Emblematic Case: Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

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We are one with the water, with the earth, with the air, with the sun, with the thoughts, with the heart, with the spirit, with the body. We are one with the plants, the animals, the minerals and the diversity of humanity. We take all this into our hearts and say, uni dawa-wa. For eternity… the vision of over 100,000 people living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the Heart of the World.

Ati Quigua, Colombia

The Linea Negra that surrounds the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta for Indigenous Peoples is the “Heart of the Earth.” Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is defined by the sacred sites of the Linea Negra (the Black Line), a ring of 54 sacred sites around the base of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that form the boundary of the ancestral territory of the region’s four Indigenous Peoples: Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kankumano, direct descendants of the Tayrona culture, who built the pre-Columbian cities.

On 6 August 2018 the Colombian State issued Decree 1500 which outlines the special protections granted to the four indigenous tribes and their territory within the Linea Negra an area globally consider to be highly sacred by Indigenous Peoples – the Heart of the Earth. It is also of highly important globally in terms of its environmental value.


Map of the Linea Negra
Source: Amazon Conservation Trust

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is an isolated mountain range that is separate from the Andes. It is one of the world’s highest coastal ranges. The highest peaks being Pico Cristóbal Colón and Pico Simón Bolívar reaching around 5,775 meters above sea level. They are 42 km (26 miles) from the Caribbean Coast. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta extends 17,000 Km between the departments of Cesar, Guajira and Magdalena. The lower regions are occupied by peasant farming communities and the medium and higher regions by indigenous peoples Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kankuamo and Koguí.

Indigenous Peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

The Indigenous Peoples of the Sierra Nevada, similar to other regions in Colombia, have suffered from recurrent, systematic and massive violations of their fundamental individual and collective rights. In 2009 the Colombian Constitutional Court in Auto 004 de 2009 declared several indigenous Peoples at risk of physical and cultural extinction these included the Wiwa Kankuamo’s.  The Court stated they “are in danger of being exterminated culturally or physically because of the internal armed conflict and have been victims of grave violations of their fundamental individual and collective rights and of violations of International Humanitarian Law, all of which has resulted in individual or group forced displacement.

The Heart of the Earth – Linea Negra

On 6 August 2018 Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed Decree 1500 of 6 August 2018 recognising the ancestral territory of the Indigenous Peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, as defined by the sacred sites of the Linea Negra (Black Line), a ring of 54 sacred sites around the base of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that forms the boundary of the ancestral territory of the region’s four Indigenous Peoples: Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kankumano, direct descendants of the Tayrona culture, who built the pre-Columbian cities.

The Linea Negra is a symbolic divide between the visible and the invisible world set down by the tribal people. Not all the 54 sacred sites are currently under the control of the Indigenous Tribes as they were forced off their lands by decades of colonization and violent internal conflict. Many of their sacred sites are now endangered by megaprojects, large infrastructure projects and mining activity.

The Ministry of the Interior Decree 1500 of 6 August 2018 delimiting the Linea Negra was issued in compliance with several orders dictated by the Constitutional Court including Auto 189 of 2013. The stated objective of Decree 1500 is to ‘redefine the ancestral territory of the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa and Kankuamo peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, expressed in the system of sacred spaces of the “Black Line -Sheshiza”, as a traditional, with special protections for its spiritual, cultural and environmental value, as well as establishing measures and guarantees for the [Indigenous Peoples] effective protection, in accordance with the principles and foundations of the Law of Origin of these peoples…’

The stated purpose of Decree 1500 is to protect the environmental and cultural wealth of an ecosystem highly vulnerable to climate change and other social factors. Thus providing measures of protect under the law for the ancestral territory demarcated by the Black Line, including tools for safeguarding and protection for the cultural heritage and institutions of these four peoples, including their “life plans” (which are indigenous development plans based on their Cosmovision) and to “establish agreements for protection and maintenance of the System of Sacred Spaces with the different territorial entities of local, regional and national authorities.

To guarantee legal security, the decree creates a monitoring mechanism for the protection of the Black Line, made up of the governors of Cesar, Guajira and Magdalena, Regional Autonomous Corporations (CARs), National Government and indigenous communities. Likewise, the Public Ministry participates as guarantor.

In outlining the contents of the Decree 1500, both the then President and the then Minister of the Interior stressed that Decree 1500 does not violate private property or the acquired rights of third parties and ethnic communities. Nor does it regulate or modify prior consultation in the territory and the indigenous communities do not become environmental authorities and it therefore cannot modify the use of land and subsoil.

Global Importance for Biodiversity & Climate Change

The Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology of France – published by the journal Science – analysed over 170,000 places globally and concluded that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the place with the highest concentration of threatened mammals, birds, fish and amphibians on the Earth. It is therefore an irreplaceable ecosystem that has been looked after and protected until now by the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada. Furthermore, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park has been designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere reserve.

The Sierra has wetlands, mangroves, tropical rainforest, dry forests, high mountain forests, moors and glaciers, ecosystems that are largely vulnerable to climate change. The area of the Sierra glacial area in 2018 lost 5.5% of its coverage in 2018, leaving only 6.7 km of glacier according to Ideam.  According to the former President Santos, during the last century there has been an accelerated decline in the native ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada. He pointed out that the Sierra is a hydro-graphic star that has 35 rivers supplying aqueducts which in turn provide water to 1.5 million Colombians.

Its spiritual and cultural significance for the Indigenous Peoples as the Heart of the Earth, along with its importance for the world in terms of climate change and biodiversity means that this area should be receive special protection. Until the Indigenous Peoples have achieved limited recognition and protection in Decree 1500.

This case study will have various chapters added to it over time