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THE WORLD | ENVIRONMENTALISM

Voices of Ancient Wisdom Rise to Save the Planet From Pollution

April 19, 1998|Victor Perera | Victor Perera is the author of "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey" and is coauthor, with Robert D. Bruce, of "The Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Mayas of the Mexican Rain Forest." He is working on an English translation of the Kogis' oral narratives and counsels

BONGA, COLOMBIA — The 18,000-foot peaks of Colombia's Sierra Nevada are losing their perennial snow cover, and the indigenous Kogi priests, who live in their shadows, know the reason: We "younger brothers" of the developed world are heedlessly undermining the planet's environmental foundations and placing at risk the great loom of human life itself.

The Kogis, who call themselves "elder brothers," are not the only traditional community alarmed by their younger brothers' callousness toward the natural world. "Circles of elders" annually gather in North and South America to talk about the erosion of traditional teachings and the environmental havoc wrought by technology and industrialization. As many as 250 representatives of Native American communities from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska will meet in Santa Fe, N.M. this June to celebrate native languages and culture and discuss the protection of sacred sites. The Kogis, too, are inviting traditional elders from throughout the Western Hemisphere to join in a collective effort to ward off what they see as the "end of the world."

From his vantage point 3,500 feet up the Sierra Nevada in Pueblo Viejo, bounded by ancient terraces and miles of stone pathways carved into the mountainsides by the Kogis' Tairona ancestors, Mama Valencia, a small, gnarled man dressed in white tunic and pants and reputed to be 110 years old, repeats the warning British filmmaker Alan Ereira, author of the book "The Elder Brothers," broadcast on BBC television more than a decade ago:

"When will the younger brother learn that by mining the gold, minerals and petroleum, he is weakening the veins and arteries of the Great Mother, and we, her children, are becoming walking shadows on the Earth?"

(When Mama Valencia speaks of the younger brother, he includes the Spanish conquistadors who climbed the Sierra nearly 500 years ago to burn Kogi villages and ceremonial centers, set their mastiffs on fleeing women and children, and looted their ancestors' sacred, gold artifacts.)

Like other traditional communities, the Kogis regard themselves as stewards of the planet. Unlike most others, they are bending their minds and wills, night and day, to safeguard the Sierra Nevada's ecological integrity. They regard their mountain home as a microcosmos of the planet, and what befalls each of their trees, their corn and wheat fields, and their paramo, or alpine plateau, is also happening in the larger world beyond the Sierra. The Kogis believe that every living thing has its own guardian in aluna, where the Great Mother conceived the world. It is this awareness of the sacredness of all animate and inanimate beings that the younger brother has forgotten, the Kogi mamas insist. Unless the guardians are propitiated with appropriate offerings, or pagamentos, the world tilts out of balance and irreversible calamity ensues, according to Kogi belief. To help avoid that fate, the senior mamas want their counsel to be translated and read in the English-speaking countries, which they blame for the deleterious planetary changes.

Most younger brothers, no doubt, regard the collected wisdom of traditional cultures as more suitable for a college course than as a blueprint for guiding the planet. Yet, the Kogis and other traditional communities are not ignorant of how their words may resonate in the "civilized" world and may still hope to inspire a greater consciousness of the consequences of unbridled industrialization. Clearly, they seek to engage the world in a dialogue.

The Sierra Nevada, whose northern slopes and river valleys rise straight up from the Caribbean port of Santa Marta, is a compact ecosystem and a showcase of biodiversity on the American subcontinent. The Kogis, who number about 5,000, speak of the Sierra as a small-scale Tibet. Their ceremonial centers mirror the Tibetans' lamaseries, achieving rank as they ascend the mountain slopes. The eldest and most powerful "mamas," as the Kogi priests are called, are ensconced in the uppermost centers, which are barred to outsiders. The ancient roads leading to the major ceremonial centers are cobbled with shrines to long-dead mamas whose teachings are kept alive with pagamentos--seashells, ancient bead collars and artifacts made of quartz or gold.

One reason the Kogis are alarmed at what they see happening around them is that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta's compactness and biodiversity make their home especially vulnerable to global warming and its associated ravages. The Sierra appears to be drying up from the top down; the snow-covered plateaus and glacial lagoons that birth and feed the lowland rivers are fast disappearing. Meanwhile, industrial loggers and slash-and-burn colonists encroach ever higher into their Sierra home, wasting hardwood forests; drug traffickers cultivate marijuana and heroin poppies in its hidden valleys, and bands of leftist guerrillas use it as a safe haven.

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