Arhuaco Tribe

The Arhuaco, an indigenous people of Colombia, regard the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as the beating heart that holds everything together. The Arhuaco are (with the neighboring Kogi and Wiwa, or Malayo) one of three peoples whose ancestors were connected to the ancient and advanced Tairona civilization.

Brutally subjugated by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, the survivors retreated into the pyramidal Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that exploded upwards from the Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Their homeland, the world’s highest coastal mountain range, comprises every distinct climatic ecosystem in Colombia, from coastal wetlands and equatorial rainforest to alpine tundra and glacial peaks. The Arhuacos, as one of three indigenous groups, are preserving the biodiversity sanctuary of the Sierra Nevada. They believe the balance of humanity lies in practicing respect for all beings. Central to their belief, this revolves around the earth and their territory of the Sierra Nevada as the core of the universe.

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The mountain’s peak is over 5,000m/16,404’ high. Rising from the shores of the Caribbean to the Indians the Sierra Nevada is the heart of the world. It is surrounded by an invisible black line that encompasses the sacred sites of their ancestors and demarcates their territory. Their culture long predates the arrival of the Spanish and they live simply, high on the sides of the mountains. Arhuacos define themselves as peaceful people who do not use weapons and are forbidden to murder or steal. In their view, plants, stones, animals and the Sierra Nevada itself are living beings. If the Sierra were killed, they would have no life.

Surrounded by almost impassable jungle, these lost indigenous people lived for five centuries in almost complete isolation and obscurity, steadfastly guarding their territory against outside intrusion. Despite this isolation, their consciousness and cosmovision charge them with the responsibility of maintaining the harmony of nature and the universe on behalf of all mankind.

Arhuaco grows coffee and sugar for their consumption and participates in small-scale animal husbandry (cattle, goats, pigs, and chickens). They also produce coca leaf and use it for medicinal purposes. As with mountain communities elsewhere, the Arhuaco people are very vulnerable to the impact of the climate crisis. Wind and rain patterns have been disrupted, affecting the small-scale agriculture on which their livelihoods depend.

Three decades ago, the indigenous people of the Sierra realized that the sacred Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta snow caps -for them, the literal heart of the world – were melting. The páramos (high-altitude savanna) were drying up. Amphibians and butterflies were disappearing.

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The Arhuaco believe that the Sierra is the Heart of the earth, the center for them. They consider their ancestors and themselves as elder brothers, whereas everyone else is considered to be a younger brother. They are guided by the Mamos, who are the spiritual leader of the Arhuaco. They represent the connection between nature and humans. To become a Mamo the Arhuaco needs to be educated for 9 years, living in a cave with the eldest, who will teach them everything they need to know.

The Arhuaco people especially focus on keeping the world in balance, and they feel that this balance is endangered by the younger brothers, as to say anybody who is not Arhuaco.

Their mamos (leaders) decided that, without drastic change, all would be lost, so they persuaded their people that they had to go public and invited other concerned parties to see the devastation firsthand.

Mother Earth – the space where people exist – must be respected and preserved. Arhuacos follow the Law of Origin as their guide to behavior and spiritual knowledge, in how they live with Mother Nature. Water must have its channel, stones must exist in their own space. She respects me and I respect her.

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As the world accelerates towards calamity, the Sierra peoples’ self-awareness as caretakers for earth’s ecological welfare, has taken on a new sense of urgency.

Since 1995, various Arhuaco communities have organized themselves into cooperatives to produce and sell export-quality organic coffee. But as climate change pushes coffee production to cooler, higher mountain slopes, they are now working to supplement coffee earnings with those from selling cacao. Also, the cultivation of sugarcane locally to produce panela (unrefined, organic raw brown sugar) for export.

Using traditional farming methods, the Arhuaco tribespeople cultivate rare handcrafted sugar from ancient sugarcane varieties grown on steep slopes. Heritage varieties of panela sugarcane are planted during the full moon in small, wild-grown organic plots, following ancestral, regenerative farming methods.

The idea is to let the world know more about their culture. They want to carry the message that it is not simply good enough to cultivate, but to cultivate with conscience. To practice organic farming, without harmful pesticides and other unnatural inputs, in harmony with mother nature.

By integrating into the cash economy, the Arhuaco is gaining cultural recognition while deriving income to buy back, parcel by parcel their ancestral territory.

The Arhuaco look at the world from the mountains of the region, because their task is to preserve and care for the earth in terms of nature and people.

In no way do they want to stand in the way of or prevent the progress of the times; rather it is a matter of remembering one’s original roots and living in harmony with nature despite progress and not sacrificing nature for the sake of progress.

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