Site icon Conservation news

Indigenous peoples demand protection of sacred sites at World Conservation Congress

  • “For the first time, the U’wa Nation participated in the world’s most important conservation event, the Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.”
  • “We brought a clear message from our traditional authorities, called Werjayas, that we must maintain a harmonious relationship with our territory, respecting and taking care of Mother Earth.”
  • “We also came to bring visibility to the situation being faced by our Mt. Zizuma, in Colombia’s El Cocuy National Park.”

For the first time, the U’wa Nation participated in the world’s most important conservation event, the Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. We brought a clear message from our traditional authorities, called Werjayas, that we must maintain a harmonious relationship with our territory, respecting and taking care of Mother Earth. This is the mandate handed down to us by Sira (God), and written in the Werjaya’s hearts.

We also came to bring visibility to the situation being faced by our Mt. Zizuma, in Colombia’s El Cocuy National Park. Our sacred mountain is home to our ancestor’s spirits, a place of knowledge that is in constant communication with other snow-capped mountains, as directed by the Werjaya. The whole area around the mountain is a biological, spiritual, and natural corridor that we believe guarantees the existence of humankind.

Mt. Zizuma is under threat from two dynamics. One is so-called ‘ecotourism,’ which brings serious consequences. These include pollution of our water sources, solid waste trash left in our sacred sites, and the spiritual and cultural impact of breaking our relationship with our spirits.

The second threat is the presence of mining and energy projects within U’wa territory, which contribute to accelerating climate change and violate our divine mandate to protect, take care of, and safeguard our Mother Earth.

For the last six months we have been in collective, nonviolent protest, exercising control of our territory through the U’wa Indigenous Guard. This action led to the establishment of a dialogue process between our U’wa Nation and the Colombian government. As an indigenous nation, we demanded from the National Parks Service a resolution to suspend ecotourism in El Cocuy Park and on Mt. Zizuma while an impact study is carried out. This study will allow our indigenous people to share our cosmo-vision and contribute ideas toward a true protection of Mt. Zizuma.

However, these advances are threatened by the recent declarations of Colombian Environment Minister Luis Gilberto Murillo, who claims the existence of a presidential order to re-open El Cocuy to ecotourism. This would be a clear violation of our agreement on the part of the government and would run roughshod over our people’s rights. Facing this threat, the U’wa Nation would remind the government that, if necessary, we will re-activate our collective peaceful protest.

At the World Conservation Congress, we highlighted the recent thematic report from Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which included a paragraph about the situation of Mt. Zizuma. The report also offered what we believe are salient recommendations to governments and conservation organizations to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples.

Generally, little has been said about how the establishment of natural protected areas can violate or undermine our collective and territorial rights. Therefore we took the opportunity to emphasize the importance of recognizing and respecting our rights and, in addition, our sacred territories of life.

It was important to make a clear statement about how indigenous peoples have our own vision of conservation through our own traditional uses and customs. One advance I am happy to report from the Congress is that there are many more people, organizations, and indigenous peoples now unified with the goal of demanding respect for our sacred natural sites through Motion 26. This proposal intends to protect our sacred sites from extractive industries, working to exclude all types of threats to the existence of these magic places.

The Congress is an important space in which only now indigenous peoples are starting to participate. We shared various events with indigenous peoples from Asia, Africa, Russia, and of course Hawaii. This helped us understand that we indigenous peoples all have the same fight. It is illuminating to learn that in other parts of the world our brothers and sisters are also struggling to demand their collective, territorial, and human rights. This warms our hearts because as the U’wa Nation says, this fight is never going to end and must be maintained.

It was a beautiful opportunity for me to work with other indigenous women who are also leading efforts for territorial defense and international advocacy. I believe it was a marvelous gathering that created and strengthened bonds, generating a special kind of exchange of ancestral and cultural wisdom. This helps create more unity and bonding for strong collaboration in the future.

Within the Congress we advocated for the need for recognition of the reality that prior to the creation of natural protected areas, our spiritual relationship to our sacred sites existed. We are guardians of these lands because such is the mandate of Original Law, Sira’s Law. It must be recognized that for time immemorial we have conserved our territories, though at least in the Colombian case the government has not recognized the fundamental role of our traditional authorities as legitimate environmental authorities.

As the U’wa Nation, we have hope that the heart of non-indigenous mankind will change, that you will understand life is only possible if we maintain both a spiritual and natural balance. Together, we will continue in the defense of our Mother Earth as sister peoples. Let’s hold up our bastones (ceremonial batons) high, for the defense of Mother Earth!

Members of the U’wa Indigenous Guard exercise territorial control during the peaceful mobilization of the U’Wa people. Laguna Grande de la Sierra, Zizuma – PNN El Cocuy, March 2016. Photo by Tatiana Vila / Kinorama Productions.