- The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an isolated group of mountains situated along Colombia’s northern coast, which has the unique distinction of harboring more threatened endemic species than anywhere else in the world.
- Agricultural expansion has come at the expense of vital habitat over the past several decades. Now, resource exploitation and infrastructure projects planned for the region are further threatening the mountains’ ecosystems, according to scientists and local activists.
- Four indigenous groups inhabit the region: the Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. 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.
- Three years ago, the indigenous councils filed a legal action with the Constitutional Court, arguing that their constitutional rights were violated by legal and illegal mining taking place inside the Black Line. In addition to the mining, the councils denounced large-scale infrastructure projects such as the development of a coal-shipping port, hydroelectric dam, and hotel that had been carried out inside the Black Line without indigenous consent. The court has yet to issue a ruling.
Jaime Luis Arias grew up on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. An isolated coastal pyramid-shaped massif in northern Colombia, the Sierra Nevada is one of the highest coastal mountains on the planet, with the snow-capped peaks rising from the Caribbean Sea to a mystifying 5,800 meters (19,000 feet).
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’s dramatic changes in elevation have created a vibrant reflection of Colombia’s many ecosystems — rainforests, savannas, tropical dry forests, tropical alpine tundra, glaciers, deserts and coral reefs — with more threatened endemic species than anywhere else in the world.
“I grew up of the Kankuamo people, in the mid-highlands of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta,” Arias said. “For us, growing up there is a great privilege, this is why we call it ‘the heart of the world.’”
Four indigenous groups inhabit the region: the Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. In their spiritual beliefs, the Sierra Nevada is considered to be the heart of the world, where every element, object and organism, from the soaring peak to the gentle stream, forms an indispensable part of an interconnected body.
“For us, there is life in all the elements. The peaks, rivers, animals, plants, stones and planets are all in constant interaction to achieve harmony and balance in nature and with ourselves,” Arias said. “What affects one, affects the entire ecosystem.”
The Sierra Nevada covers some 17,000 square kilometers (6,560 square miles). The remote highlands and midlands are protected by a national park along with three indigenous reserves that overlap and exceed the land covered by the park. The indigenous communities that inhabit the remote mountain region, however, consider themselves defenders of a far more extensive territory than what is officially protected.
The Black Line
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.”
But with valuable resources underfoot, such as oil and gold, there are competing visions for the future of the Black Line. Arias said pressure from mining interests inside the Black Line escalated 15 years ago under the administration of former President Álvaro Uribe, whose government undertook a series of large-scale infrastructure projects in the region.
“There has always been pressure on the Sierra Nevada, but it was under Uribe when the number of mining applications and concessions exploded,” Arias said. “Now, legislative negligence presents us with 132 mining titles and 260 mining applications to exploit minerals and carbon.”
Colombia’s 1991 Constitution guarantees ethnic minorities the right to prior consultation on projects that have an environmental or social impact on collective territories. In 2014, the country’s Constitutional Court ordered the suspension of a mining title inside the Black Line because it had failed to undergo a prior consultation with indigenous communities.
Following the court order, the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos cited the indigenous communities with nearly 400 consultation procedures for largely small-scale mining projects. The indigenous communities pushed back, saying the exercise was “exhausting and counterproductive” until clear rules were set to order the process.
Three years ago, the indigenous councils filed a legal action known as a tutela with the Constitutional Court, arguing that their constitutional rights were violated by legal and illegal mining taking place inside the Black Line. In addition to the mining, the councils denounced large-scale infrastructure projects such as the coal-shipping port Puerto Brisa, the hydroelectric dam Ranchería, and the hotel Los Ciruelos that had been carried out inside the Black Line without indigenous consent. The court has yet to issue a ruling.
After years of waiting for a ruling from the courts, indigenous authorities, known as mamos, descended from high up in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, traveling more than 800 km (500 mi) to the county’s capital, Bogotá, to send a message to the Colombian public and put pressure on the government, calling on the Constitutional Court to protect the Black Line boundary.
“The Heart of the World is at risk of physical and cultural extermination,” the CTC said in a press statement. “The extractionist model of development, particularly mining and megaprojects, threatens the survival of the four indigenous peoples, and the unique ecosystem of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.”
The indigenous leaders called on the central government to respect and protect the ancestral territory of the Sierra Nevada, and suspend the mining and megaproject concessions granted inside the Black Line.
Private property owners and trade groups have spoken out against the court’s recognition of indigenous ancestral claims to the Black Line. In conversations with local media, the trade groups have said they fear the indigenous groups will create legal obstacles for private property owners, urban expansion, and put the future of infrastructure and development projects in “limbo.”
Arias rejected the argument that the indigenous communities pose “an obstacle” to economic development, saying that he envisions a path for regional development in harmony with nature. He said indigenous residents of the area “want to have coexistence with other social sectors, but without losing the fundamental, which is the territory.”
Violence past and present
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta has been plagued by hundreds of years of political violence and colonization, presenting an existential threat to indigenous inhabitants’ cultural survival and the region’s fragile ecosystems. The Kogui, Arhauco, Wiwa and Kankuamo are believed to be descendants of the Tairona people who escaped Spanish colonization by moving their settlements to the remote high mountains.
By the turn of the 20th century, much of the western side of the Sierra Nevada had been converted for banana plantations by U.S.-based United Fruit Company, which built railways and residential villages, administrative areas, service areas and workers’ camps following American models. Campesinos, farmers who came from Colombia’s interior regions, settled in the mid-highlands to grow commercial crops, especially coffee and cocoa, on rich agricultural lands.
In the 1970s, marijuana growers pushed colonization further up the mountains, clearing away virgin forests to grow the illicit crops. With the marijuana came the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and the military. The ensuing conflict between the armed actors spawned a reign of terror in the Sierra Nevada, with children forcibly recruited into armed groups, as well as widespread forced displacement, selective assassinations, massacres and sexual violence.
Even though the country’s largest guerrilla army, the FARC, set down its weapons in 2016, political and drug-trafficking violence is a rising concern in the Sierra Nevada, with rearmed paramilitary groups fighting over territorial control. In the past 18 months alone, six community leaders were killed, another suffered an attack and 42 people were displaced, according to a recent report.
“The dispute is over a mobility corridor between three departments, with a [major highway], access to seaports and where many illegal revenues can be generated in everything related to tourism and banana crops and [oil] palm,” Luis Trejos, of the Caribbean Observatory at the Universidad del Norte, told local media outlet Semana.
The Ombudsman warned of the threat to indigenous inhabitants. Gelver Zapata Izquierdo, indigenous leader of the Arhuaco, told Mongabay Latam in 2018 that the armed groups are present in areas where strategic projects such as mining, oil drilling, and infrastructure development are planned or being carried out.
“It’s strange that the state is close to those projects and so are the armed groups,” Zapata Izquierdo said. “For us any armed group is the same, it is the symbol of war within the territories. We are convinced that Colombia needs dialogue to rebuild, but beyond the dialogue, is recognition of human rights.”
A report published in 2019 by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and the Historical Memory Center found that out of the country’s 102 indigenous tribes, almost 70 percent are at imminent risk of physical and cultural disappearance. Since the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the FARC, ONIC has recorded 158 assassinations of indigenous leaders, primarily in the southwestern department of Cauca.
“In Colombia, an indigenous [person] is murdered every 72 hours,” ONIC senior adviser Luis Fernando Arias told France 24. He said indigenous people are often targeted for defending their territory from armed groups. “Indigenous peoples are an obstacle for armed groups because we defend our territories, exercising social control and barring armed groups.”
On December 23, two high profile environmentalists from the city of Santa Marta were found murdered near the Tayrona National Park of the Sierra Nevada. It wasn’t clear if the killing was connected to their social and environmental work, or if it was the result of a carjacking. In the same rural sector along the Caribbean coast, park ranger Wilton Orrego was killed in January, 2019. For both murders, the authorities are investigating the involvement of the paramilitary group, Los Pachencas, who maintain strict territorial control in the region, and are heavily involved in cocaine trafficking to the U.S. and Europe.
Severe environmental stress
A 2017 study by Colombia’s Bank of the Republic used high-resolution satellite images to research rates of deforestation, human settlements and road infrastructure inside the Black Line. While the results indicate official land protection has helped limit deforestation and human activity in national parks and indigenous reserves in the area, the researchers were not able to conclude that it had any effect inside the Black Line.
“Our main results indicate that while [the Black Line] has no detectable effects, there is evidence of significant [reducing] effects from indigenous reservations and national parks on deforestation, population settlements and road infrastructure,” the authors report in their study.
The region is also experiencing other, more indirect, impacts from human pressure. Climate change is already severely impacting the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada. Since 1900, 92 percent of the glaciers that once covered the great mountains no longer exist. According to a study by the country’s climate research agency, IDEAM, Colombia’s six equatorial glaciers will disappear by the year 2050 if the current rate of melt continues.
Arias said the negative effects of climate change on Sierra Nevada’s water tables and snowpack are being multiplied by extractive and megaproject development taking place in the lowlands inside the Black Line.
“Already, we’re seeing rivers are drying up and the snow is at the point of disappearing. Of course, climate change is having an effect but the mining and megaproject activities are rapidly accelerating the process and causing immediate damage,” Arias said. “None of these forms of exploitation are allowed under our laws. For us, it’s like removing blood from the body.”
In 2013, a study declared the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park as the most important protected area in the world for threatened species. The Sierra Nevada comprises particularly critical habitat for endangered amphibians. Lina Valencia, Colombia conservation officer at Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), said the Sierra Nevada has the highest number of threatened endemic amphibians in the world.
Recently, the Arhuaco indigenous community allowed conservation biologists from GWC’s local partner, Fundación Atelopus, to access a mountain watershed where they were able to identify and photograph the critically endangered starry night harlequin toad (Atelopus arsyecue) that had been considered “lost to science” for nearly 30 years.
“There are 18 endemic species of amphibians in the Sierra Nevada and four species of harlequin toads. Frogs are considered to be guardians of the water because they’re found in the headwaters of the rivers,” said Luis Alberto Rueda, a professor at Universidad del Magdalena and co-founder of Fundación Atelopus.
Rueda and other Universidad del Magdalena researchers have been studying endangered amphibians in the Sierra Nevada for more than five years. The team has modeled future population trajectories for the starry night harlequin toad, with their results showing a tendency toward decline. Rueda said the principal threats to the species are from cattle ranching and crop production, along with waste, infrastructure and other issues arising from the region’s growing and poorly regulated tourism sector.
Indigenous movement joins National Strike
President Iván Duque, a handpicked apprentice of former President Uribe, took office on Aug. 7, 2018. Criticized as inexperienced and largely unpopular, Duque has struggled to govern the country. On Nov. 21, 2019, the largest countrywide protests since the 1970s broke out against the government.
Indigenous organizations in March had already led a national protest, known as a minga, to demand Duque’s government fully implement the 2016 peace agreement and recognize indigenous land rights. In the latest round of protests, the national indigenous organization ONIC immediately called on Colombia’s native population to join the national strike.
The Indigenous Council of the Kankuamo Reserve called on its people to join the strike as well, expressing their solidarity with the “diverse sectors of Colombian society who feel their essential rights have been violated.”
Duque’s response to the overwhelmingly non-violent protest has been a heavy-handed police crackdown, combined with reluctant offers to negotiate with strike organizers. More than a month after the strikes began, an agreement between the government and the protesters has yet to be reached.