“Elephant-sized worry” in Colombia How to report on politics in Sucre
Sep 282006

The text below is a translated transcription of a recent interview with a governor of a Kogi indigenous cabildo in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a beautiful but highly conflictive region on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. There, four indigenous ethnicities, incorporating thousands of people, have been struggling to defend their way of life – which places a strong value on protection of the ecology – amid a steady onslaught from armed groups, narco-traffickers, and misguided anti-drug strategies.

This text was sent to us by a European colleague who travels often to this zone. The translation is ours.

I recall that in 2003 there was a fumigation (the government planes dumped chemical products) in the high part of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta. It is there that we indigenous people – the Kogis, Arhuacos, Wiwas, and Kankuamos of the Sierra – live, where we share natural resources, fauna and flora, and animals. We live like this, because this is how our Mother Earth and our ancestral fathers ordered us to live. We have a law of origin that does not allow us to mistreat the Earth, the Sierra Nevada; it does not allow us to knock down trees, burn them; we should protect everything, because the lives of human beings depend on nature. We sustain the equilibrium of the world; this is part of our responsibility as older brothers. When the younger brothers, the "civilized" as they call themselves, mistreat the earth like this, it hurts us not just because it damages the crops, but also because it harms the lives of all types of animals, of plants. Afterward we must make a greater effort, do more work to make payments, to "pay" for all this mistreatment by our younger brothers.

But despite the fact that the Colombian government began to act badly, without respecting things, killing people, we the human beings – the Kogis as well as the younger brothers – began to carve out land to plant coffee, or products that are not original products like marijuana, coca, or poppy. Today people begin to see that these products are very important, they make it possible to earn money, but this is not an important development. They bring problems, deaths, violence, as much for human beings as for the animals, the forests. These are problems that affect all the levels of the Sierra Nevada – the crops, the animals that live in the mountains, the sources of water, the land and air, health. Today for the indigenous people of the Sierra, those crops bring problems, the fumigations too, it’s not good.

They contaminate everything. These bad people are contaminating Mother Earth and the fathers of nature. The crops are destroyed now, the animals, there are diseases everywhere, the trees, the birds, the streams, are starting to dry up, to burn up. We think: what is the Colombian government doing, what is it thinking? Could it be that foreign governments are trying to finish off the Sierra? Or are we going to continue resisting? We – the farmers as much as the indigenous people that inhabit the Sierra or those that live in the cities now – have to eat contaminated products, contaminated water, why?

When the government began to fumigate the coca in the Sierra, they thought this problem was going to be solved, but this is not the solution. For us, the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada, coca is a very important sacred plant. It represents a woman, the thought of all classes of plants; it is like the spirit of all plants. Because of this, we the indigenous people of the Sierra use coca in order to be able to think, to reflect, in order to know where and how to make spiritual payments, and to advise the children in special places where the spiritual fathers of the Sierra are. In order to become a man before getting married, every one of the Kogis has to receive this coca at the age of 18. That is part of our worldview, but the government does not think about these things, it doesn’t know what this bush represents, and that does a lot of damage. So, why did they plant these crops? To make money – but now you see that is a problem because it brings the fumigation of illicit crops.

For us, it isn’t just fumigating one plant, coca, but fumigating Mother Earth and all that lives on the land, the animals, the birds in the trees, the people, the water, the fish, the atmosphere, and human beings and animals. Now everything is contaminated. Because of this, a lot of unknown sicknesses have surfaced, problems, a lot of disequilibrium that we don’t know how to cure, because their spirits are not known. The government has to take measures to sustain the balance of the world so that it creates spiritual forces. So the governments – both international and national – have to look at the future, they have to change their thinking to live better, to manage the country well. Also, so that the younger generations learn that this will be the main road on which to walk together. If the government keeps thinking like this, new chemicals will be invented; the spiritual fathers will come to collect with earthquakes, storms and other damage because they will think that we are managing things badly.

To the government we are nothing; the spiritual fathers don’t exist. They are blind. But we are seeing the situation that is coming, you can feel the change in climate already and it may do away with the whole world. The ecosystems are dying because we have stomped all over them, also the snow and the water are beginning to run out. The younger brother invents many technologies to take everything out of Mother Earth, like coal, oil, which are like the blood and the liver of our body. That is how Mother Earth loses her strength and all the scientists know it, but it doesn’t matter to them. Nothing is done. We, the four ethnicities of the Sierra – the Kankuamos, the Wiwas, the Arhuacos, and the Kogis – are suffering a lot. We have formed the four indigenous councils of the Sierra; we are sending out messages about our concerns and our problems so that governments and other entities understand a bit about what is happening. That they must protect human rights and understand what is happening in the Sierra (which is the heart of the whole world), because it is necessary to protect it, not only for us, but for all of life.

Sacred sites are very important for us – the lakes, the mountains. They are needed to protect the black line [their traditional territorial boundary].

Mother Earth and the human body are the same thing. When we are missing an element like a mineral, what happens? We get sick. The little brothers take everything form the land: gas, carbon, etc…so Mother Earth gets sick, too.

The little brothers of the lowlands drink the water from the Sierra contaminated with chemicals and from the guerrillas throwing dead bodies, and they and the whole world are going to suffer.

The chemicals from the coca laboratories also hurt nature a lot – the forests the animals. How much longer can it go on?

I know an old campesino who told me that the gringos arrived in the highlands of the Sierra in the sixties and they said that they had a new class of the tomato plant, bigger and prettier. We planted them, and after a few weeks, someone told us that they were marijuana plants that the gringos needed for the soldiers in Vietnam. Later, the guerrillas began to invest also in the high lands of the indigenous people and the campesinos in order to plant more coca.

Who is this government full of weapons? In the north of the Sierra are the paramilitaries, to the south are the FARC, we have no one to protect us, what can we think if the army’s High Mountain Battalion also robs us of all our food, our animals. Who can we believe in?

There are a lot of places where there isn’t coca, but they keep fumigating. Why? So that the people are removed from the lands, and so that they can rob them. The land has stays very bad for years and nothing can grow.

And with the violence there are kidnappings, murders, and disappearances. There are times when you don’t even know where the bodies are. For us indigenous people, the body is like a treasure, because we say that the body represents the elements of the living. This body cannot be lost by being baptized and going on to heaven.

The Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta is the heart of the world; it is also like a small planet. Everything that occurs here will happen in the rest of the world. The diseases, the violence… The younger brother doesn’t listen, doesn’t understand anything. He is destroying everything; he doesn’t respect the laws of nature. When he runs out of gas, of petroleum, and all the things that he takes from Mother Earth, the younger brother will take notice, and he is going to suffer a lot. Today, disease and imbalance are found everywhere… the younger brothers don’t want to see, they don’t want to understand, they don’t realize. But the laws of nature are the same for everyone. We try to maintain the balance, this is our responsibility, but what do the younger brothers do?

2 Responses to “Testimony from an “older brother””

  1. jcg Says:

    While one may not share the spiritual worldview of the Kogi (nor that of any religion, to be frank), this testimony is useful in that it represents how the government, the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, drug traffickers and others have often interacted egoistically with both the environment and with the indigenous, for their own purposes and not giving them their proper respect and value.

  2. richtiger Says:

    The indigenous peoples of the Santa Marta area have long struggled with the “younger brothers.” Here is an excerpt from my unpublished account of how the Governor of Santa Marta, García de Lerma,
    attempted to incorporate the natives into the “encomienda” system.

    “The Indians rebelled against this semi-slavery.
    They attacked the Spaniards face-to-face with poisoned arrows but also began began using various types of traps and ambushes. Sometimes they buried poisoned barbs in the trails. Sometimes they simply threw down rocks from above as the conquistadors pushed through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. A craftier trick was to hang pieces of gold work in plain sight over the doors of their houses. While the Spaniards were distracted by stealing the gold, the Indians would let loose a volley of arrows from some concealed place. The Spaniards, for their part, burned the native houses and the surrounding fields of corn and yucca. The indigenous peoples were forced into the forests and mountains, where the Spanish could not easily follow.”

    But it seems that the FARC, the paramilitaries, and government troops have followed the Indians into their Sierra Nevada refuge.

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