship to nature, animals, weather, bodies of water and the cycles of the planets and stars. The spiritual practices and ethical beliefs of the Tayrona revolve around their conception of aluna, which is the belief that all reality is created by thought, and that every object or being has both a physical reality and a spiritual essence, all originating in thought. The tribes’ highly trained ritual priests—the mamas—communicate in the aluna dimension through ritual and meditation. In their communion with the aluna world, the mamas focus on maintaining the ecological and spiritual equilibrium of the mountain.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a singular ecosystem. This multi-peaked volcanic massif, located just 25 miles inland from Colombia’s northeastern Caribbean coast and rising to a height of nearly 19,000 feet, is the world’s highest coastal mountain. Shaped like a pyramid—each side approximately 90 miles long—the mountain climbs through multiple ecological zones, from the wetlands and mangroves along the coast, through tropical rain forests, deserts and alpine tundra, until finally reaching the snow-capped peaks. Thousands of plant and hundreds of animal species, dozens of which are endemic, have been found here, including 628 bird species—about equal to what has been identified in the United States and Canada combined. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is drained by more than 30 rivers, which makes it an invaluable water source for the 1.5 million people who live in the cities and towns that circle the base of the mountain. It is this rich water resource that is now threatened by the multiple dam and irrigation projects currently under way.

Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts

The extensive natural resources of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta attract development and people. After the Tayrona peoples retreated into the mountains, the lowlands were settled by peasant farmers. Development of the region intensified in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the establishment of banana and coffee plantations, followed by oil-palm plantations and then marijuana and cocaine cultivation plots. Coupled with timber extraction and fumigation to kill drug fields, this agricultural activity has resulted in a loss of 72 percent of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’s forests. Deforestation over the last century is directly linked to soil erosion and sedimentation, which lead to alternating floods and droughts today.

Because the fertile mountain was an ideal place to grow and hide marijuana and coca plants, violence from Colombia’s 40-year civil war—a war closely identified with drug trafficking—spilled into the region. The indigenous inhabitants of the mountain often found themselves in the crossfire of this conflict between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary troops, and they were targets for assassination, kidnapping and forced recruitment. Since 2001, over 200 indigenous inhabitants of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have died or disappeared as a result of this violence. In 2006, the paramilitary forces voluntarily disarmed as part of a peace negotiation. Violence has decreased but has not abated, and new paramilitary groups have emerged.

There is no shortage of governance in the region to provide legal protection to the native peoples and their lands, but these protections are weakened or ignored by the powerful and competing interests of commercial developers and politicians. Within the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta there are three political states, 11 municipalities, two national parks and three indigenous reserves. It is also a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. In addition, in 1991 the Colombian Constitution was revised to grant multiple political and cultural rights to indigenous peoples, including collective property ownership of their reserves, self-governance, and the authority to make natural-resource management decisions.

Despite these legal designations, environmentally controversial development projects continue without the approval of indigenous communities. There are three so-called mega-projects that currently concern the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta indigenous peoples. The first is the Ranchería dam, which is scheduled for completion in 2010. The project will reroute water from the Ranchería River through irrigation channels to towns at the northeastern base of the mountain. The indigenous communities claim that the environmental licensing of the project contains serious irregularities.

The second project is the Besotes dam and hydroelectric plant on the southern face of the mountain, a project that had not yet received approval as of 2008. If passed, it will dam the Guataparí River for irrigation and rural electrification. The dam would be located in one of the most pristine areas of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and indigenous leaders contend the irrigation district it would create will be used to plant hundreds of acres of African oil palm. Such plantations elsewhere in Columbia and South America have led to widespread human displacement, deforestation, and diversion of rivers and streams.

The third mega-project is the Brisa port project proposed for the coast, which has been in contention for over 10 years and was suspended multiple times for environmental noncompliance. In September 2008 the Colombian Ministry of the Environment cleared the way for construction to resume. The port will export four million tons of coal, limestone and raw materials annually. Environmental organizations say that it will irreversibly harm ecologically sensitive wetlands, mangroves and fisheries. The port will also block access to Jukulwa, a sacred site where the indigenous tribes make ritual offerings to the sea. In response to the lifting of the environmental suspension, indigenous leaders have filed a complaint in the Colombian Supreme Court, arguing that Brisa, the development company, did not consult with them as required by national law.

The four tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta take their responsibility as guardians of the Earth seriously and feel they must share their knowledge. Their message from the heart of the world is one of ecological balance and ethical responsibility.

What You Can Do

Territorial recuperation though land purchase is one of the primary goals of the four Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta tribes. You can help by supporting the efforts of organizations that purchase land on behalf of the Kogi, Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo peoples, including Marion Institute, Tairona Heritage Trust, and Tchendukua (in French).

If you visit any of the national parks in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, take advantage of the opportunity to learn about the region’s indigenous cultures and unique ecosystem, respect the ethics of ecotourism, and encourage others to do the same. Read Ethics for Visiting Sacred Sites to learn more.


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