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A message from the heart of the world

Guest columnists


n September, a group of six indigenous authorities, representing four different indigenous tribes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia, conducted for the first time an official mission outside of Colombia and visited Washington, D.C., and New York City. The purpose of this visit was to present a message to the world on the environment, their ancestral lands and their culture in a country where indigenous peoples have experienced tremendous violence and have been forced to undergo significant changes. The message they presented in their indigenous languages, with translations in both English and Spanish, had to do with the impact of the expropriation of their ancestral territory on their ways of life and on the situation of humankind and environment in general.

The following is the main message that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta speakers communicated in their various talks at the Inter-American Development Bank, the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University and the National Museum of the American Indian:

“The sacred Territory of the Sierra Nevada since time immemorial has been the foundation of our culture. It contains the laws and the symbols that determine our way of thinking and our identity. We should all comply with these norms and laws to safeguard the universe. The territory must be sustained through daily activities that allow the culture and all its components to reproduce. In this sense, the concept of ancestral owners of the territory is based on knowledge about everything that lives in the territory; in other words, nature teaches us how to live in harmony. It is an open book where we learn about its stories and past, and this is what our children and future generations will learn. Knowledge depends on the careful study of the very meaning of the territory and allows us to remember the role of our ancestors, and the real meaning of each individual and their mission, not as an indigenous person but as a human responsible for caring for the planet that is threatened when the sense of responsibility is abandoned.”

Despite this positive cultural vision and ancestral tradition, the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have faced a tremendous crisis. Their traditional territory, which they term the “heart of the world,” includes snowy peaks, cloud and rain forests, coral reefs, mangrove swamps, deserts and almost every subclimate in the world, and is delineated by a series of sacred sites.

For thousands of years, the region’s four indigenous groups have been practicing ancestral traditions and rituals that are fundamental to the sustainability of their culture and the highly diverse natural environment within which they live. Today, however, the 50,000 indigenous persons who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have found their lands invaded by 220,000 non-indigenous peoples who have settled in the middle and lower portions of their ancestral territory.

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Despite the fact that the Colombian Constitution of 1991 recognizes what is called “Indigenous Territorial Entities” (Entidades Territoriales Indigenas), these invasions took place primarily because of the desire of non-indigenous persons to control indigenous lands. As a result of these invasions, there has been a significant loss of the traditional lands of the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta through the advancement of the agricultural frontier and the cultivation of crops for illicit uses. These invasions have also contributed to the destruction of nearly three-quarters of the area’s original forests, the depletion of rivers and streams, the loss of biodiversity, increased soil erosion and a significant increase in climate change. These factors threaten the future of the remaining indigenous territory and jeopardize the water resources upon which 1.5 million people in the northern part of Colombia depend.

According to a report distributed during the talks in Washington, only one-third of the traditional territory of the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta has legal protection as reserves (resguardos). This report states that “lands that have been legally returned to these groups have undergone significant environmental renewal, have helped to improve the living conditions of the indigenous population and strengthened their cultural systems and traditional organization.” It further states that “of the total amount of territory acquired through legalization and extension, 70 percent is dedicated exclusively for natural regeneration and ecosystem and water resource conservation.”

The main purpose of the visit, which was organized and facilitated by the Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations Development Program, was to request international support to raise $15 million for an indigenous Fund for the Heart of the World. The aim of this fund is to recover 835,216 acres of the traditional lands of the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta over a 20-year period. This fund is to be managed by the “Territorial Council of Indigenous Governments” (Consejo Territorial de Cabildos) and UNDP of Colombia.

The talks by the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta visitors attempted to increase global awareness of the contributions of indigenous knowledge and spiritual beliefs to the resolution of these difficult environmental issues. As well, to provide a more peaceful approach to contemporary social conflicts that often arise from disputes over indigenous lands and natural resources in Colombia and other Andean and Latin American countries.

The Fund for the Heart of the World can be seen not only as a way to recover the ancestral lands of these peoples that have been invaded by outsiders, but also as a growing recognition of how the cultural values, environmental knowledge and spiritual beliefs of these and other indigenous peoples can contribute to initiatives to reduce the serious human and environmental impacts of global climate change.

It would be interesting to know if those persons and organizations who are responding to the efforts of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore to focus more national attention here in the United States on problems of global climate change are prepared to have a greater dialogue with indigenous peoples like those from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, who many years ago were recognized as one of the first groups outside of the formal scientific community to bring about awareness of some of the major environmental and social implications of global climate change.

For more information about the Heart of the World Initiative of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta indigenous peoples, contact Luisz Olmedo Martinez, Environment and Sustainable Development Unit of UNDP Colombia, at; or Danilo Villafane, Gonawindua Tayrona Organization in Colombia, at

Shelton Davis is a professor at Georgetown University Center for Latin American Studies and a specialist on issues of the land and cultural rights of indigenous peoples in Latin America. Sabine Kienzl is a graduate student and has done extensive research in Colombia in the area of human rights and indigenous peoples.