NABUSIMAKE, Colombia ( Associated Press) — From the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, the Arhuaco indigenous people have preserved their ancient worldview and tradition, overcoming the incursions of Capuchin missionaries who forced them into exile in the 20th century. Tried to preach the gospel, illegal armed groups and now try to recover from the damage done to “Mother Earth”.
Its knowledge and that of three other indigenous peoples, the Kogui, Wiwa and Kankuamo, were declared Intangible Cultural Heritage in November last year. of humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“Recognition is very important, but it is very important to respect and protect Mother Earth where we exist,” Jarvavico Torres, the governor of the city of Arhuaco, told The Associated Press.
For Torres, in practice the UNESCO designation should prevent mega-projects or dams from mining to build hydroelectric dams on their land. “It is to be aware so that we maintain the order of nature, as it has been since the creation of the world,” he explained.
The Arhuacos believe in the Law of Genesis as a guide for behavior and spiritual wisdom that governs them as a people. In its complexity, it can be understood as a law of life where nature cannot be destroyed. “Water must have its own channel, stones exist in one place. She respects me and I respect her,” Torres insisted.
On a spiritual level, they usually pay a tribute to “Mother Nature” using water, wind, sun or animals. For the rituals with which they make offerings to the water, they fast for several days and go to the sea shore or to the snowy peak where the “mother water” is. In the event of non-payment of the offering, they believe that disease or disaster may befall their city.
Their life is closely linked to the Sierra Nevada which rises from the Caribbean coast and has snow-capped mountains, lagoons and moors in its upper reaches. Their white clothes woven from sheep’s wool represent the snow and their cone-shaped hats represent the snowy peaks.
To access their lands, it is necessary to obtain permits from indigenous authorities and be prepared to go into the mountains where their rules apply. Quickly, telephone signals and internet are lost and unpaved roads and rivers begin to lead to Nabucimec, known as the Arehuaca capital.
The Torres Izquierdo family lives in two houses with mud walls and thatched roofs, a two-hour walk from Nabusimake. They do not have electricity, but at night they warm themselves with a fire inside their house where they sleep on the ground or on animal skins. There is no running water or even pipes, but they bathe and wash their clothes in a nearby river.
The day begins with sunrise at around five in the morning. Lucia usually goes to work as a nursing assistant in Nabucimec and her 16-year-old twin sisters, Irene and Alba, usually accompany her to the city when they attend the indigenous school, but they visit during school breaks. She helps her family in grazing sheep. Mariano, one of his brothers, inherited from his father to be a “mamo”, a spiritual leader who protects the wisdom of his people.
Not everyone in Juana’s family, Mariano’s mother, and the 11 other children know how to speak Spanish. Some speak only “Iku”, the native language that the Arhuaco people have managed to preserve despite contact with Western society and especially after the arrival of Capuchin missionaries in 1916 that tried to “civilize” them. The missionaries were expelled by the indigenous people in 1982.
To determine their families, the Arhuacos have genealogies or castes. Females inherit maternal castes and males inherit paternal castes. However, with the colonization process they were losing them. “When they start doing civil registries, they give them more than a dozen Spanish surnames like Izquierdo, Torres or Mejia,” Arehuacan linguist Gunnara Izquierdo explained to the Associated Press.
The Arhuacos define themselves as peaceful people who do not use weapons and are prohibited in principle from killing or stealing. However, in their land they have faced the actions of illegal armed groups, first guerrillas and then paramilitary forces.
They have also suffered from the onslaught of drug trafficking, although they currently maintain low levels of illegal crops. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 2.5 hectares of coca leaf were registered in the Sierra Nevada in 2021. 204,000 planted hectares were recorded throughout Colombia, a record level.
For the Arhuacos, the coca leaf is a sacred plant called “ayu”, which has nothing to do with the cocaine produced by the “little brothers”, as they call the society outside their culture.
Plants, stones, animals and the Sierra Nevada itself are living beings that have a feeling for the Arhuacos. “If the Sierras were dead, we wouldn’t have life,” Torres insisted.
Suarez reported from Bogota.