Guillermo Enrique Rodríguez-Navarro
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,.
Such settlement patterns and the indigenous knowledge of their place in
history greatly contribute to an understanding of native alternatives for
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.
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.
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.
References and Notes
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