People from the heart of the Earth

'When you go to dig your fields, or make a pot from clay, you are disturbing the balance of things. When you walk, you are moving the air, breathing it in and out. Therefore you must make payments.' Arhuaco

For the indigenous people living on the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a vast mountain standing alone on the northern coast of Colombia, the central theme of their culture is balance – everything must be kept in order.

They believe that thunder and lightning, floods and the deaths of children happen because people have disturbed that balance.

Arhuaco man, Colombia.
Arhuaco man, Colombia. © Survival

The Arhuacos, together with their neighbours the Arsarios and the Kogis, have probably lived on the Sierra for thousands of years. They believe that life, by its very nature, upsets the balance of what was there before.

They believe that the disturbance must be recognised, and compensated for by making appropriate offerings. The importance of the payments (as the offerings are known) lies not so much in what they are, but in thought behind them.

Small, coloured stones are most often used. Payments are made at specific sites dotted about the SIerra. Indeed, one of the things that most concerns the Indians is that, due to the massive invasion of their lands, many of the most important payment sites are now very difficult to reach.

Indigenous Arhuaco people, Colombia
Indigenous Arhuaco people, Colombia © Survival International

To the Indians, the Sierra is the heart of the Earth and their role is to protect it. They refer to themselves as the Elder Brothers. Other people, including other Indians, are know as Younger Brothers. Their religion, culture and cosmology are staggeringly complex.

The Mamos are the religious leaders of the Sierra Indians, responsible for the decison-making and guiding day-to-day life, as well as divining the future.

Young Mamos being trained spend their childhood in almost complete seclusion. But sadly their peaceful view of the world has not prevented them from being caught in the crossfire of a virtual civil war raging around them.

Almost from the start of the Spanish Conquest, the people of the Sierra Nevada came into violent conflict with the invaders. When the Spanish learnt that the Taironas, ancestors of today's Sierra Indians, offered dazzling gold sculptures to their gods, they dug up their tombs and looted their graves.

This grave-robbing continues and causes a profound concern to the peoples of the Sierra.

Indigenous Arhuaco people, Colombia
Indigenous Arhuaco people, Colombia © Survival

White colonisation on a lrage scale started after the Second World War, when poor peasants fleeing the violence of rural Colombia were attracted to the relative tranquility of the Sierra.

In the 1970's, a massive marijuana boom brought tems of thousands more people to cultivate the drug on the Sierra's fertile slopes. In the 1980's this was gradually replaced by the cocaine trade, and yet more of the Sierra's forests were cut down to clear fields for growing coca.

Today, there are many more colonists in the Sierra than Indians.

The Arhuacos and Arsarios living on the gentler southern slopes of the mountain, have been most vulnerable. As the lower slopes have been taken over, and much of the natural habitat destroyed, they have been forced higher up, where the soil is less fertile, and there is less game to hunt.

Arhuaco preparing the land for planting: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Northern Colombia.
Arhuaco preparing the land for planting: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Northern Colombia. © Yezid Campos/Survival

The Kogi, on the steeper northern slopes, were more protected until the early 1990's when the opening of a road greatly eased access into their lands. The presence of large numbers of poor peasants attracted several left-wing guerrilla groups. This resulted in a heightened army presence; para-military groups controlled by local land-owners also became active.

As so often, the tragedy is that the Indians are left caught in the middle.