In Langscape Magazine Articles

Drawing the Line at the Black Line: The Indigenous Sages and Stewards of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia

December 07, 2020

Guillermo Rodríguez Navarro

“Imagine a pyramid standing alone by the sea, each side a hundred miles long. It’s a mountain nearly four miles high. In its folds imagine every different climate on earth. This is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and the people hidden here call the Sierra the Heart of the World and themselves the Elder Brothers.”

—Alan Ereira (filmmaker, director of the 1990 BBC documentary From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning)

In the late seventies, as a budding archeologist, I took up my first field research job in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia. At 5,775 meters of elevation, rising almost directly from sea level along the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the highest coastal mountain peak in the world. Due to its altitudinal variation, as well as its location at eleven degrees north latitude, it contains examples of the full range of climatic zones found in the tropical Americas and is rich in biodiversity, much of it endemic. The thirty-six rivers flowing from it make it so critical to the water supply in Colombia’s Caribbean region that it has been called the region’s “water factory.”

Buritaca Valley

View of the upper Buritaca Valley from the main terrace of Teyuna, the “Lost City” of the ancient Tairona people. Photo: Per Arne Söderstrom, 2015

Recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot, the Sierra Nevada was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1986. With a territory of 17,000 square kilometers, it contains two national parks and eight Indigenous reserves. It is the ancestral home of several Indigenous Peoples, including the Kankuamo, Wiwa, Arhuaco, and Kogi, all speakers of languages belonging to the Macro-Chibchan linguistic family and considered to be descendants of the pre-Hispanic Tairona civilization. UNESCO has also recognized the region as a rich repository of cultural knowledge by placing it on its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Recognized as a global biodiversity hotspot, the Sierra Nevada was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1986.

In that first archeological job, back in 1977, I was working at the site of an ancient Tairona city known as Teyuna—or colloquially the Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”)—which is believed to have been founded about 800 CE, some 650 years earlier than the famed Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru. Teyuna consists of a series of around 200 terraces carved into the mountainside, a network of tiled roads, and several small circular plazas or platforms. The site can only be accessed by means of a two-day hike through dense jungle. At that time, new trends in archaeology emphasized studies of land management and settlement patterns in the past. My research led me to identify various forms of ecological adaptation that the Tairona had developed and to conclude that they had mastered an exemplary form of sustainable living in the Sierra Nevada.

Lost City

Teyuna, the “Lost City” founded by the Tairona in 800 CE and inhabited until 1600 CE, has more than 250 terraces erected on mountain slopes as spaces to live, work, and perform religious ceremonies. Photo: Per Arne Söderstrom, 2015

Ever since those pre-Hispanic times, the Sierra’s Indigenous Peoples have continued to wisely manage their traditional territory, sustaining both its natural and its cultural values. Living in close contact with the natural environment, they have gained exceptional insights into how best to protect and sustainably use its invaluable biological resources. The history of these Indigenous communities provides a remarkable example of long-term stewardship of a richly diverse natural environment. According to Indigenous accounts of the earth’s creation, the area around the Sierra is a circular territory with high mountains at its center and a virtual border, called the Black Line, that extends to the ocean, where the water cycle ends. That territory is the “heart of the world” and home to Mother Earth’s children, who live off her and care for her water sources, lands, and sacred sites. The Black Line connects all sacred sites within the limits of Indigenous traditional territory, from the lower reaches of the Sierra to the middle and higher elevations.

ceremonial temples

Ceremonial temples in the Kogi village of Surikava in the San Miguel River valley. Photo: Peter Rawitscher Adams, 2018

For the Kogi, nature is a living organism, structured by invisible threads of primordial thought and life-force that crisscross the planet, forming an interconnected network, so the effect of actions is transmitted from place to place. In their language, aluna is the sum total of thought-energy existing in nature. Their spiritual leaders, the Mamos, train to connect to this thought-energy—an ancient tradition that is passed on orally and by learning to “listen to water.” To listen, they insist, is to think.

The worldview, social organization, and living patterns of the Sierra’s Indigenous Peoples revolve around the management and conservation of their unique environment. They consider trees as people, and forests are vital to their communities, providing wildlife habitat and serving as sanctuaries for worship and religious ceremonies. Forest resources also provide shelter, fuel, clothing, household utensils, medicines, food, and materials for their artistic expression. Villages have both social and ceremonial character, and each family may have dwellings in different climatic zones, so as to benefit from the enormous diversity of resources in their surroundings.

The worldview, social organization, and living patterns of the Sierra’s Indigenous Peoples revolve around the management and conservation of their unique environment.

People handle their territory in an ancestral way through cultural work that is based on a series of reconnaissance and monitoring journeys through the landscape as well as on different kinds of pagamentos (offerings) conducted by the Mamos in specific sacred sites. The sacred sites are places where all the Fathers and Mothers, all the elements of nature that people use, and all human thoughts and actions from the beginning of humanity reside. These sites are fed with the offerings and with thoughts keenly directed to the respective spiritual entities. The system of offerings reflects the detailed knowledge of the Sierra Nevada on which generations of its Indigenous Peoples have relied for their survival, and on whose accuracy and repeatability they have literally staked their lives. That knowledge is a crucial source of information and understanding for anyone interested in the natural world, the place of people in nature, and the spiritual significance imbued in the sacred geography of their territory.

Kogi Mamo José

The highly respected Kogi Mamo José de los Santos Sauna Limaco, making offerings with his wife in the San Miguel River valley. José died from COVID-19 on August 6, 2020. Photo: Peter Rawitscher Adams, 2018

By the time I was doing fieldwork in the Ciudad Perdida, however, I was witnessing a very different reality: dramatic environmental degradation in the Sierra Nevada, due to the massive destruction of tropical rainforests for logging, mining, oil extraction, industrial agriculture, colonization by landless farmers, and the growing of illegal crops such as cannabis, coca, and poppies. Over the past fifty years, in fact, the Sierra’s forests have been reduced to less than twenty percent of their original extent, and two of its thirty-six rivers have dried up. That poses a tremendous threat to the approximately 2.5 million people who rely on the Sierra’s watersheds for survival, to the vast number of species living in its ecosystem, and to the future of its Indigenous cultures—the only people who were and are fully aware of the ecological consequences of forest destruction.

It was during those early archaeological excavations at Ciudad Perdida that we were paid an unexpected visit. A group of eight Kogi Mamos showed up unannounced at the site. Pedro Sundenkama, a Kogi who lived at a one-day walking distance and spoke Spanish, introduced them to me as relatives of his wife coming from the communities of Takina and Macotama, and explained that they were very important Mamos. After we provided food and accommodation to this group of venerable Mamos at our campsite, I was called upon to talk with them. It was a lengthy conversation that went on all night. While chewing coca leaves from their poporos (small gourds in which the leaves are mixed with lime), the Mamos asked why we were conducting the excavations. They explained to me that all those necklace beads and other objects we were digging up had been buried there to give strength to Mother Earth, and that with our excavations we were destroying the site rather than restoring it.

It was the first time I heard them talk about the Black Line. In contemporary terms, the Mamos explained the Black Line as the paved road that surrounds the Sierra Nevada, marking the boundary of their ancestral territory, into which outsiders are intruding to cut down the forest. They warned that we should stop our excavations in their ancestral territory and instead take it upon ourselves to carry a message to the government about the environmental damage in the region and about the violence that was being generated—not only among the Indigenous communities of the Sierra but also among the region’s population as a whole.

The Mamos (spiritual leaders) warned that we should stop our excavations in their ancestral territory and instead carry a message to the government about the environmental damage in the region and about the violence that was being generated.

With the help of Pedro Sundenkama’s translation, I began to understand the value of traditional knowledge, the importance of sacred sites, and the fact that the Sierra’s Indigenous Peoples saw human behavior as regulated by the Law of the Mother—a complex code of knowledge and rules for living in harmony with the environment that is recognized and respected by all. Adherence to that code had enabled them to survive and remain self-sufficient over the course of centuries. Unlike today, in the remote past human actions were trivial when set against the dominant processes of nature. And these wise people were the same people that the government and the public in general despised and stigmatized as “primitive,” ignorant, drunks, and drug addicts!

Mamo Santos

Mamo Santos Sauna Limaco in meditation along the shores of the sacred Lake Shizhiñue, near the headwaters of the Ranchería River. The death of Mamo Santos is an irreparable loss for the Kogi people, as he was one of their most important referents in the defense of their ethnic, cultural, historical, and territorial rights. Photo: Peter Rawitscher Adams, 2018

Following that unforgettable night, it became our compelling mission to bring this message to the world, so as to gain respect for the Sierra’s Indigenous Peoples, help them defend their cultures and the integrity of their territory, and learn from them how to better protect the planet we all share. In 1985, with a group of interdisciplinary professionals, we created the Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (FPSN), one of the first nongovernmental organizations to be founded in Colombia. The work of FPSN has revealed the complexity of interactions between nature and culture in this region and the importance of ancestral Indigenous practices of landscape management—practices that offer an invaluable example of how Indigenous and local communities can be engaged in sustainable living and protection of mountain landscapes.

Early on, a fundamental obstacle FPNS had to confront was the government’s strong disassociation from the country’s Indigenous Peoples. A personal anecdote well illustrates this state of affairs. I still remember the episode vividly after more than forty years. We were traveling from the Ciudad Perdida archaeological site to the coastal city of Santa Marta. A Kogi Mamo asked us for a lift on the helicopter to go buy needles, gunpowder, and cotton thread in the city. To raise money for these basic supplies, he had sold his cow and chickens. In Santa Marta, the FPSN members and the Mamo were staying in accommodation made available by the military. When the military got wind that a Kogi was with our party, officers made it clear to us that “primitives” were not allowed in there, and we were all kicked out. Over the years, FPSN has worked tirelessly to bridge this divide.

Today, the pressures arising from rampant resource extraction as well as from population growth seriously threaten the integrity of the Sierra Nevada’s cultural landscape and its biocultural diversity. Weak governments, unrecognized collective rights to territories and natural resources, and government-imposed protected areas all contribute to such pressures and add to the threats faced both by the Indigenous Peoples and the ecosystem of the Sierra Nevada. Recovery of the territory by Indigenous Peoples themselves is a critical factor in the future protection of the region. Sacred sites play a fundamental role in affirming the spirituality of the territory. They also provide a way to establish a set of rules and regulations about the management and preservation of these areas that is deeply connected to Indigenous belief systems.

The pressures arising from rampant resource extraction as well as from population growth seriously threaten the integrity of the Sierra Nevada’s cultural landscape and its biocultural diversity.

In recent times, the Indigenous Peoples of the Sierra Nevada have been making important strategic moves to gain respect for their spirituality and traditional knowledge. In 2012, the Kogi produced a documentary film in their language, Aluna: A Journey to Save the World, which has helped raise international awareness about the importance of preserving their biocultural heritage. Another crucial move has been the publication in 2018 of Shikwankala: The Cry of Mother Earth, a book about the spiritual teachings that guide traditional governance and territorial management. Written with the full participation of their traditional authorities and with the clarity demanded by the Mamos as well as the rigor demanded by academics, the book has the power to influence and transform ways of being, thinking, and doing in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and beyond.

community meeting

Community meeting with Kogi traditional authorities in the upper San Miguel River valley. Photo: Peter Rawitscher Adams, 2018

These efforts have also helped garner recognition from the national government of Colombia. After many years of lobbying, on August 6, 2018 the government passed Decree 1500, also known as the “Black Line Decree,” which recognizes the ancestral territory of the Arhuaco, Kogi, Wiwa, and Kankuamo peoples and the need to protect its spiritual, cultural, and environmental value, according to the principles and foundations of the Law of the Mother as well as to constitutional and international standards. Government institutions are now working to forge co-management agreements with the Sierra’s Indigenous organizations, in efforts to build adequate governance mechanisms that will ensure Indigenous autonomy.

After keeping their ways and wisdom hidden for generations, the Mamos have decided to share them to help the world take care of nature by making use of their knowledge and spiritual values. “We are the spiritual and material Guardians of the Heart of the World,” they have said, “and will continue to fulfill our mission forever as our legacy to Humanity.” As the Mamos see it, there are critical interconnections within the natural world, and interfering with one part has a major impact on other parts. Establishing agreements that guarantee the conservation and protection of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta means safeguarding the health of the planet.

Says Mamo Luntana of Takina: “Why do we want to damage the earth and water? Killing a forest is like killing a government. Where will we go to live? How do we make them understand? Let’s change our lives, sow new seeds.”

To learn more, visit the Organización Gonawindúa Tayrona website.

Watch the film Aluna.

Find the book Shikwankala: El Crujido de la Madre Tierra (Shikwankala: The Cry of Mother Earth) .

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Rodriguez Navarro.

Guillermo E. Rodríguez Navarro is a founding member of Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (FPSN). He holds a MSc in Applied Statistics from Oxford University, where he specialized in Archeology, and has been engaged in research in the Sierra Nevada region since 1977.