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Dealing with Climate Change: The Effects on Colombia’s Indigenous Livelihood

Representatives from two indigenous communities in Colombia discuss the affects of climate change and ways they are working to maintain the food sovereignty of the Indigenous Peoples.

For years, leaders of indigenous communities in Colombia have been warning about how the historic misuse of nature the natural cycles and how this is threatening their traditional customs and cultures. Impacts on their crops, their livelihoods, their food security and even in their ancestral ability to predict and alter the climate are some of the effects of climate change in their communities.

Indian Country Today Media Network talked to indigenous representatives from two different communities and regions in Colombia, about their perception of climate change and the ways they are dealing with it.

Koguis, Arhuacos, Kankuamos and Wiwas: the Guardians of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

In northern Colombia, majestic peaks of the highest coastal mountain range in the world, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is home to hundreds of species of fauna and flora and protected by four indigenous communities. The Koguis, Arhuacos, Kankuamos and Wiwas are about 82,000 Indigenous Peoples that live iin the country’s most accepted ecotourism region.

The indigenous consider this mountain sacred and the center of the world as it is the main water regulator in the region suppling water for both the habitants of the higher and lower parts.

"With the changing weather we have seen effects like damaged crops, unknown diseases and long droughts that affect our daily lives," said Amado Villafaña, member of the Arhuacos community and director of the media center Zhigoneshi Tayrona, part of the Gonawindua Organization that reunites Arhuacos, Kogis and Wiwas.

"The Indians have advanced in the recovery of sacred sites, it has to do with the balance between man and nature, but Indigenous Peoples are alone in this fight. We need a change in the younger siblings (referring to the people of the Western culture) attitude, in the way they use the planet, so the Indians can focus on the spiritual repairing of the damages caused , "he says.

He considers that the government is giving territories to the mining companies, but those lands are part of the organs of the mother earth and, according to him, this is one of the causes of gobal warming. “People don’t know about the mission the indigenous communities are following,” he argues. Villafaña and his people, think that there should be a shared responsibility for preserving the planet, but so far only the Indians are taking charge of it.

Kokonukos, Creating Adaptation Plans

At the same time, indigenous communities living in the south-western area of Colombia (a mountainous region in the department of Cauca) are feeling the threats of climate change.

The Kokonuco indigenous community has observed in the last decade the dry and rainy seasons getting longer every year. Jose Domingo Caldón, one of the leaders, says that before the indigenous authorities could predict winter and summer time, as well as the best time to cultivate and harvest fruits.

“They used to ask Nature’s permission,” but now as the weather changes from one day to the other, people can no longer predict what is going to happen the next day or when the best time will be to cultivate or harvest.

In the same line, Antonio Quilindo, president of the Association Genaro Sanchez that reunites 15,000 people from the Kokonuko community, considers that climate change is threatening their traditions and lifestyles as it is also destabilizing their economy and the way they used to harmonize their manners with their territories. "The damages in the crops also impact our food autonomy and that affects us all," he adds.

This is why the community is working on ways to articulate their own knowledge with scientific information to be able to resist against the changing weather and to protect their culture. One of the strategies is to straighten traditional practices like the adaptation of seeds of several varieties for different climates. The idea is to be able to cultivate the seeds from warm places in cold ones, and viceversa to maintain their food sovereignty.

Also, with the support of the National Institute of Hidrology and Meteorology (Ideam) they are now monitoring the climatic and water cycles to create prevention strategies.

"Before we used to harmonized the territories with the moon phases, we used to prevent and to adapt the seeds with our own knowledge, but now we are also using technology to detect the times of drought and rain and to monitor. That allows us to improve our crops and to adapt to climate change," Quilindo adds.

The leaders are committed to continue strengthening these partnerships to expand the experience, because now they just have a pilot project.

"Any project made with the government should be based on respect for our knowledge and lifestyle. Frankly, we have felt that that has been the case with recent projects,” he says. “To preserve the ancestral knowledge is our commitment but we must have the support from the rest of society and the government. We need to protect water sources and stop filling them with chemicals. We need respect for our culture and respect for sacred sites such as riverbanks,” he emphasizes.