Alan Ereira’s account of the Trust’s visit to Colombia in 1992

‘I did not really understand why the Kogi were expecting me back. When I finished the film they wanted to make, they had closed the door on me - symbolically and in reality.
The film had been their attempt to stop the final stages of the conquest of America. The white man, their “Younger Brother”, had come to America to loot and plunder. That is the nature of our civilisation, “to tear at the earth, to wound the Mother”. Although the first Spanish landings on the continent were at the foot of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, it is a region we have never finally subdued. This huge, precipitous massif, the highest coastal mountain in the world, has provided a relatively safe refuge for the survivors of the Tairona culture. They still live there, some 11,000 white-robed farmers, ruled and guided by their traditional priesthood, the Mamas, refusing to abandon their ancestral towns and ancient knowledge, and refusing to accept writing, or machines, or radios, or shoes.

The film had made some impact; it has been broadcast in several countries (though not Colombia) and shown at festivals and special showings on a large number of occasions - including a showing at the Earth Summit in Rio last June. The book which I wrote about it has also had some success, appearing in the USA and Italy, and due to come out in France, Germany and Japan. But I did not feel that I had a lot to report about how we had changed our ways as a result.

Many people had written to me, and I encouraged them to subscribe to the Tairona Heritage Trust. This helps the Kogi to re-acquire land taken from them by settlers, to reverse their own retreat ever higher up the mountain. We had sent money to buy a few relatively cheap farms (or rather, since these farms are already Indian land, being inside the reserve, to pay legal compensation to the squatter farmers to leave). But I did not know whether that was going well.

So I went not knowing what to expect. I travelled in the company of Felicity Nock, the anthropologist who helped me set the film up almost from the start, and Graham Falvey, the volunteer administrator of the Trust. Graham is a self-contained, quiet man who looks after the estate of the Chisholme Institute in Scotland. He didn’t know what to expect either, but Graham is not given much to verbal speculation so we travelled in something approaching silence.

We were carrying gifts. I had several thousand dollars of the Trust’s money and the Gaia Atlas of Indigenous People. Mama Juan Jacinto, the “Jefe Major” (great chief) had asked me to bring a map showing where other indigenous people could be found, and this was the nearest I could find. We also had stacks of photographs, expressions of goodwill and greetings from many people, and Graham was taking some honey from the bees at Chisholme.

It was a long journey; to keep the price down we were travelling via Madrid, the island of the Dominican Republic and Bogota. Three days to get to Santa Marta. We were all conscious that this was the week of the Columbus Quincentennial, and that we were, by chance, travelling from the heart of Spain and stopping off at Columbus’ first “discovery” in the Caribbean.

The journey was totally uneventful. I was woken up by gunfire in Bogota, and Colombia was rocked by a substantial earthquake just after we took off on the last leg of the flight, but none of this touched us. All the roads between Santa Marta and the interior of Colombia had been cut by the guerrillas, but this did not affect us at all. We arrived at the Casa Indigena, the compound of the Department of Indian Affairs, with perfect composure.

Amparo, the heroic guardian of the Casa Indigena, was in full charge. She lost an arm in a car accident shortly after we finished filming, but she manages fine; she drives around with her stump on the steering wheel and changes gear with the remaining arm. Nothing keeps Amparo down; even when she was two days walk into the Sierra and her stump burst open and the artery began pumping, she coped. She could lose both legs and both arms, and still climb the mountain with her teeth.

Ramón Gil, the Kogi’s public relations man (half-Kogi, half-Assario), and Adalberto, his Arhuaco sidekick, were both there, and together they all began explaining what was going on. The situation of the Kogi was being revolutionised. Under the new Constitution, indigenous people were being given autonomy in their own lands; the Elder Brothers were being recognised as having the right to live by their own legal system, under their own traditional political structures, and to take full control of their reserve. They would need money and organisation, but the Tairona Heritage Trust would help - wouldn’t it? They were also getting some other outside help. The University of Rome had launched a long-promised programme to assist in reforesting recovered land, stabilising the frontier and supporting the Kogi’s educational work. Luciano, a relaxed sociologist with considerable South American experience, had installed himself in the Casa Indigena a few weeks ago to supervise the programme.

I had expected that we would be going to Pueblo Viejo, which had been the Kogi’s frontier town - a place divided between Kogi and Colombian settlers. It’s a tough place to get to. I knew that you used to drive past the cocaine ranches to Mingeo, a tiny community with one of the world’s highest murder rates, then off along a dirt track through bandit country to the tiny settlement of Santa Rosa. From there, fording a couple of rivers, you worked your way through the jungle to the foot of the “descansa”, a long hard climb parts of which had to be scrabbled on all fours. You climbed from about 2000 ft. to about 4000, and then began a tough hill walk to Pueblo Viejo. It all had to be done at a brisk speed, to arrive before dusk, in steamy heat and, at this time of year part of the climb was bound to be in torrential rain. I was not looking forward to it; I could see storms in the mountains, and I knew that parts of the route would be thigh-deep in mud.

To my huge relief, I was told that the plan was different. We were to be taken to a new settlement at Bonga, at the foot of the “descansa”. The frontier had moved. The land purchases had removed all but one of the settlers from the region of Pueblo Viejo, and the new community at Bonga would become a frontier post to control trade and to hold meetings with representatives of the national government. It was being built on the foundations of a Tairona city, and would be, as that had been, an “open city” shared by all the indigenous communities of the Sierra. Luciano was helping with the planning of it, but building had begun and the mens’ house, the “nuhue”, and women’s house were already complete, as were a number of temporary dwellings built rectangular, in the Arhuaco style.

We were to be taken there so that we could see what had been achieved and what needed to be done, and in particular to see the next tranche of land that needed to be bought, a settler farm between Bonga and the “descansa”.There followed a long discussion about the Kogis’ financial difficulties. Medical expenses at the Casa Indigena had run out of control again, and the negotiations which had led to the current strong position of the Indians’ organisation had run up a lot of costs, particularly the expense of finding food for the negotiators once they had left their farms. We finally agreed that we could afford to clear most of the debt, buy the farm and make further contributions; an amount equalling one third of the land cost would be given for future medical expenses, and the same amount again to cover the administrative costs of buying the land and negotiating with the government.

For the future, the government had agreed to make grants to help finance the indigenous “autonomous entity”, but these grants would be dependent on the Indians putting up some money themselves. They therefore intended that where they acquired commercial farms, they would not turn them over to subsistence agriculture but would seek to market the produce. They would, however, change the farming methods to a more balanced regime, in which cash crops and trees would share the same land, complementing each others’ growth.

The main cash crop would be coffee, and they had just struck a wonderful agreement with the Japanese. Apparently the Japanese had carried out a large research project looking for the best supply they could find of organically-grown, high quality coffee, and had tasted some which had been traded by the Kogi. They had decided that this was the best to be found, and the Kogi are now assured of a guaranteed market with a minimum floor price for all the coffee they care to produce.

Obviously this will not be a huge income, and much of it will have to be spent on sustaining the families that grow the coffee, but there should be some spare money which can be put towards the government’s demand. The newly acquired farms are being allocated to family groups, who work them under the control of a Mama and who can keep the cash from selling the crop - but the Kogi will shortly begin taxing them. This will provide part of the income of the proto-state they are building. They expect the Tairona Heritage Trust to help out too, but we stressed that our help could never be more than a percentage of money we donated which was earmarked for more lasting purposes, such as land recovery.

And so we set out. The journey to Bonga was not especially difficult, and there was much to look at on the way. The cocaine ranches had gone; the Americans have recently sprayed them with defoliants, and they have been replaced by large banana plantations. Mingeo remains pretty violent, and there seems to be some trouble over the banana plants; while we were there, the British manager of a banana company was kidnapped from close by our base, and killed in the subsequent gun-battle with the police.

The bad-lands between there and Bonga remain difficult, but they are also commercially valuable, and these are the next lands the Kogi need to be buying if they are to re-establish their link to the sea and to grow a full range of necessary crops. When we started helping them with land purchase the land we were dealing with was almost worthless, £15 a hectare. The land around Bonga is considerably more expensive, up to four times the price. But once you get to the territory between Bonga and Santa Rosa you are talking serious money, £200 a hectare, and the coastal strip where the bananas are now grown is more like £2000 an acre (£5000 a hectare).

Bonga is plainly a settlement still building - a clearing in the jungle, at the foot of the “descansa”, with about ten houses, the two larger ceremonial buildings, and a short walk to the river. At just below 2000 feet, it is more humid than the other Kogi towns I have visited, and the river, instead of flowing straight off the glacier-melt, is a torrent fed entirely by run-off from the jungle. It does feel wonderful; there is a wide point where the river is about three metres deep, just under a small waterfall, and I found that I could let the rushing water pin me against an underwater rock facing straight into the rapids - a natural jacuzzi that could not be improved upon.

Felicity and Amparo were given one of the small houses, and Graham and I were invited to sling our hammocks in the “nuhue” with the other men - the first time this has happened to me in the five years I have been visiting the Sierra. It was also the first time I have been met with real warmth and enthusiasm, rather than a diplomatic politeness. There is no doubt in my mind that this is associated with a new confidence among the Kogi that things are changing for the better.

Of the various gifts we had brought, perhaps the most interesting proved to be the Atlas of Indigenous Peoples. One person after another wanted to study it, looking at picture after picture and asking where this person came from, identifying artifacts from Africa, Australia and Asia as clearly familiar. The Kogi have seen themselves as an isolated remnant of a once-great world that has now almost vanished; they are thousands, we are millions. The discovery from this book that there are 250 million indigenous people in the world was a revelation. For the first time, we had brought them information which they freely admitted was new, important and extremely interesting.

We were taken around the site, and shown the pits left by tomb-robbers who had plundered the ancient city. We also discussed renewal of the land, and recorded on video a formal statement of thanks from the Mamas to those who have helped the Tairona Heritage Trust. Thanks were also something new, and for me, surprising.

There were two people in particular in Bonga who I had never met before. One was Chicho, the only non-Kogi I have encountered who can speak their language. He was a Colombian who was taken as a child into the Sierra by a missionary priest, and who grew up among the Kogi. Now, I would guess, in his 30’s, he is working to help them and will run the trading post at Bonga. I cannot imagine anyone better for the job, and I really wish I had met Chicho years ago. He is the only person I have met who really does straddle the two worlds, and is an extraordinary informant on Kogi life and beliefs.

The other was Mama Juanke, who is the Mama who specialises in medicine. He said that he studied his specialism for 22 years; he also said that he was not training a student, as no one was prepared to undertake such an arduous programme. I am not convinced that this was necessarily true; in fact I saw numerous signs that the Kogi are drawing a number of concentric rings around their territory, and that certain kinds of information are restricted to the inner rings. At the same time certain people, including Ramón, are being restricted to the outer rings. Bonga is, of course, in the outermost ring.

Mama Juanke explained to me some of his techniques, which are all based on the idea of putting the sick person back into balance with the world, the curative power of plants and drinks depends also on songs, meditations, offerings and, in severe cases, pilgrimages. He also explained the distinction between the illnesses which he can and cannot treat, and mentioned a number of diseases which traditional medicine has no power to handle as they did not form part of the traditional world. Among them are cholera, which is now spreading in the Colombian towns below the Sierra and which has killed at least eleven Kogi recently, and, to my surprise, cancer. I had not realised that would be seen as a new disease.

Mama Juanke recently gave an extremely startling demonstration of his medical skill, which was recounted to us by a number of people including Chicho, who witnessed it. Mama Augustine had been struck down by what was described as a stroke; he lay in a coma for a week, with his life plainly ebbing away. Mama Augustine had a lot of life to lose; I remember him as a lively, jolly man (though in the film he had been stern and serious); when Mama Bernardo tried on Adalberto’s fine Arhuaco hat, he had roared with laughter and told Mama Bernardo that now all the girls would be after him and ruin him as a Mama. He is much loved, and Carlos from the Casa Indigena came to his sick-bed offering to transport him to hospital. The Mamas refused, and sent instead for Mama Juanke.

Chicho told us; “I was there, with one of the nuns and with Carlos, sitting by the hammock waiting for him to die. Mama Juanke came in and started drinking chirinche (cane alcohol), and I thought ‘Well he’s just going to get drunk. He’s not going to do any good.’ Then Mama Juanke told me to wake the nun up, because she had fallen asleep, and he said ‘I want her to see this.’ Then he took a cup and passed it over Mama Augustine’s stomach, and then passed it under his hammock and held it there. It filled up with a liquid like milk; I couldn’t see where it came from, but it absolutely stank. He gave it to me to throw away, and I tried to stick my nose into it to see what it was, but I couldn’t bear the smell. I threw it out and gave him back the cup, and he held it under the hammock again. I got under the hammock to see what was going on, I really wanted to see what was happening, and it filled up with this stinking milk again, but I couldn’t see how. Then he gave me the cup, and Mama Augustine opened his eyes and lifted up his head. He looked at Mama Juanke and said ‘You’ve been drinking again! You know you mustn’t drink chirinche! I’m going to tell everyone you’re a drunk!’ And Mama Juanke said ‘Don’t you tell me off! You’ve been lying in that hammock for a week without doing any work at all! I’m going to tell everyone what an idler you are. Now get up and go home.’ And Mama Augustine got out of the hammock. Of course he was very weak - he hadn’t eaten for a week - but I couldn’t believe it. If I hadn’t seen it I still wouldn’t believe it. And now he’s fine.”

A lie? A trick? Or something else?

We returned to Santa Marta deeply impressed by the new confidence we had encountered. On the way back, Ramón and I had a long discussion of shamanism and what I have heard called “shamanic travelling”, the spirit journeys which are undertaken by “medicine men” in other cultures. Ramón is very interested in discovering how to make these journeys, but is told by the Mamas that he should not be, that this is not something they should bother with, that it would be too much trouble. Just as it would be too much trouble for someone to learn what Mama Juanke has to teach.

The BBC had given me a video camera for the trip, with the notion that it might be possible to make a very short video updating the original film, and Ramón suggested that I should film a piece explaining the principles of re-forestation to the Younger Brother. The key, he said, was that before you begin material re-forestation of the land, there must be a mental re-forestation (meditation) and a spiritual re-forestation (planting the land with the correct stones).

The next day Ramón filmed his piece. Before he began, he went off to find some Tairona stones, similar to those used for divination, and he used these to explain how different kinds of special stones are used to re-vitalise the land. At the end of it I said to Felicity that I felt that Ramón was becoming a New Age Kogi, and if they ever saw this in California Tairona beads would become cult objects like New Age crystals.

The following morning I ‘phoned London to speak to my wife Sarah. At the end of our conversation she told me that the previous day (at the time when Ramón had been getting his Tairona stones), she had received a worried call from someone in California, saying that they had become obsessed with Tairona beads, they did not know why, they had accumulated a large number of them and wanted to know what they were supposed to do with them. They had found my book, and got my ‘phone number from the publisher.

Shaken, I went back to the Casa Indigena and told the Kogi what had happened. They asked for precise details of the beads before they could reply. I have sent on photographs which were sent to me by the Californian , and look forward to hearing what happens next.

Just before leaving, we met Frankie Rey, the original discoverer of the Lost City. Frankie lives now as a mountain guide, taking travellers up to the peaks of the Sierra from the southern slopes. This year, he said, has been terrible for business. The snow has come back to the peaks; the glaciers have grown for the first time in his lifetime, and there have been dangerous avalanches. Something has changed, and it is no longer possible to climb the mountain.