We are your older brothers

“We are your older brothers… and the problem with you is that you keep changing your laws! You have no one ancestral law. You are focused on change, but we are focused on order.”

This arresting observation was made to me by a member of the Kogi, a remarkable indigenous community in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. We met through the good offices of Juan Mayr, photographer, environmental crusader, Goldman Prize winner, former Minister of the Environment in Colombia and staunch advocate and friend of the Kogi and their neighbors, the Arhuaco.

We met over coffee in Bogotá, just across from the National Library. With the Kogi gentleman was a companion from the neighboring tribe, the Arhuaco (they asked that I not use their names). Both were in town for meetings, and their message was quite simple: the world must find balance with the environment, and soon, or disaster was inevitable. It is a message they have been attempting to communicate for decades, and indeed, the essence of the Kogi belief system is deeply attuned to environmental sensibilities. The focus of Kogi life is to maintain balance, particularly between the physical and spiritual world, and living in what they consider to be the corazon del mundo –the heart of the world– , they see it as their special task to maintain balance for all humankind.

Their message is all the more compelling for they truly live what they say. Balance and restraint are at the heart of Kogi and Arahuaco society, and when they do something, they do it with great deliberation. A delegation recently visited Washington to carry their message to those most responsible for and (hopefully) most able to change the current course of events. The trip took place only after three years of deliberation and debate by the Kogi and Arhuaco elders during which consensus was slowly but solidly reached.

Let us hope their message was heard. Meanwhile, their numbers diminish and their magical homeland (now a biosphere Reserve) continues to change in the face of global climate change. The glaciers are retreating and are all but gone. Forest exploitation by non-natives is happening on all sides, and the consequent erosion is creating a cycle of flood and drought. thanks to the work of Juan Mayr and others steps are being taken to protect the Kogi/Aruhuaco homeland, but of course they would tell us that is not enough. The Kogi will do all they can to protect their heart of the world, but they will succeed only if the rest of us understand and truly live their message of restraint and balance.