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The Kogi: An Urgent Call from Guardians of the Heart of the World

“We are now living outside of the laws of nature where nature is now turning against man and becoming the enemy. Climate change is the consequence of the fact that man is operating outside the laws of life and laws of nature, law of the balance of the world. And doing so will destroy the balance.” --Kogi

In August of 2013, we had the rare honor of being invited to visit the Kogi (Kággaba), the most isolated of the Indigenous groups of the Sierra Nevada to share their story and message with the world. It is our intent to amplify their voices, their words and their vision.

The breathtaking mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast of Colombia are the sacred ancestral lands of four Indigenous Peoples: the Kogi, Arhuaco, Wiwa and Kankuamo.  The direct decedents of an ancient civilization known as the Tayrona speak distinct languages but share the common belief that they are the guardians of the heart of the World.  

At the core of the spirituality and cosmology of all the people of the Sierra Nevada is the belief that their entire mountain range is a living entity and before being created by the great mother Sezhankwa existed in the spiritual universe. The great mother then birthed the people of the Sierra Nevada and gave the mandate to uphold her Original Law: that all her creation must be protected and nurtured.  

Through deep meditations, ritual offerings, songs and prayers carried out along a network of interconnected sacred sites that link the snowy peaks to the river deltas and estuaries to the Sea, the Kogi priests known as Mamos follow the great mother's law of caring for and nurturing the Sierra Nevada.  By doing so, they believe they maintain the equilibrium of life not only for their sacred mountains but for the entire world.   They communicate with the spirits of all living things and incorporate their spiritual practices in their practical daily acts from cultivating their crops, to walking on trails and building traditional houses. 

The Kogi refer to themselves as elder brothers and express concern that non-indigenous outsiders, the younger brothers, are plundering and dismembering the Earth.  Their message to the world is timely and poignant: that our ways of exploiting and destroying nature is bringing rapid ecological collapse that will harm the entire world and which they can see evidenced in form of prolonged droughts and disappearing glaciers in their own mountains.

Jose de Los Santos Sauna, the Kogi Cabildo Governor spoke to us of the Kogi's message: "If the sacred sites in the heart of the world are not protected, and the ceremonies are not continued, calamity will befall the entire world.  This is already happening and the younger brother is not heeding our warnings."

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Their pyramid shaped mountain range of Santa Marta is the world's tallest coastal mountains and rises from the Caribbean coast to snowy peaks of 18,000 feet in just 25 miles and extending roughly 100 miles on each of its three sides. Geographically, the range is not connected to the Andes range; it is actually a miniature version of the Earth where nearly every ecosystem on the planet is found: glaciers, tundra, alpine lakes, deserts, tropical rainforests, wetlands, and coral reefs. More than 600 streams are born in this highly biodiverse zone forming 36 important rivers that meet the perimeter of the mountain in a network of estuaries, lagoons and river deltas.  

The World of Aluna
It is precisely this interconnected web of life that the Mamos learn to connect and interact with in their extraordinary training for priesthood.  Most Mamos are chosen at birth or shortly there after and spend between 9-18 years in darkness and isolation developing the gift of insight and learning to connect to Aluna.  Aluna refers to a cosmic consciousness that is like the mind of nature, the source of all life and collective intelligence. It is where all living beings are first dreamed of before they exist in the physical realm.

The Kogi were one of only a handful of tribes in Colombia that defied the Spanish conquistadores by moving high up into the mountains to their traditional spiritual centers, where they continued to live for centuries in relative isolation. Over the 500 years since colonization, the Kogi and other peoples of Sierra Nevada lost most of the mid to lower elevation reaches of their ancestral lands.

Recuperating Ancestral Territory
We were welcomed by the Kogi in the village of Dumingueka located in the lower foothills of the Sierra Nevada in the Santa Clara River Basin. This picturesque valley settlement is at the end of one of a few access roads that enter the Sierra Nevada. From here, the higher reaches of Kogi territory are accessible only by footpaths leading up the surrounding cloud covered and snowy peaks. Five years ago, the Kogi reoccupied this valley, establishing a new community and building their first intercultural school for Kogi youth.

The Kogi Governor Santos shared the story of the historic struggle of the Kogi, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kankuamo who since the 1970's have secured legal recognition to some 650,000 hectares of their ancestral territories in three resguardos (indigenous reserves) and who together number an estimated 90,000 people.

Named after the tallest and most sacred peak of the range, the Gonawindua Tayrona Organization (OGT) was established in 1987 to defend the traditions and cultures of the peoples of the Sierra Nevada. The OGT today is mostly focused on the direction, organization, administration and management of the Kogi reserve while the other three tribes have also established their own organizations to govern their territories.  Then, 15 years ago the four tribes united their peoples around their shared cultural beliefs and formed the Territorial Council of Cabildos (CTC) to speak together in one voice and better defend and govern the entire ancestral territory and maintain autonomy. The CTC has been the main body chosen by all four tribes to address the protection of their sacred sites, the unification of their ancestral territories and in dealing with threats from mining, dams, and other mega projects.

Santos described the top priority of the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada as the recuperation of an additional 350,000 hectares of their ancestral territories, mostly in the mid to lowlands and including areas that are on paper indigenous lands but that in reality are still owned and occupied by farmers, ranchers and developers.

Santos said: "Our Mamos have affirmed our principle objective of recuperation of our ancestral territory in the lowlands where today you find towns and settlements of people who came and occupied these lands. We wish to send a message to the world of how we have lived for thousands of years in accordance with the laws of nature."

Defending Sacred Sites
Another major priority of the peoples of Sierra Nevada is the defense and recuperation of their sacred sites; in particular 54 important sites that form an invisible "black line" that circles the base of the mountain massif.   Santos explained: "Our sacred sites along the black line refer to the invisible line separating the land and the sea.  Today our primary concern is to continue to recuperate our sacred sites, which are in the hands of the farmers and ranchers and or are being desecrated by tourism development and infrastructure projects like ports."

"We are eager to protect our sacred sites because these sites are like the eyes, ears, lungs, arms of nature.  Each site is a Being; a mother or father spirit who is alive and has a spirit.  Our rivers are like the veins that run from the head in the glacier peaks thru the body of the mountain.  If these things are destroyed, it will bring an end to our indigenous culture, it will destroy us as a people.  Our territory, the Mountain and our sacred sites are like sacred temples where the memories and our ancestral knowledge are kept.  To lose a sacred site will mean that our people will start to lose their knowledge. Our identity is written in the earth, in the trees, in the snow peaks, in the lagoons, in the wetlands. The rocks that are carved are our books, our codices, and our agreements with nature.”

The Desecration of Jukulwa
One of the most important sacred sites on the black line is Jukulwa on the Caribbean coast, a place of significance to Mamos for ceremonies to defend against the spread of diseases among humans and animals.  A consortium of Colombian and Brazilian businessmen and politicians are building a multipurpose seaport called Puerto Brisa which includes roads and a railroad to connect with the proposed San Juan del Cesar coal mine.  In 2007, all four tribes united to file an injunction at the Constitutional Court.  In 2008, the consortium began dynamiting the site illegally. The court ruled in 2010 that the port was illegal and construction had to stop pending prior informed consultation and agreement with the indigenous people.  In 2011, the Kogi participated in the consultation process and voiced their opposition, demanding that the site be protected. The consultation process failed to produce an agreement. The case was left to the Constitutional Court to make a ruling.  In the meantime, the Colombian Ministry of Environment issued the environmental license for the port in 2011and the construction of the port continues, devastating this important sacred site.

In its ruling in 2007, the Court said that it did not understand the reasons the indigenous peoples opposed the project and ordered that the prior consultation be carried out in order to determine if the port would effectively generate a threat to the capacity of the indigenous cultures of the Sierra Nevada to survive. The consultation did not include all the formal requirements. For example, there was no preparation of an associated environmental impact study in which the Mamos could participate. The Mamos wanted to explain before the constitutional court and the world how a sacred site like Jukulwa had kept alive not only the indigenous cultures, but also the entire ecosystem of the Sierra Nevada throughout thousands of years.

During the consultation, the Mamos of all four tribes visited more than 20 sacred sites that are within the boundaries of the Puerto Brisa project, explaining the function and purpose of each site. The representatives of the four tribes and their supporters, and allied organizations transmitted this information in volumes of writings, graphics, tables, and educational information. These results were not widely disseminated in the media, nor were they included in the official records of the Constitutional Court.

The Ministry of the Environment decided to ignore the cultural arguments.  It only considered the potential physical damage to the sites, which it deemed as minimal. The company had already made a significant investment in the port construction, and the ministry basically held the position that whatever was damaged would be mitigated with funds for education, health, and agricultural development projects. The indigenous people were pressured to reach an agreement with the Puerto Brisa project for compensation. For the Kogi, such an agreement would compromise their indigenous law of origin.

To this day, the constitutional court has not issued its final verdict on the injunction. The Puerto Brisa project has used this silence to continue construction. Each day the port is further developed and the Mamos watch in dismay as their spiritual mothers and fathers are destroyed.

Colombia's constitution mandates that when a proposed development project will affect indigenous people, there must be "prior consultation" with the indigenous people affected. In the case of Jukulwa, that process didn't happen before the project was initiated, so when the court finally intervened in 2010, it ended up being "prior consultation" that really ended up being "subsequent consultation." And even then the fact that the Kogi said "no" was not heeded.

Two Sacred Sites Protected
In hopeful news, in the past year, two important sacred sites were returned to the people of Sierra Nevada. With funding support and accompaniment from the Amazon Conservation Team, the Kogi were able to acquire their first 150-hectare sacred site on the Caribbean coast known as Jaba Tañiwashkaka. The Colombian government officially declared the site as a sacred site of national significance--a new designation. Another important sacred site of 500 hectares were turned over to the Arhuacos by the regional government.  The CTC representing all four tribes seeks funding to purchase additional sites along the black line as well as establish protection for the use and access to the other 52 sites.  

Sovereignty and Economic Empowerment
Another priority for the Kogi is the autonomous economic empowerment of their people. Towards this, they are developing a small scale spiritually cultivated coffee enterprise. The Kogi see coffee as their messenger.  While cultivating their coffee plots, the Mamos sing and bless their plants producing what they consider to be a spiritually cultivated coffee. Coffee is an important source of income for food and clothing, and it has been grown and traded by Kogi for decades.  An estimated 600 Kogi families currently cultivate and trade coffee.   Without a community cooperative or association, growers have been vulnerable to be taken advantage of by middlemen until now.  Five hundred families are now participating in a program established by the OGT who offers technical assistance, processing, marketing and quality control. With funding from the UNDP, the OGT is acquiring coffee processing equipment so their growers can control the entire coffee process. They plan to use any income from coffee production to purchase sacred sites, strengthen cultural practices, and provide funding for autonomous governance, including their ongoing community assemblies.

The Kogi, the Wiwa, Arhuaco and Kankuamo of the Sierra Nevada are working on both the physical and spiritual realms to protect and defend the sacred heart of the world. They are nurturing the life force of nature which in turn keeps them and all of the world alive in a continuous cycle of reciprocity. Their message could not be more timely or relevant to all of us.

Our short time with the Kogi community was transformative, inspirational and alarming all at once.  It was beautiful to see such a magical world and hear the messages directly from ancient peoples that have such deep understanding of the interconnectedness with our Mother Earth. We received an open invitation to continue to visit and we are looking forward to building the relationships we made.

To learn more about the Kogi, visit their website:, or
email jose_

--Atossa Soltani is the founder of Amazon Watch. Evelyn Arce (Chibcha) is executive director if International Funders for Indigenous Peoples,

In a Special Interview on International Indigenous Day, August 12 2013, this excerpt was taken from a video clip: Jose de Los Santos Sauna, Gobernador Cabildo Gonawindua Tayrona says:

 “The first priority of the Kogi people is to recuperate our ancestral territory. In our territory, is our identity, language, knowledge, all that makes us one with nature. For this reason, our mamos, sabios, ancestors, our creator mandated us to conserve, protect and defend the sierra which is the heart of the world. For this reason it is important for our mamos to relay our principle objective of recuperation of our ancestral territory all the way to the lowlands where there are towns and settlements of people  who came and occupied these lands and to send a message to the world how we have lived for thousands of years in accordance with the laws of nature.

It is also important to continue to recuperate the sacred sites that are in the lowlands where the sea and the land connect, where we call the black line which we refer to the invisible line separating the land and the sea where our spiritual laws originate and our cultural laws and the laws between of human beings and all other living beings.  Today our primary concern and that of the mamos is to continue to recuperate our sacred sites which are in the hands of the farmers, the range owners and the infrastructure works like ports. Expansion of cities like Santa Marta, Barranquilla and Cartagena are also affecting sacred sites.

 That is why our eagerness to continue to recuperate our sacred sites where there are wetlands, where there are mangroves, where there trees, where there are medicinal plants. If these things are destroyed, it will bring an end to our indigenous culture, it will destroy us as a people.  Our territory that we protect, the Mountain and the sacred sites for us are like sacred temples where the memories and our knowledge are kept.  To lose a sacred site will mean that our people will start to lose their knowledge, this can weaken their traditional government, they can begin to lose their language, will lose their cultural identity. Our identity is written in the earth, in the trees, in the snow peaks, in the lagoons, in the wetlands. The rocks that are carved are our books, our codices, and our agreement with nature.”

To see video clip


 The production of Café Kogi is based on four fundamental principles:

1. Based on the conservation and recuperation of nature, which is the fundamental principle of the Kogi people, as a precept of the Law of Origin "Law of Sé". In Kogi territory one does not find convential coffee plantations; rather, the coffee is grown in the forest in harmony with other forest species and food plants, thus protecting the land and maintaining the social sustainability of the community.

2. The coffee bean variety that is primarily used is the "Típica" variety, the same that made Colombia famous for producing the smoothest coffee in the world. The Kogi people began using this coffee variety because it grows well in the forest shade. The Mamos say that this plant was sent by the spiritual fathers and mothers to convey the message that it is possible to have harmony between the material and spiritual aspects of production, creating income without harming nature.

3. All activity that is carried out physically must first be prepared spiritually, so for the Kogi this means that first they must make offerings ("payments") to the spiritual fathers and mothers as a gesture of gratitude for the abundance the beings of the natural world will bestow upon them. The coffee growing practiced by the Kogi is in keeping with these principles, such that all the coffee growers, before carrying out physical work in their plantations, carry out spiritual work accompanied by the Mamos.

4. The indigenous organization (Resguardo Kogui-Malayo-Arhuaco) is responsible for providing guidance for growing coffee in each community, as well as processing the coffee beans and getting them to market as "pergamino", "excelso," and toasted beans.

This way of growing coffee is unique; the Kogi community has decided not to change the bean variety, despite proposals made by various organizations and professionals. The overseeing of the production and marketing of coffee is closely linked to the work of the traditional authorities as well as the overall system of traditional agriculture, all of which is based on the conservation of nature and a deep relationship with the Spiritual Fathers and Mothers.

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