I have now returned from a short visit to Santa Marta on behalf of the Trust, prompted by worrying accounts of the current state of affairs in the Sierra.
I was told that it was too dangerous for me to visit any indigenous communities but that a number of Mamas would come down to meet me at the Casa Indigena. In the event, a number of them came part-way down and then returned home, apparently because of fears for their safety. I heard today that since my return at the end of January, four Kogi have been kidnapped by paramilitaries.
The situation in the Sierra has changed fundamentally. Paramilitaries now control the whole of the lower region. Guerrillas are an all-pervading presence in the higher parts of the massif, and the army is establishing itself there with the intention of destroying them. Military bases have been established in indigenous territory; I was told of plans to put an army base in Pueblo Viejo, the Kogi town where the agreement was made for filming “From The Heart of the World”.
There is no hidden world any more. When I asked Julio, a long-standing employee of Gonawindua Tairona, if this was the conclusion of the conquest of the New World, he replied “yes, it is the final coup”.
Gonawindua Tairona is headed by Arregoces Conchakala Zarabata, the no-longer-young man who took care of me in my first days in the Sierra. He now has nine children, and lives in his own small house in Santa Marta. Since Gonawindua is now formally recognised as the equivalent of a municipal council for the indigenous people of the Sierra, he is also provided, as Cabildo Gobernador (Corporation Governor) with a government-financed car and driver. He does not, however, have any internet access.
That is handled by Danilo Villafañe, a member of the Arhouaco clan which dominates the organisation.
Everyone was at pains to stress that Gonawindua Tairona represents all the indigenous people of the Sierra – Kogi, Arhouaco and Asario (now generally referred to as Wiwa). But there is clearly a significant problem in maintaining contact with the Mamas, and it is no longer clear that GT acts as their mouthpiece.
One obvious problem, apart from the sheer difficulty and danger of arranging consultative meetings, is that the working language of GT is Spanish, which the Kogi Mamas have difficulty understanding.
GT was originally formed in 1972 under the guidance of three Kogi Mamas, Mama Valencio, Mama Jacinto and Mama Bernardo (whose father, Mama Juan, seems to have been the visionary who taught of its necessity). All three are now very aged. Mama Valencio is too frail to descend to Santa Marta. Mama Bernardo did come to see me, very weak, and explained that he now fears for the future of the organisation. He has come to the end of his time, and has transferred all his powers to his three sons with the hope that they will find a way to restore GT to its original purpose and bring it through the crisis. He stressed the importance of the Trust only making donations to GT, and not to individuals or individual groups.
It was significant that he used Ramon Gil’s son David as his translator to me, because Ramon had asked me for direct financial support for a project of his own. Concerned about the gradual collapse of the authority of the Mamas, Ramon, whose father was a Wiwa Mama and who is now a Mama himself – is setting up a sort of college for Wiwa Mamas, and wanted help in feeding them. This is clearly an ambitious and potentially important project, but Mama Bernardo clearly felt that Gonawindua should not be by-passed.
He also stressed the importance of clearly identifying the purpose of any donations so that they would not be mis-used. His own priorities were that any money should be used for direct support, as food and tools, for the Mamas so that they would be in a better position to make offerings, and for the purchase of lands containing sacred sites.
Mama Jacinto separately said almost exactly the same thing. The fittest of the three (though much affected by the recent death of his wife), he still comes down frequently to try to keep an eye on GT’s activities – and he used Ramon himself as his translator in explaining the importance of only working through the organisation.
One new development is that GT has begun making its own short films. As a consequence of their involvement with National Geographic, who published an article on the Sierra last October, they have acquired three good-quality mini-DV cameras and a semi-professional video editing kit, together with some training. The Indigenous Media Project, which includes members of all three groups, is headed by Amado Villafañe and is making what I suppose are best described as propaganda videos in the hope that this is a way to make their voice heard in a difficult situation. The quality of their work truly surprised me, and I agreed to offer what help I can in taking it further and assisting in their finding a way of working that is in harmony with tradition.
The old problems of getting clear reports of how money is being used remain. The issue is not one of corruption but of time and administrative competence. Three years ago the Trust, with the help of the Avina Foundation, responded to a request to provide a computer with mapping software and training so that they could claim ownership of knowledge of the Sierra’s geography and use that in negotiations. Repeated efforts to find out what had happened produced only silence. I was therefore astonished to be shown their computer-generated detailed map of the Sierra, and to learn that Danilo had successfully used it to persuade the current President of Colombia to support a land-purchase proposal.
For me, the symbolic moment of the trip was standing in my hotel shower after coming off the beach. I usually stay in a hotel on a long strech of pure white sand. But Santa Marta is now a huge coal port, and instead of sand washing around in the shower, there was only coal-dust. There are plans for four more pristine beaches to be converted into coal ports.
It will take a great effort to preserve the Sierra. The Indians do not believe it is too late. I hope they’re right.