Defenders of the Colombian Amazon sacred hills: the forest keepers

In Vaupés, in the Colombian Amazon, indigenous people are clinging to their beliefs to protect themselves from mining. A mining licence for coltan has three communities on the edge: leaders are threatened and their right to prior consultation has not been respected. Part 2 of 4. Español

Edilma Prada
27 January 2020, 12.00am
Jorge Ardila Ramírez, a grandfather from the Guanano ethnic group, tells mythical stories of his ancestors huddled in one of the holes of the Hamaca hill
Luis Ángel. All rights reserved.

A handful of indigenous guards watch over the jungle to prevent a tragedy that their grandparents see in their dreams: the destruction of their "sacred houses", the hills. A young leader remembers the day that the tranquillity was disrupted in his community. When he learned that there was a 30-year license granted on his territory to extract coltan, one of the most scarce and precious minerals, used by the world's big technology industries when manufacturing cell phones, computers and electronic devices. In Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo has the largest number of reserves of what is considered the new 'black or blue gold'. In Latin America, there are mines in Venezuela and Colombia.

Indigenous people from Vaupés, in the Colombian Amazon, led by experts, watch over the hills to protect themselves from mineral exploitation.

Twenty minutes away from the Timbó community of Betania, through the jungle, is Hamaca Hill, one of the sacred sites of the ancestral villages of Vaupés. At the top of the hill are five indigenous people guarding their territory. They protect it from unauthorized people who come to exploit the natural resources. They are 300 meters above the Amazon floor, on a gigantic grey, solid, cone-shaped rock. From there they can see the immense jungle, thick with trees and bushes of all shades of green, olive, emerald, turquoise, dark and light. They can also see other hills, ten imposing ridges sprouting from the weeds, some very close to the Brazilian border. For the indigenous communities their lives, stories and memories come from these places that are threatened by mining.

It's the middle of the day, the weather is hot and humid. The stone is burning from the sun's rays. One of the indigenous people carries binoculars to observe the forest. One of the other men points to the front, to Abejorro Hill, and says that there is widespread fear since the community learned that the government had granted it a 30-year license for mineral exploitation.

This group is led by grandfather Jorge Ardila Ramirez, from the Guanano ethnic group, a short, slim, black-eyed man. He is one of the three savants left in Timbó de Betania.

In Vaupés, the hills are sacred sites for the native people. The grandparents tell us that their villages sprang from these places. The hills are natural and spiritual spaces for most of the 27 ethnic groups that live in Vaupes
Luis Ángel. All rights reserved

Jorge names and points out the other hills around: Comején, Golondrina, Bastón, Cuya, Banco de Tigre, Lágrimas de Tela, Abejorro, Estantillo, Hueso and Tui. He says that these mountains are natural and spiritual spaces for most of the 27 ethnic groups that live in the three reserves in Vaupés: Vaupés Indigenous, Bacatí-Remanso de Arara Lagos de Jamaicuru and Yaigoje-Apaporis. Most of the 35 rivers, canals and streams that flow through this 54,000 square kilometer province, more than 90 percent of which is covered by tropical forest, originate in the hills. The tributaries are abundant, navigable and are a food source for the communities.

"If the miners arrive, they will damage the hills. And if we harm them, the beings of nature take our lives, or we get sick, or something happens. We must not touch them, we must respect them," says Jorge, rooted in his beliefs.

The grandfather closes his eyes, and with mystical words he describes how his spirit came to this place to speak with his ancestors.

"In the last dream I saw a big house, made of mud, it had windows, there was a door and there was a little stone. There was smoke coming out of this part. There was only one old man looking after it, I asked him in the dream about the others and he told me that they went to drink chicha", he explains that his connection with the spiritual world is achieved through rituals.

On Hamaca Hill, located 20 minutes from the Timbó de Betania community, five indigenous people guard the territory.
Luis Ángel. All rights reserved.

In their village they use the coca leaf and tobacco for prayers and traditional medicine. Around the Hamaca hill there are crops of these plants that are mixed with sweet and wild yucca crops.

Jorge explains that the animals are the protectors of the place, as he shows us a little bird with brown feathers, which is warming its eggs on the stone. He is known as Juan Correo. "In all the jungle there are snakes, limpets, armadillos, guaras, deer, tigers, several animals. They are the owners of these houses," he says.

The indigenous people stay for several hours observing the territory and then retire in silence to respect its inhabitants, animals and plants.

This indigenous man observes the jungle and the surrounding hills with a pair of binoculars
Luis Ángel. All rights reserved


Agenda Propia, with the support of the Pulitzer Center and the Rainforest Journalism Fund, went into the forests of Vaupés to walk through one of the territories of the Amazon that is in the sights of foreign companies for the exploitation of coltan, a combination of the metals columbite and tantalite, also known as black lands. This is the second of 4 parts. Read the first part here. Originally published in Agenda Propia

Editorial coordination, journalistic research and texts - Edilma Prada Céspedes

Photos and Video- Luis Ángel

Text edition- Nathalia Salamanca Sarmiento

Web design and graphics -Mariana Villamizar and Camila Achuri

Social Media Creative Design- Paola Andrea Nirta Pérez

Media allies - Open Democracy, InfoAmazonia, Public Issue, Public Eye, Datasketch, Connectas, El Espectador

This project was funded by the Pulitzer Center and the Rainforest Journalism Fund.

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