The Arhuaco people in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta have fended off incursions by Capuchin missionaries and by the illegal armed groups of Colombia’s long civil conflict. They would prefer to focus on avoiding and repairing damage to Mother Earth.
The ways of the Arhuacos were declared intangible cultural heritage of humanity by UNESCO in November, along with those of three other Indigenous communities in northern Colombia’s Sierra Nevada — the Kogui, Wiwa and Kankuamo.
“Recognition is very important, but it will be much more important that Mother Earth — the space where we exist — be respected and preserved,” said Zarwawiko Torres, an Arhuaco leader. That would include preventing mines and dams on their lands, he said.
Arhuacos follow the Law of Origin as their guide to behavior and spiritual knowledge, in how they live with Mother Nature. “Water must have its own channel, stones must exist in their own space. She respects me and I respect her,” Torres said.
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They live in scattered groups in the Sierra Nevada, which rises from the Caribbean coast and in its highest parts has snow-capped mountains, lagoons and moors. Their traditional white tunics woven from sheep’s wool represent snow and their cone-shaped hats the snowy peaks.
Arhuacos define themselves as a peaceful people who do not use weapons and are forbidden to murder or steal.
In their view, plants, stones, animals and the Sierra Nevada itself are living beings.
“If the Sierra were killed we would have no life,” Torres said.