'Barrier' villages rise to protect land of Colombia's indigenous people

The indigenous name of this tiny village of thatch-roofed homes on the northwestern slopes of Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta means "where knowledge is stored."

For decades, this sacred place of knowledge and wisdom had been lost to the Arhuaco Indians who once made spiritual offerings here. Expanding peasant colonization had driven the indigenous communities higher up the mountain.

But now, thanks to an unusual convergence of interests, the Arhuacos have returned to their fountain of wisdom by founding Kankawarwa (pronounced Kan-ka-WAHR-wuh) using government money and support.

This mountain village is the sixth of 10 "barrier" villages being built by the Colombian government in a pact between President Alvaro Uribe and the joint governing council of the four different indigenous tribes that share these mountains: the Arhuaco, Kogi, Wiwa, and Kankuamo. Once completed, the 10 villages will effectively form a new buffer zone between indigenous lands and private property owners in the foothills of the mountains.

"From here on up, you are the ones in charge of protecting the environment," Uribe told the Arhuaco, Kogi and Wiwa Indians at the recent inauguration of the village, sweeping his hand toward the high mountain peaks. "You are the best cultivators of the forests, the best protectors of the water."

That's what they had been trying to tell a succession of governments for decades, repeatedly asking for financial and legal support to reoccupy the lowlands by buying off lands owned by peasants and coca leaf farmers. Private donors have been helping the four indigenous groups buy back almost 90,000 acres in an effort to protect the ecologically fragile midlands and highlands in an area these groups consider to be the heart of the world.

Seeing environmental, political, and security advantages, the Uribe government joined the effort, buying land and funding the construction of the new ring of villages.

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