The Kogis Return to the Ocean

Original article appears in El Espectador. Written by Mariana Escobar Roldán.

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Fort the first time in Colombia, an indigenous community is buying and restoring a sacred site that belonged to them before the arrival of the Spanish.

Five centuries ago, before the Spanish made their way to the Caribbean on their route to the Indies, a major portion of the communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta lived along the ocean, undertook long journeys in search of fish, and gathered caracuchas, similar to a snail, which they consumed crushed and mixed with coca leaves in order to improve their thinking and communication.

“The sea was our mother”: so says the creation myth of the Kogi. However, according to Alessandro Martínez, of the archeology group of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History, with the arrival of the “barbarians,” many indigenous groups were subdued and enslaved to the point of disappearance, and the survivors sought refuge in the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where the climate and the steep gradients impeded the Spanish in their mission of conquest.

There for decades have lived the Kogi, Arawak, Wiwas, and Kankuamos, four communities that switched their livelihood basis from fishing to agriculture, eventually adapting to a life far from the sea. In so doing, they were separated from many of their sacred sites, “where the mamos (their highest authorities) concentrate, gather ideas, summon the strength to rule, look after the balance between man and nature, and prevent catastrophe,” according to José de los Santos Sauna, governor of the Kogi community.

Outraged by this history of uprooting, on June 27, 2005, during an event organized by the indigenous communities at the Medellin Poetry Festival, Natalia Hoyos, a young woman from Manizales, said she had heard a calling: to deliver to the Kogi a piece of land owned by her father that stood on the Kogis’ Línea Negra (the “Black Line”)—a spiritual land designation that, according to the anthropologist Pablo Mora, contains the highest concentration of sacred sites and bears the worst threats of tourism, trade, infrastructure, and agricultural exploitation.

“I’ll do everything I can to enable these lands to return to their original guardians,” Hoyos wrote in a letter to the Mamos of the Sierra in 2011. These words would eventually be fulfilled, because although it took months to persuade her family and to deliver without sin prebendas that which always belonged to the Kogis, her father agreed to sell his land to the Indians at a per-hectare cost of CP$15,000.000, a paltry sum compared to the roughly CP$70,000,000 it generally costs per hectare in the area.

The problem came during their search for financial resources. “We knocked on a lot of doors, but no one understood that we were talking about something historic, the first sacred site purchased and restored for a community of indigenous people in Colombia, and perhaps in Latin America and the world,” explains Juana Londoño, member of the Pro-Sierra Foundation, which supports the conservation and natural restoration of land.

After the initial failure with businesses, government offices, and benefactors, “magic” occurred, in the words of Londoño regarding the outcome of this struggle: the Ministry of Culture awarded CP$850,000,000, the organization ACT (Amazon Conservation Team) provided CP$540,000,000, and the Indians themselves contributed CP$480,000,000.

At 800 meters from the mouth of the Jerez River in Dibulla, La Guajira, the site that the Kogi call Jaba Tañiwashkaka was returned to them, consisting of 1,300 meters of beach and 155 hectares of land without roads that is home to endangered nesting sea turtles and where the sea is as serene as its new owners.

In this area is an abundance of caracuchas, for which the Indians must pay between CP$15,000-$20,000 in Riohacha if they want to preserve their tradition of poporeo, the action of chewing ayo or coca leaves mixed with lime and that, according to their culture, allows them over the years to reach their ultimate goal: wisdom.

There is no doubt of the importance of this new form of protection for a sacred site: the communities have ensured their own future with their own resources. Recently, Jaba Tañiwashkaka was declared by the National Council of Cultural Heritage to be a Site of National Cultural Interest; Juan Mayr, the former Minister of the Environment who participated in the process, says it is a precedent so that minorities nationwide can protect their territories against the ecological damage left by the interventions of the petroleum and mining industries and the tourism trade. Juana Londoño, meanwhile, says that “this shows that the Kogi are already at the ocean, and that to defend land, there is no need to stain it with blood.”

On May 5, the community held an offering ceremony there to give “thanks” for the site that had been returned and could now be used for their rituals. They offered blue macaw feathers, snail shells, and quartz and other stones, while the mamo José Gabriel Alímaco, emotionally, said: “It fulfills the dream I had since I was a child to collect the first caracucha, the first seed in the Linea Negra, in our ancestral territory.”

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