Report on Alan Ereira’s visit to the Sierra, Feb. 2007

Report on Alan Ereira’s visit to the Sierra, Feb. 2007

This visit had three objectives
1.      To establish the current state of affairs among the indigenous people, especially the Kogi
2.      To provide assistance to Ramón Gil in ensuring continuity in the passing on of traditional knowledge
3.      To explore the possibility of making a new film, with the direct involvement of indigenous people in the process.

1. On my arrival I met up with Eric Julien of the French charity Tchendukua, who we helped last year with the purchase of some land for the Kogi.  Eric had managed to persuade the local police to provide a free helicopter ride to the mountain peaks, and I joined him.  The snow peaks are seen as an essential life-source of the Sierra; when they made the original film in 1990 the Kogi Mamas warned that the retreat of the glaciers there was potentially catastrophic, and that it should be seen as an indication of heating-up that was affecting the whole planet.  It was also seen as a process mirrored by the final invasion of the mountain itself, the Heart of the World, by violent and rapacious Younger Brother (us), in a potentially apocalyptic end-time scenario in which the Great Mother herself suffers and ultimately dies.

Bad news, then.  The glaciers are almost gone.  The snow that remains will probably have vanished in two or three years.

  Jan 1990 - permanent snows

Feb 2007 - the peaks are drying out

At the same time, the invasion of the Sierra continues.  A number of dam projects are being developed to take possession of the remaining water.  Gonawindua Tairona, the indigenous organisation which has exercised a level of governmental authority within the northern part of the Sierra, has been informed that it is no longer entitled to state funding, and that its activities (health, sanitation, education etc.) are to be put out to tender to private companies, without any obligation to treat indigenous territory as different from any other part of Colombia.

Parts of the Sierra are a little safer than they were, due to a quite extensive military occupation and the (notional?) disbanding of paramilitary forces.  But Kogi society has been massively disrupted, Kogi towns have a military presence, Kogi have been murdered.

The indigenous response has been different among different communities.  The Arhouaco have been organising politically, sending many young people to university, looking for sources of help abroad.  The Asario (who now prefer to be known as “Wiwa”) have been concentrating on cultural revival - hardly any of the old generation of Wiwa Mamas remain alive, and they need to find ways of teaching the young who they are.  The Kogi were described to me as standing silent and frozen, with outsiders unable to comprehend them.  To the invaders, they seem to be as mute and uncomprehending as stones and trees.  The invaders do not understand stones, trees or Kogi.

But some Kogi are politically engaged.  Mama Juan Mamacatan is the governor of Gonawindua Tairona and fighting for its survival.  Arregoces has set up the Consejo Territorial de los Cabildos (Territorial Council of Governors) to pull the four peoples of the Sierra (Kogi, Arhoucao, Wiwa, Kangwama) into a political force with a single voice.  For this work they both need cash to help Mamas and leaders travel to meetings.  I said we would consider ways of providing some.

To unwind, I went to bathe in the sea in the beautiful bay of Taganga, just along the coast from Santa Marta.  I found the water so polluted that it was like swimming in the Dead Sea - I could not sink.  There is now a plan to build a storm-drain to carry floodwater from Santa Marta into Taganga Bay.  Santa Marta floods regularly in heavy rains.  The tunnel will carry all the muck from the streets, sewage, dead rats etc. into the bay.  It is to run through a sacred site.

The situation is not without hope.  Taganga has responded with an environmental campaign that draws its inspiration from the indigenous people.  Their core text is the film From the Heart of the World.  It is kept in the library, and children are instructed to watch it.  And there are Mamas working in Taganga.  Perhaps something may yet be done.

2. Ramón Gil, who was instrumental in helping me make that film, is concentrating now on protecting his father’s community of Wiwa (his mother was Kogi).  He has now become their highest-ranking Mama, and at Gonawindua’s request the Trust has provided the finance for the first six months of his new “Colegio de Mamas”, where young Wiwa men are to learn traditional law, medicine, philosophy and history.

Ramón teaching

The school is in a new community in the Guachaca river-valley, on land which was a remote colonnos farm until we provided the funds for Gonawindua to buy it.  In those days it was called “El Encato - “The Enchanted”.  Now it is “Gotzedzi”, “The place of purifying waters”.

Water is, of course, a synonym for spirit, but in more material terms the river there did have to be purified.  Two farms on the opposite bank had, until recently, five cocaine factories spewing poisonous effluent into it.

The factories are gone now, and the water is purer. 

The river.  Photo by indigenous Wiwa Raphael Mojica

A government eradication team came and destroyed the commercial coca crop by hand.  It does seem as though fumigation has been suspended, which is just as well - I met Arhouacos from the Palomino valley who have been blinded by the spray from aircraft, and whose children are born horribly deformed, or with cancers.

Ramón wants to buy these farms before the factories re-appear.  The first one, covering some 200 hectares (500 acres) will cost about COL160,000 (£40,000, or $80,000).  It looks like a good buy - at one swoop, we block part of the cocaine trade, protect the environment of the Sierra and help the survival of an indigenous community.  I promised that the Trust would take this seriously.

The land to be bought

I was rewarded for the Trust’s efforts with a six-hour presentation of music, dance and singing.  Sitting on a green plastic chair (the only chair in the town), I felt rather embarrassed, an imitation viceroy in a community that receives little help from elsewhere (though Evangelical Christians are keen to get involved).  There are only 5000 Wiwa left, and only 2800 still speak their language, Duhmuhna.  An alphabet is being developed for them, and they asked for materials to help them learn English.

3. I discussed the idea of a new film with a number of leaders - Kogi, Arhouaco and Wiwa.  My idea is that the documentary format has a limited (serious) audience, and this time we need to tell a story - one which sees the Sierra as it is, was and may become through the experience of just a very few people, and which carries the audience into a world permeated by other ways of seeing and being.  To my surprise, the response was genuinely enthusiastic, and various people are now out collecting stories, both mythic and present-day, which can act as a spine for a narrative that shows the reality of the Sierra now, and the reasons why we need desperately to understand the vision that still survives there, of how human beings can be in the world without destroying it.  And how much Younger Brother has to learn from Elder Brother, if we can just be brought to respect and listen before we wipe it all away.

Immediate Action

The Trust has played a major role in establishing two “new indigenous towns, moving their frontier down the mountain, regenerating land and sustaining Gonavindua Tairona.  Now paramilitary leaders have been arrested, cocaine factories have been closed, and the indigenous people are ready to take on new land - to construct more new towns and remove cocaine production and violence.  We need money in the bank, so that as land deals are struck we can deliver the cash for them.  The Trust has no premises and no paid staff - so every penny of your gift does make a difference.