Tales From Origin

Colombia – A Message from the Heart of the World

High in the Sierra Nevada of Colombia, indigenous Arhuaco coffee farmer Javier Mestres struggled to comprehend why the world didn’t understand the warming. He did not see things in parts per million. He had never heard of the global circulation model that tried to measure changes in the temperature of the ocean or dynamics of the atmosphere. He was unaware of the IPCC report stating that Colombia would heat up dramatically in the next twenty years, losing 90 percent of its glacial snowcaps by 2050. Javier saw the results of a warming planet clearly in the premature flowering of the coffee plants on his four-acre farm in the slopes above Nabusimake, the capital of the Arhuaco nation. He showed me the smaller, weaker berries that dotted the stems and wondered why the outside world wanted to harm these beautiful plants. Why were we changing the world?

Learning the Arhuaco worldview
Learning the Arhuaco worldview

For centuries, the Arhuaco spiritual elders, the Mamos, known in their language as the “Elder Brothers,” have carried out monthly rituals in sacred sites throughout the Sierra Nevada, which they call “the Heart of the World,” to ensure that the planet is kept in a geo-spiritual balance. But for the past two decades, the Mamos have been observing rapid changes in the Heart of the World. They have watched the snowcaps on their sacred peaks shrink over time and have seen the plant life change. They have felt the lower moisture levels in the air and soil and noted the changing migration patterns of the birds and butterflies. They have shared these observations with the tribe, and increasingly with the outside world, with us—the “Younger Brothers.” I was in Colombia to learn about the impacts of global warming on the Heart of the World, and I got an earful from an 83-year old Mamo, Fambautista Villafanes.

“The Younger Brothers have come here, to the Heart of the World, and are cutting out the Mother’s heart. They dig out the gold that we need for our rituals. They cut down the trees that hold the earth in place and destroy these homes for the birds. The Younger Brothers pollute the water with chemicals from mining and are making drugs from the plants, from the sacred coca!” While he spoke, he rubbed a stick onto the poporo, the hollow gourd Arhuaco men use to carry the crushed seashells from the coast, that when chewed and rubbed on the gourd create a lifelong impression of their thoughts. In a hypnotic rhythm, the pain and confusion caused by the foolish actions of the Younger Brothers became etched in layers on the poporo. “They have invaded our land. They destroy sacred sites to make mines and farms. They are making it difficult for us to do the work we must do to keep the world in balance. What would happen if we stopped keeping the world in balance? If we didn’t make the payments, would the trees still grow?”

I was taken aback by this last comment. Did he really believe the world would stop if the Mamos weren’t able to perform their rituals? Did they really believe that they held the world together? To my rational mind, it seemed a quaint and romantic notion. But maybe it was true. Maybe there is a tipping point where the whole thing comes down. It certainly happens on the micro level, where localized ecosystems and plant and animal communities crash when the balance is disturbed beyond repair. Ecologists tell us about “trophic cascade,” when the crash of one system leads to the crash of another, and then of many related systems. Is the critical point on Earth located here in the Sierra Nevada? Are the spiritual rituals the prime focus of energy, the “seams” that hold the world intact? The Mamos believe so.

“So what must be done to control this destruction?” I asked respectfully. The Mamo looked piercingly into my eyes.

“All the white men must leave the Sierra Nevada.”

“Uh, I know that would be ideal, but what can be done practically?”

“I told you. All the white men must leave.”

Maybe that was the most effective way to protect the sacred lands, and maybe that will ultimately be the solution—create a Heart of the World International Sacred Landscape. This is the underlying dynamic for the concept of totem or taboo, the recognition that there are places or actions that must be safeguarded for the benefit of the whole. Maybe we need to recognize and protect sacred spaces, beyond the multiple-use designations of national parks and forests, so that they can be accessed only by the ritual keepers. Whether or not the keepers actually hold the world together, their ritual activities keep the need for balance between the sacred and the profane within our collective psyche.

“But there is more,” the Mamo continued. “Beyond the Heart of the World, the Younger Brothers are changing the whole earth. I don’t know everything they are doing, but they are changing the whole earth.”

“Are you talking about global warming?” I asked.

Dean learns the use of the poporo
Dean learns the use of the poporo

“I don’t know what you call it, but yes, the Mother is getting warmer. The rain falls differently than before. It is later, but it falls harder. It is destructive sometimes when it should be nurturing. Many of the rivers are dry before they reach the sea. And the snows on the peaks that replenish the rivers are less each year. Even the bees are disappearing, and that affects the flowering of the coffee and all other plants.”

I asked the Mamo how he knew there were fewer bees.

“I can hear them. Their sound has lessened,” he replied. “It is all happening very quickly. First you took our gold. Then you took our land. Now you are taking the water and the air itself. The Younger Brothers are waging a war on the earth and it must stop!”

While the Mamo spoke, he sat thoughtfully, chewing and rubbing, creating in calcium an indigenous response to the IPCC findings. I wished that the businessmen and bureaucrats arguing about global warming could read the record in the poporo. I wished I could hit them over the head with the hardened gourd and make them stop destroying the Heart of the World.

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