Water, Wildlife and Hope: Rejuvenating a Kogi Sacred Site

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After years of planning, designing, acquiring materials, developing infrastructure, laying and burying 1,200 meters of pipe, and testing water quality and functionality, the seemingly impossible was achieved: for Colombia’s Kogi people, and their related tribes who rely on Jaba Tañiwashkaka, a historically sacred site, an aqueduct that provides access to water for crop irrigation and potable water for consumption is now in place. And thanks to a determined site restoration effort, alligators, nutria, and capybara are only a few of the animals now seen in a wetland previously largely devoid of wildlife.

The Kogi people live on roughly 14.5 million acres in Colombia’s northern Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region. Around the margins of the Sierra Nevada is the Línea Negra, the “Black Line,” a chain of 54 pilgrimage sites sacred to the Kogi and once part of their ancestral territories. Most of the associated sites are not currently under Kogi ownership or control—the Kogi were forced to abandon them due to decades of colonization and violent civil conflict—and many are endangered by poorly planned development schemes, megaprojects, mining activity, and/or illicit crop cultivation.

To address this, in 2012, the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) partnered with the Colombian Ministry of Culture and the Organización Gonawindúa Tayrona of the Kogi people to purchase the essential section of a coastal sacred site that the region’s indigenous communities call Jaba Tañiwashkaka—an area of great environmental and cultural importance.

With the legal consolidation and traditional management of Jaba Tañiwashkaka well underway, thanks in part to additional land purchases, a pressing task has been the construction of a water supply system that allows for the continuous residence of Kogi families in their reclaimed territory and the establishment of small-scale subsistence agriculture on three hectares to sustain the families and authorities who live at or visit the site. Today, an aqueduct provides access to water for crop irrigation and potable water for consumption. Previously, any water supplied at the site of the Kogi’s temples had to be carried in buckets from the Jerez River at a distance of about one kilometer, and this water was not suitable for human consumption.

Now, solar panel energy powers the pump, three 2,000-liter reservoir tanks provide storage, and a filter supplies potable water, with the remainder used for agriculture. The system was designed as a low-maintenance and ecologically responsible project, and a fourth tank has now been sited at the nearby orchard. With assistance from the national government, this land was returned to the ownership and stewardship of the Kogi.

Under the Kogi’s care, and through joint efforts with ACT, their sacred territory is being restored through community monitoring, trash collection, and border enforcement. Local waters are decontaminating, as indicated by studies of the health and size of populations of crayfish, a good indicator of water quality. Littoral vegetation is rebounding, and bodies of water previously scattered with refuse are being restored to beautiful freshwater lagoons.

The local population of crabs is increasing, and previously unseen semiaquatic animals such as nutrias and young alligators have been spotted. The alligators further indicate that that a recent prohibition from capturing their eggs has helped their reproduction and repopulation. Moreover, with around-the-clock control of fires, local flora is recovering across the local wetland, including propagation of marsh vegetation and young mangrove.

In addition to the return of its original state and beauty, the temple site can now fulfill its role as a gathering site for the Kogi’s traditional practices—ritual offerings, internal meetings, and exchange gatherings—that strengthen their culture and advance the conservation and restoration of the local ecology.

ACT and the Kogi are grateful to a set of funders including the White Feather Foundation, March to the Top, LUSH Cosmetics, Dora Arts Janssen, and anonymous donors whose generosity made the aqueduct a reality and helped breathe new life into this ancient wetland.

The original article published in National Geographic is available here.

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