Dispatch from Colombia's newest village

In war-torn Colombia, new villages mark a rare win for both natives and the
environment.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Tucked into a lush river basin, 18 thatched huts form the core of this Indian village – and an unlikely bastion of a unique and fragile culture.

This newly inaugurated village in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains on Colombia's northern coast marks the latest advance in the fight to recuperate sacred and traditional lands lost to farmers, loggers, and drug-running militias.

Indeed, Kankawarwa (pronounced kan-ka-WAHR-wuh) is the result of an unusual – and sometimes uneasy – marriage of convenience.

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This village on the northwestern slope of the Sierra is the sixth of 10 "barrier" villages being built by the Colombian government in a pact between President Alvaro Uribe and the joint governing council of the four different indigenous tribes that share these mountains: the Arhuaco, Kogi, Wiwa, and Kankuamo.

Once completed, the 10 villages will effectively form a new border between indigenous lands and private property owners in the foothills of the mountains. In addition to marking a significant step in the recovery of indigenous lands, the villages will also help protect the environment.

For about three years, private donors, including Conservation International, have been helping the four indigenous groups buy back almost 90,000 acres in an effort to protect the ecologically fragile midlands and highlands in an area considered by the indigenous groups to be the heart of the world.

"From here up, you are the ones in charge of protecting the environment," Mr. Uribe told the Arhuaco, Kogi, and Wiwa Indians gathered here last week for the official inauguration of the village. "You are the best cultivators of the forests, the best protectors of the water."

The Uribe government recently joined the effort, buying land and funding the construction of the new ring of villages. It has environmental, political, and security motives for participating.

As well as helping the Colombian government to establish state control over the region, the village project is billed as a program to recuperate the watersheds and forests in the Sierra Nevada, the world's tallest coastal mountain range, whose snow-capped peaks rise nearly 5,800 meters (18,300 feet) above sea level.

Much of the mountain range has been ravaged by five decades of mass colonization, intensive farming, deforestation, drug crops, leftist guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitary groups.

For years, the indigenous groups were pushed higher into the mountains, losing part of their pastoral lands and putting a strain on the more delicate high mountain ecosystems. They also lost many of their sacred areas where spiritual offerings are made.

Kankawarwa is one of those sacred spots that had been lost. The name means "the place of the bank of wisdom" and is where the knowledge to follow the rituals and customs is handed down.

Although most in the indigenous communities support the goal of recovering sacred and ancestral lands, some are wary of the government's newfound generosity, including the building of schools and health clinics, and the funding of thatched home construction.

Some see the government's efforts as undermining the autonomy of the tribes and creating a culture of dependency on government assistance by offering free school lunches and free health care. Critics are also concerned about the government soldiers that now patrol the mountains.

Leonor Zalabata, in charge of human rights issues for the Arhuaco governing council, says that while her tribe was hard-hit by guerrilla and paramilitary presence, the solution is not to bring in more men with more guns.

"Our security is not assured by people with guns traipsing over our lands," says Ms. Zalabata. "Militarization guarantees the recuperation of territory for the state but the soldiers aren't there to protect us."

Rogelio Mejía, governor of the Arhuaco reserve, acknowledges that there are dissenters in his community who see the Indians playing into Uribe's hands. But he says the people of the Sierra had been trying for decades to get government support to buy traditional lands from occupying peasant farmers. Uribe was the first to listen.

"People ask me 'what is the government asking for in exchange?' They haven't asked for anything," he says.

But some government officials have been pushing the idea of developing ecotourism in the Sierra. Mr. Mejía says the tribes won't accept such plans because "it could be dangerous for our cultures." Already hundreds of adventurous backpackers trek each year to the archeological ruins known as the Lost City. Trying to attract more tourism "is crazy," Mejía says.

"Our only interest is to save nature and to save our culture," he says. "We don't care who helps us with this, as long as we recover our territories."

And territorial recovery is key. According to the UN refugee agency, at least 27 of Colombia's 80 different indigenous groups are at risk of extinction, mostly because the three decades of civil war have pushed them off their territory. "Their survival depends greatly on being able to remain on their traditional lands," UNHCR Spokesman Ron Redmond said in a recent statement.

This month, some 2,000 Embera Indians in northwest Colombia were forced to flee their territory because of fighting between warring illegal groups. And in February, leftist guerrillas murdered 14 Awá Indians in southern Narino province for allegedly cooperating with the Army.

Of the estimated 300 guerrilla fighters that once roamed the Sierra, "few remain," says Army Col. Ricardo Sandoval, a special liaison officer named to coordinate security issues with the Sierra Nevada Indians. While most right-wing paramilitary groups demobilized in 2005, new rural gangs have filled the organized crime void.

Mejía says the barrier villages and expanded reserve lands are a way to prevent conflict from returning to their lands.

Even before the village project, the Arhuaco, Kogi, and Wiwa formed the Gonawindua Tayrona Indigenous Organization and started buying up deforested or over-farmed land on what was once their ancestral territory and replanting forests. With the help of private donations, they have recovered 88,900 acres.

But as the indigenous groups here seek to continue to expand their territories, the potential for conflict with the local peasant communities remains strong. At the inauguration of the Kankawarwa village, farmers from the nearby town of Cristalina Baja complained to Uribe that while tens of thousands of dollars were spent on the Indian communities, the peasants continue to wait for electricity, water, and road improvements.

Mejía recognizes that it is in his tribe's interest that the government attends to the needs of the farmers as well to reduce pressure on the indigenous communities.

"All we want is to be left in to live in peace with nature, with the water, with the forest," he says.

[Editor's note: Colombia was misspelled in headline and subhead.]

According to the worldview of the peoples of the Sierra Nevada, who descend from the Tayrona culture, the mountain range is the heart of the world, and they are its protectors. They call themselves the “elder brothers” of non-Indians, who they call their “little brothers.” Chewing coca leaf is a central part of daily life for men in the Sierra, where they grow the plant on small, legal plots.

The Arhuacos, who occupy the southwestern face of the mountains, have a highly organized political and social structure. Many go to college in the cities to study, and then return to the Sierra to apply their knowledge to protect and empower their tribe.

The Kogi are more isolated and hold tightly to tradition while guarding the remains of the Lost City on the northern slopes. Few speak Spanish or have contact with non-Indians.

The smaller Wiwa tribe occupies the northeastern part of the mountain. The Wiwa were dispersed by heavy colonization of their land by peasants.
The Kankuamo culture was nearly decimated by decades of cultural assimilation with the broader Colombian society and by the brutal takeover of their lands. They are currently trying to recover their customs and language.

The Sierra Nevada in numbers

- 21,158 square kilometers (8,169 square miles)
- 5,778 meters (18,956 feet) above sea level
- Only 15 percent of the ground cover is original primary forest
- Estimated population: 55,000 natives and 150,000 non-native farmers
- 94 hectares (232 acres) of illegal coca
- 35 river basins

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