Indigenous guides warn of repercussions if we don’t fix our relationship with nature

  • The Mamos, spiritual guides of the Arhuaco and Kogi peoples in Colombia, have been warning the world about climate change and “unknown diseases” caused by environmental destruction for decades.
  • Their homeland, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is the highest coastal massif in the world and is suffering irreversible damage, including the loss of its glaciers and the decline of its rivers due to climate change and extractive mega projects.
  • According to the Mamos, COVID-19 would be only the first of four emerging unknown diseases if humans do not change their abusive relationship with the environment.

When news of the COVID-19 pandemic came to the white-clad peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, nobody was very surprised. The Kogis, Arhuacos, Wiwas and Kankuamos, four Indigenous groups who reside in the region and refer to themselves as the Elder Brothers, had already received numerous warnings of viral diseases from their spiritual guides, the Mamos, and their female counterparts, the Sagas.

Trained since birth in looking toward nature for guidance, these spiritual mentors of the Sierra Nevada predicted an emerging pandemic and other ongoing crises decades ago. The Mamos warned that the Earth would be plagued with “unknown illnesses” — along with climate change and water and food shortages — as a consequence of the environmentally destructive practices of the “Younger Brothers,” meaning non-Indigenous society. According to the guides, humanity must return to the Law of Origin, the original instructions on how to live harmoniously with other life-forms on the planet, or be subjected to increasing levels of crises.

The traditional clothing of the Arhuaco is woven with white maguey fibers to represent purity, together with conical hats that represent the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

The first of four pandemics

Since the Spanish conquest, the Elder Brothers have defended their land that borders the Caribbean coast of Colombia and extends to the peaks of the highest coastal massif in the world, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It is home to coral reefs, tundra, and the largest number of endemic endangered species on the planet.

For decades, the Mamos have been sharing warnings of the dangers of excessive consumerism, environmental destruction, and potentially irreversible consequences to outside communities. In 1990, they opened their territory for the first time to outsiders. They invited a BBC film crew, led by director Alan Ereira, to produce a film on their ominous messages for the planet, titled From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers’ Warning.

Nearly 30 years later, and surveying the global landscape, the Mamos say they feel as though outside communities have yet to receive their message. They reinvited Ereira to produce another film on the subject, Aluna, released this year. They also launched their own communications collective, Colectivo de Comunicaciones Zhigoneshi, and various documentaries, including the series Palabras Mayores (“Elder Words”) in 2009.

For the Mamos, COVID-19 is only the first of four pandemics, unleashed as a “warning bell” to awaken humanity from the nightmare caused by the destructive practices of contemporary civilization. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

“Sadly, the Younger Brother has not given importance to these statements,” said Amado Villafaña, an Arhuaco filmmaker and cultural interpreter who collaborates with the communications collective. According to Villafaña, contemporary societies give more attention to trivial topics than more pressing ones, such as biodiversity conservation.

Now, they warn that COVID-19 is just the first of four pandemics, unleashed as a “warning bell” to awaken humanity from the mirage of modern civilization.

Mamo Adolfo Chaparro, one of the spiritual guides, traces the origin of the illness to the beginning of their creation story, when humans were instructed to follow the Law of Origin.

“We are experiencing a pandemic because we have broken those rules,” he says.

However, this is just one of the crises the Elder Brothers have foretold. With increasing distress, they have watched their snows melt, their rivers shrink, their rains dwindle, and their crops fail.

Anthropologist Felipe Cárdenas has been working with the Arhuacos and the Kogis for decades and remembers hearing these predictions as early as 1980, when he began studying their divination practices.

“The destruction of nature produces the diseases we see today,” Mamo Camilo Izquierdo (right) tells the Arhuaco communicator Amado Villafaña. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

“There is a prophetic message coming from the people of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta,” Cárdenas said, pointing to analyses of spiritual messages coming from other Indigenous communities and Christian teachings. “The story they have is one worth paying attention to. It makes a lot of sense in terms of what is happening to larger society, which behaves quite erratically in environmental management and dealing with living beings.

“We are perhaps seeing that the times that we are living — some eschatological systems would call them the end times — are warning us of the need to enter into a rethinking of our culture and way of living.”

Reading the spiritual landscape

Beginning their apprenticeship in infancy and isolation, the Mamos are taught by their elders to develop relationships with animals, plants, the elements, and the spiritual beings that inhabit their religious world. For members of the community, this gives them the ability to read and see what many cannot.

“They have a repertoire of knowledge on how to read nature like a book, not only from an intellectual, rational way of knowing,” Cárdenas said. “To them, nature is like a great text, a great library that is sending messages and transforming them into a wise man or woman.”

For the peoples of the Sierra, there is a spiritual territory that overlays the physical one and has a sacred geography that is important to care for and maintain. They believe that modern society’s sole emphasis on the “Western” scientific way of knowing has eclipsed the essential spiritual nature of the Earth and the interconnected reality of all life.

The physical accommodations of the Arhuaco people who live complex spiritual lives. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

“The Younger Brother always makes separations,” Villafaña said. “But lately the field of quantum physics is beginning to recognize that everything is within everything else; that nothing is separated. It recognizes that when one thing is broken there are repercussions. In such a way, I believe the field of quantum physics is approaching the Mamos’ way of knowing.”

A biodiversity hotspot in danger

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta has been considered the most irreplaceable natural reserve in the world. However, according to eco-toxicologist Jesús Olivero-Verbel, little is known about how human activities are generating significant impacts on this protected biodiversity hotspot. The main drivers that generate pressure on the Sierra, Olivero-Verbel wrote in a recent “vulnerability assessment” published in Science Direct, are mining projects, water management, agricultural systems, tourism, territorial conflicts and climate change.

“The multiple pressures derived from activities such as mining, land use change and tourism have contributed significantly to the alteration of the ecosystem homeostasis and the reduction of the ecosystem services it provides,” he wrote. “As an important reserve area, different measures have been taken to protect biodiversity; however, their implementation has been insufficient.”

The biodiverse territory of the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa and Kankuamo peoples ranges from the snowy heights of the Andes to the white sand shores of the Caribbean. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

Of particular concern to the Arhuacos are the rapidly melting glaciers that feed the rivers and provide water to the local ecosystem and millions of people downstream. Since 2010, they have lost 20% of their mass. According to the “Report on the State of Colombian Glaciers 2019,” the Sierra Nevada is particularly sensitive to climate change.

For the Arhuacos, these climate and environmental problems are closely related to the causes of the current pandemic. In their worldview, Earth’s systems and emerging diseases respond to human actions and vice versa. When faced with these viral repercussions, there has been a legacy of neglect in basic health care for Indigenous communities in Latin America. Leonor Zalabata, Arhuaco leader and delegate for the Colombia Human Rights Commission, decries the lack of medical care in the territories.

“One of the gravest problems we have is that the public health services that a pandemic requires have been left to the private sector,” she said.

For the peoples of the Sierra, the spiritual territory is superimposed on the physical space, and a vital part of their work is to take care of this sacred geography at all its levels. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

The Arhuaco response to the first crisis

Like the Kamëntšá and the Misak people, the Arhuacos have accepted the validity of standard international prevention protocols: masking, handwashing and social distancing. Their own protocols, however, go further than those of the government. They have restricted their own movement to every extent possible, discouraging trips to cities with fines and a 15-day isolation upon their return.

The community has its own biosecurity posts at entry points into its territory, staffed by Mamos. Before entering the territory, people must undergo a series of activities, beginning with a ritual cleansing of the person’s negative energy with clean wisps of cotton fibers, which are then placed in a fire. This is followed by a bath in a solution containing various plants that the Mamos have been guided to use. They must then undergo a ceremonial activity in which they give back to the Earth. Finally, they are given a medicine made from a solution of local plants chosen by the Mamos.

“For us the health of the body is not the most important thing,” Amado Villafaña said. “What guarantees the health of the body is nature. When there is loss of snow, loss of water, changes in the weather, it affects the crops that we feed ourselves. For us, this is already a pandemic.

The Arhuacos practice disease prevention by drinking infusions of plants from the high páramos and the tropical lowlands. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

“The Younger Brother, when he begins to intervene in the rivers, he takes actions that cause the snow to thaw and the land to get sick. It is the same as if we were to take out an eye, a kidney or half a liver. The human body is no longer going to be fine. There will no longer be an integral function.”

This nuanced, multidimensional and holistic approach to health has no place in the modern health care landscape, according to Cárdenas. He traces the sharp decline in acceptance of traditional medicine throughout the Americas to the early 1900s, with the work of reformers such as Abraham Flexner in the United States. Flexner was a medical reformer and politician who worked tirelessly to stamp out competing alternative medical models such as homeopathy, osteopathy, naturopathy and midwifery.

In the years following the 1910 release of the “Flexner Report,” medical schools declined in number from 650 to 50. Approximately 10,000 herbalists went out of business and Indigenous medicine was removed from the standard of care. Along with European colonial rule that promoted similar views since the 15th century, the U.S. medical model was quickly exported throughout the world. According to Cárdenas, the result has been the decline of an intercultural dialog around health and a widespread dependency on the pharmaceutical-based approach to medicine.

Today, young Arhuacos and Kogis who go to medical school return to their communities practicing the pharmaceutical model and are unable to relate to the herbal pharmacopoeia of their elders. They are also unable to create their own medicines, which healers have done for millennia.

The waters that come out of the springs are medicine for the peoples of the Sierra Nevada. “They should not undergo changes,” says Mamo Camilo. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

“They arrive in their communities to run a health center, administer pills and don’t incorporate traditional knowledge,” Cárdenas said. “The health care systems at the global level are collapsing because they depend on a very reductionist concept of health that doesn’t incorporate preventive elements, including how we think about illness.”

For Mamo Camilo Izquierdo, the prevention of diseases will require adhering to the Law of Origin, including a real change in attitude. Translating this ancestral law into action begins with recognizing nature as a living being with rights.

“This is how it was established from the beginning and must be fulfilled, for the welfare of all, not just for people, but for the animals, those who fly and those who do not fly,” he said while discussing the impact of melting glaciers and the nurturing ties we have to water. “If the water disappears, everything dies. Everything that walks on Earth is exterminated. We would disappear too.”

Other Mamos agree and highlight the profound challenge we are living in as a global society. They warn that if we do not learn to live in harmony with nature, the pandemic will deepen and more diseases will follow. This warning became a lesson for some younger members of the community, such as Ati Fania Torres, who fell seriously ill with COVID-19 during her visit to a city in northeastern Colombia.

Ati Fania Torres (left), an Arhuaco teenager who was infected with COVID-19, drinks an infusion of plants as Mamo Elkin Villafaña looks on. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

“Young people should comply with the recommendations of the Mamos,” Torres said as a call to younger generations around the world. “That means taking care of nature, trees, rivers and mountains. It means taking care of nature, so that she takes care of us.”

This report is part of the transmedia series Cosmology & Pandemic: What We Can Learn from Indigenous Responses to the Current Health Crisis. It is produced by The Esperanza Project with the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, The One Foundation and SGE. To watch the trailer, click here.


Banner image: The Mamos begin their apprenticeship in their infancy, developing relationships with the animals, plants, the elements, and the spiritual beings that inhabit their religious world. They learn to read Nature like a book. Image courtesy of The Esperanza Project.

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