Threats to Kogi society, and their response - the founding of Gonavindua Tairona

The Ika had long been more vulnerable to the effects of western acculturation because the southern areas of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta had been deforested earlier in the century by the United Fruit Company, an American concern, to make way for banana plantations. Although these plantations are no longer viable, roads and Western presence in the South remained effective bringing the Ika to the forefront of contact with Westerners and resulting in their heavier politicisation.

The Kogi, however, lived on the northern and western slopes of the Sierra, a position that afforded them more protection. Their privileged situation was to change.

Factors involved

In the 1970’s a road linking Santa Marta with Venezuela via Riohacha, was built along the northern coast resulting in ribbon development and the establishment of increasingly populated villages along its length. It is now this northern coast which has been developed for banana plantations, thus incidentally escalating land prices here, and up into the foothills of the Kogi part of the Sierra Nevada.

Secondly, towards the end of the seventies, came the discovery of an ancient Tairona city, ‘Ciudad Perdida’, by ‘guacheiros’ or tomb-robbers. This resulted in the dissemination of Tairona gold pieces and other artifacts into the Western market and the ‘Lost City’ became the archaeological site ‘Buritaca 2000’. These factors combined to make the area a more popular tourist attraction.

Also, throughout the twentieth century, indigenous land has been invaded by ‘colonos’ farmers, poor Colombians who try to scratch a living from small farms on the lower slopes. Included in their crops are marijuana and coca bushes for the production of cocaine to fuel the international market. This in turn has led to the use of the mountain by the ‘cocaine’ barons. It’s ruggedness also makes it a haunt of revolutionary forces and other bands of less politically motivated groups (professional kidnappers in the main) which in turn lead to the necessity of the army and para-military groups to enter indigenous territory to control these various forces.

Response of the Mamas

Inevitably, the effects of 20th century globalisation were being felt in ‘The Heart of the World’ and the Mamas had to adapt to this new situation. When faced with new phenomena, says Reichel-Dolmatoff, ’ it is not so much the question of what causes these phenomena which occupies the priests, but the problem of how to integrate them into the established cosmogonic scheme…. What ritual or moral attitudes do they imply for the individual and for society?’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff in Lyon 1974: 300). Writing this article in 1974, Reichel-Dolmatoff described the emergence of a new strata of younger priests ‘who do not conform to the basis established by tradition, but who glimpse new horizons and new dimensions in which human destiny might fulfil itself.’ (ibid: 301).

Gonavindua Tairona

It was this generation of priests which decided that overt political power was preferable to isolation. The founding of Gonavindua Tairona (on 21st January 1987) was the first step towards such a power base. Kogi, Arhuaco and Assario combined to establish a political organisation which ‘... links native communities to the Western world with an obligation to defend the Sierra Nevada down to its deepest foundations, so that all who live there and their environment shall suffer no harm. This organisation was set up with the object of helping to defend indigenous culture and traditions, promoting their independence and autonomy. It is also engaged in the larger work, the quest to protect our culture and beliefs.’

The following year, 1988, they further reversed the policy of complete isolation by agreeing to a request by BBC film director Alan Ereira to make a documentary about them. Whilst a number of films had been made about the Arhuaco (including by Attenborough), the Kogi had previously refused entry even to such prestigious film-makers as Brian Moser, series editor of Granada’s ‘Disappearing World’ programmes. There followed a year’s fieldwork by anthropologist Graham Townsley before the making of the film (From the Heart of the World - the Elder Brothers’ Warning - 90 minutes) which was presented on BBC1 in 1990. This period marked both the end of Kogi isolation and the beginning of Tairona Heritage Trust activities.

By acting in this way, the Kogi were conforming to a pattern of contemporary South American indigenous resurgence. In Colombia and Ecuador in particular, lowland and highland indigenous groups are uniting through ‘Indianism’ (‘Indianismo’), ‘a philosophy which emphasises that indigenous peoples should lead the struggle for recognition of their own culture, needs and rights.’ (Wearne 1996: 173). ‘Indianism’ manifests in three different schools of thought; the first identifies the struggle with left-wing ideology and the second disassociates itself from both left and right-wing politics arguing instead for a return to cultural purity. Gonavindua Tairona is espouses the third school, namely ‘a centrist position which argues that indigenous people should organise, lobby and campaign in structures of their own but in alliance with other, non-indigenous organisations when and where appropriate. In other words, action and organisation should reflect the multicultural, plural nature of the societies in which indigenous people live.’ (ibid: 174).