- Jose de los Santos Sauna Limaco, a political leader of the Kogi peoples of the Sierra Nevada of Colombia, died last week of COVID-19. He was 44.
- Santos Sauna is one of several indigenous leaders who’ve fallen during the pandemic. Mark Plotkin, an ethnobotanist who founded the Amazon Conservation Team, says the world is a poorer place with the loss of people like Santos Sauna.
- “Not only have the Kogis lost a great, wise and inspiring leader, but so has the entire world,” Plotkin writes. “Those of us who were blessed enough to know him will mourn him forever.”
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Sunday – Indigenous Peoples’ Day – felt like anything but a celebration. We are supposed to be celebrating and honoring Indigenous Peoples but – instead – we are mourning the passing of many fallen friends and colleagues. The infernal Covid virus threatens everyone, everywhere – but it is decimating marginalized communities the hardest. And of these marginalized communities, the Indigenous groups often seem to be suffering the most.
Here in the US, Covid-19 is ravaging the Navajo Nation, unbeknownst to most Americans who have been besieged with news stories on how the virus was on the rampage in places like New York and Houston. The lack of access to timely information and adequate western health care as well as the malnutrition that almost always spikes upward after contact with the industrialized world combine to make these unfortunate friends and colleagues relatively easy prey for this killer virus.
And there exists another aspect of this lethal microbe which makes it seem an embodiment of evil: it is slaying some of Native America’s most important voices and heroes. In June, it felled the great Kayapo Chief Paulinho Paiakan who was one of the first to have emerged from the Brazilian Amazon in 1970s to warn of the dangers of rainforest destruction. Antonio Bolivar, who played the unforgettable shaman in “Embace of the Serpent,” had passed away in Colombia just before that. Chief Aritana Yawalapiti of the Xingu– one of the world’s most charismatic and effective spokespersons for the rights of Indigenous peoples – perished last week. And just a few days ago, our beloved friend and colleague Jose de los Santos Sauna Limaco of the Kogi peoples passed away, two years to the day after cosigning a decree to protect the “Linea Negra,” the invisible line that connects the sacred sites of the Kogis.
With the exception of Antonio Bolivar, I had the honor and privilege of having known these three extraordinary people – of these, I knew Santos the best. Suffice it to say he was one of the most remarkable and truly inspiring people I have ever met. He was kind, generous, patient, insightful and wise. Santos was a truly spellbinding orator – and I never use those terms lightly.
Today, his remains were flown to the heights of the sacred mountain that was his home. Not only have the Kogis lost a great, wise and inspiring leader, but so has the entire world. Those of us who were blessed enough to know him will mourn him forever.