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Indigenous leader Danilo Villafañe dies at 49 in trying to save drowning women in Colombia

Danilo Villafañe in the Sierra Madre in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Danilo Villafañe in the Sierra Madre in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Danilo Villafañe, an Arhuaco Indigenous leader renowned for his efforts to protect the “Heart of the World” in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, died on Christmas Day while trying to rescue two women who were drowning. He was 49.
  • According to reports, Villafañe drowned while attempting to aid two young women who were caught in rough seas near the mouth of the Palomino River.
  • Villafañe, who served as the governor of the Arhuaco, originally gained prominence for his work to protect the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta from deforestation and colonization.

Danilo Villafañe, a respected Arhuaco Indigenous leader known for his dedication to protecting the ‘Heart of the World’ in the Sierra Nevada of Colombia, died on Christmas Day at the age of 49. He was attempting to rescue two young women from drowning, who were struggling in the turbulent waters near the Palomino River mouth. 15-year-old Erika Izquierdo Chaparro also lost her life in the incident.

Danilo Villafañe in the Sierra Madre in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Danilo Villafañe in the Sierra Madre in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Villafañe, who held the position of governor among the Arhuaco, rose to prominence through his vigorous efforts to shield the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta from deforestation and colonization. He was a vocal proponent for Indigenous rights and culture, a commitment underscored by his participation in the U.N. climate summit in Dubai earlier this month.

His activism often placed him in opposition to formidable foes, including paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug traffickers, and land speculators. His dedication followed in the footsteps of his father, Adalberto Villafañe, who was assassinated in 1996 while working to reclaim Indigenous territories from coca plantations.

The news of Villafañe’s death has prompted widespread mourning. Condolences have been extended by Colombia’s current president, Gustavo Petro, as well as former presidents Álvaro Uribe and Iván Duque.

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Mark Plotkin, the ethnobotanist who co-founded the Amazon Conservation Team and worked closely with Villafañe, paid tribute to the Indigenous leader.

“Danilo had an almost unique ability to befriend people from all walks of life, and all parts of the economic and political spectrum,” Plotkin told Mongabay. “He was relentlessly cheerful and dedicated, often in the face of daunting challenges and real danger.”

“He died as he lived: a fearless hero, trying to help others.”

Villafañe is survived by his wife and two daughters, aged four and five.

Danilo Villafañe in the Sierra Madre in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Danilo Villafañe in the Sierra Madre in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

OBITUARY – Danilo Villafañe (1974-2023): A Guardian’s Farewell

In the emerald shadows of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a profound loss echoes through the mountains. Danilo Villafañe, an Arhuaco Indigenous leader of unwavering conviction, passed away on Christmas Day, aged 49, in a selfless act of heroism. Villafañe drowned while trying to rescue two young women from the waters where the Palomino River meets the Caribbean Sea. The 15-year-old Erika Izquierdo Chaparro also died in the incident.

Villafañe, embodying the Arhuaco spirit, held the revered position of governor among his people. He rose to prominence as a vigilant protector of the Sierra Nevada, known to its inhabitants as the ‘Heart of the World.’ His relentless efforts to shield this sacred land from deforestation and colonization mirrored the endeavors of his late father, Adalberto, who was assassinated in 1996 while working to reclaim Indigenous territories from coca barons.

A voice for Indigenous rights, Villafañe’s legacy transcends borders, evidenced by his participation in international gatherings, including this month’s climate summit in Dubai. His activism at times pitted him against formidable adversaries, including paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Yet, his resolve never wavered, underscoring a profound connection to his land and people.

The news of Villafañe’s death has sparked a wave of mourning, reaching the highest echelons of Colombian politics. President Gustavo Petro, alongside former presidents Álvaro Uribe and Iván Duque, extended heartfelt condolences, reflecting his influence across political divides.

Danilo Villafañe near Don Diego in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Danilo Villafañe near Don Diego in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Villafañe’s personal life was as rich as his public persona, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. His leadership in integrating his community into the management of Tayrona Park, a jewel of the Colombian Caribbean coast, marked just one of many achievements in his journey.

The Arhuaco, descendants of the Tayrona civilization, are custodians of an ancient wisdom that reveres the Sierra Nevada as a spiritual epicenter. Their Mamos and Mamas, through rituals and meditations, strive to maintain the planet’s equilibrium, countering the disruptive forces of modern exploitation. The Sierra, a unique ecological marvel, stands as a testament to their enduring stewardship.

In Villafañe’s passing, we are reminded not only of life’s fragility but also of the enduring beacon of hope he represents. His life’s work, deeply interwoven with the fate of the Sierra Nevada, continues to inspire a global call for environmental and cultural preservation. In the heart of the Sierra, the spirit of Danilo Villafañe lingers, a guardian whose legacy will guide future stewards of our shared Earth.

Danilo Villafañe on the beach near Don Diego in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Danilo Villafañe on the beach near Don Diego in Colombia in 2010. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
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