Colombian indigenous groups rush to protect elders, leaders from COVID-19

Author: Taran Volckhausen


  • To lower the risk of COVID-19 infection, indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – the world’s highest coastal mountain range – have decided to temporarily close off the area to outsiders until the threat subsides.

  • However, sources say this means that it will be more difficult for communities to obtain basic goods and services. A crowdfunding campaign is underway to help support 2,000 families in isolation.

  • The pandemic adds another layer of stress to communities that have been beset with violence and hardship for decades. A brief reprieve in 2016 when the FARC rebel group demobilized looks to be ending as locals report a heightened presence of armed groups in the Santa Marta region since late 2019.

  • Indigenous leaders say the outside world should consider the COVID-19 crisis to be an opportunity for humanity to change direction and be less destructive to the surrounding world.

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, one of the world’s highest coastal mountains, is an isolated mountain massif in northern Colombia. Due to its unique geography, the steep mountain slopes ascend through a kaleidoscopic array of ecosystems, ranging from coral reefs to deserts, rainforests, savannas, tropical dry forests, and tropical alpine tundra, and finally solitary snowy peaks, some 5,800 meters (19,000 feet) above the sea. The breathtaking mountain landscape is home to more threatened endemic species than anywhere else in the world.


Four indigenous groups also inhabit the region: the Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. In their spiritual beliefs, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is considered to be the heart of the world. Arukin Torres, an indigenous Arhauco leader, is part of the Confederation of Indigenous Tairona. Torres told Mongabay via Skype there are 50,000 members of the Arhuaco tribe spread across 52 settlements that span from the lower foothills to the highland mountains.


“The Arhauco people have distinguished themselves as pacifists. We resolve problems through dialogue,” Torres said. “We have men and women spiritual leaders, known as mamos, who orient [indigenous] life and traditional cultural tasks.”


In addition to the mamos, who are community elders, Torres explained there is a political structure composed of a territorial commission and town council who are tasked with safeguarding “general welfare, peace, harmony, and respect between people.”


A spiritual doctrine, known as the Law of Origin, guides life within the indigenous communities of Sierra Nevada.


“We have a reason for existence that we call the Law of Origin. Expressed in the rocks, rivers, trees and mountains, its interpretation is done by the mamos,” Torres said. “We depend on nature: from her comes the water, the earth, the sun, the moon and balance. The balance of all nature is the Law of Origin.”


Coronavirus in the Sierra Nevada


Before COVID-19 was first detected in Colombia, Torres said the mamos had long warned the people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta of a coming imbalance.


“The mamos have always told us that great natural imbalance was coming. They warned of drought, long winters, hurricanes, tidal waves and sickness. Humanity’s aggression, compulsivity, contamination and irresponsible destruction is putting an end to life and creating many sicknesses,” Torres said.

When the news of the coronavirus was received, Torres said his people turned to the mamos who indicated that the community was not an island and that it could be affected too. To lower the risk of infection, the indigenous communities decided to temporarily close off the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to outsiders until the threat subsides.

“The mamos and the [local] authorities have decided, until further notice at an undefined date, to prohibit the entry to the Sierra Nevada,” Torres said. “Those of us below in the cities are directed not to go up the mountain, and those above are also not allowed to come down. The idea is to guarantee and protect the families that are up above,” Torres said.


Torres acknowledges that the lockdown has generated concern for long term food supplies, especially for communities that are reliant on supplies from outside the area.


“Of course, there is a concern because we coexist with the national society [of Colombia],” Torres said. “We exchange products. Nobody in this world was fully prepared for this confinement. It will surely affect us in positive ways and in negative ways as well because it will be more difficult to be able to arrive with basic goods.”

A crowdfunding effort is underway to help provide “food kits, hand sanitizer, medical face masks and gloves to 2,000 [Kankuamo and Wiwa] families who are the Heart of the World’s guardians.” As of April 10, 5.3 million Colombian pesos ($1,371) had been raised, with a goal of around 104.5 million COP ($27,000).


Existence amid violence and hardship


Jaime Luis Arias is a member of the Kankuamo and a representative of the Territorial Council of Cabildos of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Arias said the Kankuamo people of the lowland mountains have suffered particularly immensely at the hands of outside forces in recent history.


“We the Kankuamo people of the Sierra Nevada were one of the people most injured by colonization,” Arias said. “We lost a lot as a result of the invasion, such as our language, elements of our culture. We were heavily affected by very strong evangelicalization.”

In more recent years, the Kankuamo were victims of the armed conflict that raged through Colombia’s countryside regions for over 50 years. For decades, the Kankuamo territory was invaded by leftist and right-wing illegal armed groups who used the territory to transport drugs, weapons and hide kidnapping victims. The Kankuamo were often caught in the crossfire of the warring parties.

“We lived through many wars,” Arias said. “First the Thousand Day War, then the bonanza marimbera [marijuana bonanza], and later we suffered a hard hit from the armed conflict. There were 400 families who lost loved ones, many were displaced, including my own family.”

Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, however, the tide began to turn. The Kankuamo initiated a process to strengthen their cultural identity, which led to political recognition and a degree of territorial autonomy with a reserve created in “the Heart of the World, behind the Black Line,” Arias said.


Since 1973, the Colombian government has recognized a ring of sacred sites extending around the base of the mountain range. Collectively known as the “Black Line,” indigenous communities claim them as their ancestral territory.

The Territorial Indigenous Council of Governors of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (CTC) describes the Black Line as “a grand system of interconnected land, sea and air nodes. Considered sacred as a whole, it is the space from which the culture of the four indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada arises, and where it is recreated.”

Arias said that the sacred sites are under threat by development projects pushed by private investors and the Colombian government. In particular, he pointed to the construction of coal-shipping port Las Brisas, affecting a sacred site on a nearby hillside.

“The multi-purpose coal port Las Brisas affected a spiritual hill where the mamos of the four tribes would go to pass away. It is an important site for us to go to pray and control sickness and natural disasters,” Arias said.

In 2016, the Colombian government signed a historic peace agreement with the country’s largest armed rebel group, the FARC. However, the security situation started deteriorating in late 2019 with an increase in paramilitary presence in the territory.

Torres said armed groups use the territory and local populations as part of their combat strategies while ignoring indigenous activities and culture.

“The people and the territory of the Sierra Nevada have always been victims of the armed actors, both legal and illegal. Despite the various peace processes in Colombia, the Sierra Nevada has not achieved peace,” Torres said. “At times, it seems as though the armed actors would disappear but later they return. That is the situation of life in the Sierra Nevada.”

Advice for the ‘younger brothers’


When asked by Mongabay for advice for dealing with the unprecedented crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Torres said the indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada share in the worldwide struggle against the lethal virus: “The struggle is to do what is possible so that this doesn’t go to our elders. We must fight against this global pandemic.”


The indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada consider all of humanity to be brothers or siblings but refer to themselves as elder brothers. For a long time, they have expressed concern that non-indigenous people, the younger brothers, are inflicting pain upon the world through their destructive actions and habits.

Torres suggested that the outside world consider this crisis to be an opportunity to change direction.

“The Older Brothers have always shown the Younger Brothers that there is a need for change,” Torres said. “This is the moment to change habits, activities in a positive way for the world that guarantees the continuation of life, of human beings in this world into the future.

“We must construct a road to peace for the world.”


Originally published on Mongabay and can be accessed here.

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