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The “Elder Brothers”, Guardians of the “Heart of the World”

Indigenous knowledge as an innovative contribution to the sustainable development of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, Colombia

Guillermo Enrique Rodríguez-Navarro[1]


The Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta is an isolated mountain in northern South America. Reaching an altitude of 5,684 meters above sea level just 46 kilometres from the Caribbean coast, the Sierra Nevada is the world’s highest coastal mountain, and it encompasses an area of about 17,000 square kilometres. In both geophysical and cultural terms, it is the interface between the montane Andes and the coastal Caribbean biogeographical regions. It is an UNESCO-declared Man and Biosphere Reserve.

Because of its altitudinal variation as well as its location at 11 degrees north latitude (73°30’ west longitude), the Sierra Nevada contains a mosaic of globally significant biomes (nearly all that can be found in tropical America). The Sierra is the source of 35 watersheds that supply 1.5 million inhabitants of the region, as well as vast urban and farming areas on the surrounding lowlands.

As a Pleistocene refuge, the Sierra was a propitious habitat for thousands of species during the last glaciations, many of which evolved in isolation within the Sierra Nevada and hence account for its rich biodiversity and high level of endemism. There are at least 600 genera and over 3,000 species of higher plants. It is known that 14 of the 635 species of birds registered for the Sierra are unique. Among the 142 species of amphibians and reptiles, there are 29, which are endemic, and all those inhabiting the unique “páramo” ecosystems above the tree line are found nowhere else.
As a result of its geographic and historical characteristics, diverse ethnic and cultural groups, each with its own interests and values, currently share the Sierra Nevada. The Sierra’s population includes some 32,000 members of the Kogi, Arhuaco, Wiwa and Kankuamo indigenous groups, descendants of the Tayronas and preservers of their ancient traditions. There are also approximately 150,000 peasants, and 1.5 million urban dwellers in the lowlands. Of these, the only stable populations are the indigenous groups and although each group has its own language, they all share a similar system of beliefs. Since pre-Hispanic times, the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada have possessed a worldview, social organisation and living pattern which revolves around the management and conservation of this unique environment, the “heart of the world.”

As of their first contact with the western world, the indigenous communities have witnessed the incessant pillage and destruction of their territories, sacred sites, burial grounds, and customs of their ancestors. Of the four tribes that managed to survive the Conquista, one (the Kankuamos) have been integrated into the general Colombian society, while the other three are undergoing various degrees of acculturation due to exogenous influences. The philosophical store of knowledge that the indigenous people hold for humanity through their understanding of nature, is currently appreciated by few people. Nevertheless, current recognition of the appropriateness of indigenous practices in natural resource management indicates that the negative attitudes commonly held about indigenous knowledge dating from the colonial era have begun to change[2].

The law of the Mother

At present, the Kogi, Arhuacos, and Arzarios are practitioners of the "Law of the Mother." This is a complex code of rules that regulates human behaviour in harmony with plant and animal cycles, astral movements, climatic phenomena, and patterns of transhumance in the sacred geography of the massif. The Kogi are the best guardians of the knowledge of their ancestors. The strict observance of this complex code of knowledge by the indigenous society has enabled the native population to survive and remain self-sufficient over the course of several centuries[3]. However, this unique example of harmony between humans and their environment is disappearing since the most fertile lands have been appropriated by drug-traffickers, cattle farmers, wealthy banana and oil palm growers, and insurgent and paramilitary groups.

The indigenous groups live in a complex-ranked society in which lineage plays a major role. The true power of decision making in personal and community affairs is concentrated in the hands of the native priests or Mamas, who possess a profound knowledge of their environment in astronomy, meteorology, ecology, and use this knowledge to plan their agronomic calendar and for the lineage-based distribution of lands and crops. The delicate balance between man and nature, which not only refers to the subsistence of resources such as water management, forest conservation and crops, but also to the spiritual and moral balance of the individual is easily disturbed by irresponsible human actions. Respectful agricultural rituals play a prominent role in indigenous religion and practices. Planting and herding are submitted to varied ritual rules timed according to astronomically determined seasons. In other words, the ritual calendar corresponds to the agricultural cycle[4].

It is believed that all native food plants have their “fathers” and “mothers”, and crop fertility has to be insured by offerings to these spiritual beings. Soil types such as clays, humus, etc., are ritually named as are the categories of rains, winds, and lagoons, along with the cardinal points to which they are associated[5]. The essence of this attitude is exemplified by rituals where the need to pay for the use of an particular species of tree to build a bridge, consists of a complex ceremony whereby plantules of the same species dispersed in the forest and are tended and fed with sacred food, thus favouring their survival. (Kogi: Pedro Sundenkama personal communication).

The study of man-nature has followed two general perspectives: the symbolic-morphology view, which represents nature as an exercise of thought which the taxonomical and cosmological imagination flies, and the contrasting view, ecological reductionism which negates the interrelation of nature to the symbolic and social field. The former combines a symbolic approach with an ecological analysis, thus contributing to a new theory of the social construction of nature. It follows that if nature is a part of culture, cultural patterns are important to understand the relationship between man and nature[6].

An example of indigenous environmental awareness is evidenced by changes in subsistence patterns within the last 500 years from the ancestral Tayrona intensive terrace irrigation agriculture to the modern use of mixed starchy crops, and the adoption of cash crops, oxen, and trade relationships, as mechanisms of sustainability to counterbalance the colonisation of part of their territory[7],[8]. This complex set of ideas, values, and practices constitute an ecosophy, a philosophy wherein nature is endowed with normative value, and ecological knowledge becomes a belief system. The time has come for our industrialised and secularised society to learn from indigenous society, incorporate moral values, and envelop an ecological understanding in social action and economic behaviour. Knowledge must come to form part of a mode of life and post-modern man will need an ecosophy that protects the basic resources, which assure the survival of life on our planet[9].

Throughout his numerous studies in the region, the famous Anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff has pointed out the importance of perpetuating the ecological vision of the indigenous groups of the Sierra Nevada[10]. The bioregion's social and economic development depends on the way the complex social and ecological conditions of the indigenous peoples of the massif as a whole are dealt with. It is necessary to offer support in such a way as to respect indigenous developmental models and land rights, and to grant them equitable social treatment, to guarantee forest conservation, watershed maintenance, and regulation, resources that are in indigenous territory.

With the arrival of outsiders, indigenous populations are suffering territorial and organisational fragmentation. Displacement of peasants and the subsequent invasion of indigenous territories have left them with the highest and least productive zones of the Sierra, which has led to an over exploitation of the high-mountain ecosystem[11]. Civil strife has also led to the migration of several indigenous groups to other areas within the Sierra and, in a few cases, to nearby regions. The systematic looting of sacred sites has also wreaked havoc on the traditions of indigenous groups due to the loss of spiritual power.

In the search of sustainable development and biodiversity conservation strategies, the indigenous occupation of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta since V century AD serves as an example of sustainability. There is still evidence of a densely populated area with more than 200 archaeological settlements and towns of all sizes, from pueblos of 20, 40 or 80 houses to large centres with 400 to 1000 stone structures, including ceremonial houses and temples[12],[13]. Such settlement patterns and the indigenous knowledge of their place in history greatly contribute to an understanding of native alternatives for sustainability[14],[15]. The indigenous vertical management system from seashore and tropical resources to subtropical and highland products, or use of the various ecosystems situated at different altitudes along a watershed, represents their symbolic elaboration. This system is the result of a historical process of adjustment to the ecological conditions of the Sierra; a coevolutionary process that is presently functional among indigenous and some peasant communities.

Although both the formal and informal economic sectors need one another, their sole link is the water supply which make forest conservation imperative, which in turn require a social agreement that validates indigenous knowledge, since they are the ones who control the conservation of the basic resources that ensure the region’s wellbeing. As such, this resource, a commodity valued and needed by all, can be the basis for a dialogue between the various groups in conflict. The failure to achieve a social agreement between the indigenous people and inhabitants of the urban and farming areas on the surrounding lowlands, will hinder the conservation of the forests and sources of water, and thereby the future development of the region.

Indigenous participation in the Sustainable Development Plan of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Official policies for the conservation of the Sierra Nevada have been for all intents and purposes ineffectual. The Sierra has remained a cultural, working landscape, (UICN Category V) thanks to the indigenous communities, which have adopted strategies to counteract the pressure exerted on the most fragile biomes by the colonisation processes. The sustainable development of the Sierra can only be achieved through the diffusion of this ancient and adaptative knowledge, and by modifying those extraneous conceptions of development, which have more recently entered the Sierra[16].
In 1986, the Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta began its conservation work in the area in a holistic manner. At a local level, the Fundación established and maintains two ecological stations in co-operation with the National Natural Parks office, and one community centre. These stations are located strategically and also act as permanent monitoring sites to enable field staff to better understand social, political, economic, and environmental changes in the area. It has also undertaken a comprehensive study of the social, political, economic, and environmental conditions at a regional level. The study recommends that its results be made known in order to raise public awareness and modify the attitudes and behaviour of the region's inhabitants and of the institutions that deal with them.

Accordingly, the Fundación designed a Conservation Strategy for the Sierra Nevada based on participatory processes of reflection and analysis of the existent environmental damage. The Conservation Strategy was developed with the active participation of all stakeholders. The participation of indigenous people in the construction of the Sustainable Development Plan of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SDP), with rituals and offerings has validated their traditional knowledge and thus been fundamental to understanding the spiritual role they play in the conservation of their territory and in dealing with the ecological problems generated by the country's civil strife. Their counselling, recommendations and example are geared towards generating respect for “mother nature,” for indigenous territories and sacred sites, as well as an acknowledgement of indigenous social, cultural, political and economic systems as the principal means for sustaining the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta[17].


Participatory processes, which take into consideration the cultural diversity of the Sierra, are fundamental to the conservation of the region's biological diversity. The social and cultural dimensions, developed since pre-Hispanic times, have made the massif a centre of complex historical, cultural and socio-economic processes which enrich the region's special ecological conditions. The cultural validation of all stakeholders will result in greater social cohesion, with overall social benefits.

Empowered indigenous communities, aware of the of the significance their contribution towards sustainability and biodiversity conservation, and enabled to decide over the Sierra, are developing a stewardship approach to its sustainable management together with the local and regional authorities and private sector, thus undertaking the holistic conservation of the heart of the world.
The reaffirmation of millenary cultures, which are completely functional, but in which confronting acculturation processes are currently underway, is a key benefit. The indigenous adaptive model encloses invaluable knowledge for the conservation of biodiversity in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta and elsewhere. Dissemination of traditional knowledge constitutes the basis for consolidating traditional activities and developing new processes[18].

References and Notes

[1] Published in: Ambio, The Royal Swedish Academy of Science, Stockholm, Sweden.  Vol. 29 No. 7. pp.455-458. The author would like to thank the organising committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science Seminar III: The Americas, for providing me the opportunity to share my view in Research for Mountain Area Development. This article includes thoughts and experiences shared with the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, to whom I am grateful for their hospitality during long periods of fieldwork. Special thanks to A.F. Goenaga who inspired me to go ahead with this article, and to Dr.S. Madriñan, J.M. Langé and M.Mercedes Moreno for their constructive criticism as well as R. Rey Cervantes for his photographs.
[2]Escobar, A. 1998. Whose knowledge, whose nature ? biodiversity, conservation, and the political ecology of social movements. Journal of Political Ecology 5, 53-82.
[3]Murrilo-Sencial, Z. 1997. La Mata de Ahuyama: sistemas anímicos y clasificaciones totémicas. In: El Pueblo de la Montaña Sagrada: tradición y cambio. A. Colajanni (ed.), Ricerca e Cooperazione, Santa Marta, Colombia 1997, pp. 139-149.(In Spanish)
[4]Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. 1976. Cosmology as ecological analysis; a view from the rain forest. In: Man 2. London, pp. 307-318.
[5]Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. 1980. Notas sobre el simbolismo religioso de los indios de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. In: La Antropología Americanista en la Actualidad. México. 1, 525-540. (In Spanish)
[6]Descola, P. 1997. In the Society of Nature: A Native Ecology in Amazonia. Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology. 93. Cambridge University Press
[7]Reichel Dolmatoff, G. 1982. Cultural change and environmental awareness; a case study of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. In: Mountain Research and Development, 2(3). Boulder Colorado, pp. 289-296.
[8]Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. 1953. Contactos y cambios culturales en la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Revista Colombiana de Antropología. 1, 17-112. (In Spanish)
[9]Arhem,K. 1990. Ecosofía Makuna. In: La selva humanizada, ecología alternativa en el trópico húmedo colombiano. F. Correa (ed.). ICAN-FEN –CEREC, Bogotá, pp.105-122. (In Spanish)
[10]Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. 1950. Los Kogui: una tribu de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. Revista del Instituto Etnológico Nacional (Bogotá). 4(1-2): 1-32. (In Spanish)
[11]Mayr-Maldonado, J, G.E. Rodríguez-Navarro, N. Ortiz and H. Sánchez. 1995. Región de Sierra Nevada [Colombia]. In: América Latina: estrategias para el desarrollo sostenible. A.Lopez-Ornat (ed.),IUCN, Gland, pp. 125-130. (In Spanish)
[12]Serje, M. 1987. Arquitectura y urbanismo en la Cultura Tayrona. Boletin del Museo del Oro.19.Bogotá, pp.87-96. (In Spanish)
[13]Rodríguez-Navarro, G.E. Evidencias prehispánicas y prácticas tradicionales indígenas en las cuencas altas de los rios Guachaca y Buritaca: un estudio de caso en el establecimiento y manejo de áreas de amortiguación en la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia. In: Desarrollo sostenible de ecosistemas de montaña: manejo de áreas frágiles en los Andes. M. Liberman and C. Baied (Eds.), The United Nations University UNU, Liga para la Defensa del Medio Ambiente LIDEMA and Instituto de Ecologia.(eds.). La Paz, Bolivia, pp.365-374. (In Spanish)
[14]Rodríguez-Navarro, G.E. 1988. La tradición indígena un aporte innovador en el manejo de los recursos naturales. In: Foro sobre Tecnologias Apropiadas y Conservación de Recursos Naturales. J.Hahn and A. Marcos (eds.), Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla, Colombia, pp 25-31. (In Spanish)
[15]Balee, W. 1989. The culture of Amazonian forests. In: Resource management in Amazonia: indigenous and folk strategies, Advances in economic botany. Posey D. A. and Balee W. (eds.). The New York Botanical Gardens. New York, 7, 1-21
[16]Van Der Hammen, M. C. 1992. El Manejo del Mundo: Naturaleza y sociedad entre los Yukuma de la Amazonía colombiana. Tropenbos. Santafé de Bogotá, Colombia, pp. 85-238. (In Spanish)
[17]Fundación Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. 1997. Plan de desarrollo sostenible de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Graficompany, Bogotá, 227p. (In Spanish)
[18]Warren, D.M. 1989. The impact of nineteenth century social science in establishing negative values and attitudes towards indigenous knowledge systems. In: Indigenous knowledge systems: implications for agriculture and international development. Studies in Technology and Social Change, D. M. Warren, L.J. Slikkerveer, and S.O. Titilola.(eds.), No. 11. Ames: Technology and Social Change Program, Iowa State University. pp. 171-183.
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