A world in balance: lessons learned from the Kogi


The modern world of sustainability has much to learn from one of the world’s oldest cultures, writes Bram Ebus.

“You who arrive from the outside don’t know anything. You look around without understanding of how a tree grows or how to take care of it,” says Santiago, a young indigenous Kogi man. As a member of the last functioning civilisation of pre-Colombian America, Santiago knows what he is talking about. Having previously left the community to work in a travelling circus and learn Spanish, he has chosen to return to his calling – to live in equilibrium with the earth.

Kogi territory

Just 26 miles off the Caribbean coast of Colombia, the majestic peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rise up triumphantly. Deep inside the world’s highest coastal mountain range lie swathes of desert, cloud forests and tropical rainforests. Welcome to the bountiful home of the Kogi, descendants of the pre-conquest Tayrona natives.


The 20,000-strong indigenous group remains one of the few existing examples of surviving ancient cultures. The Kogi owes its dogged survival to the strong preser- vation of traditional customs, intolerance towards others and the remoteness of its community, buried in the depths of the Sierra Nevada. Tomb raiders who have raked parts of the land for golden artefacts left by the ancient culture, call the jungle “el infierno” (the hell) because of its density and humidity.

In the 16th century, when the Spanish conquistadors arrived at Colombia’s northern shores in their quest for gold, the Kogi defied their violent influx by moving higher up into the mountains. The Spanish aren’t the only adversaries they have had to face and the modern-day equivalents they have coped with include missionaries, drug barons and armed guerrillas. But now the Kogi faces its most forbidding enemy to date: climate change.

Under threat of climate change and an industrious uprising, Colombia is one of the Latin American countries most affected by global warming. This year’s rainy season simply “never arrived” in the coastal region of northern Colombia says Francisco, a local leader of one of the many Kogi communities. According to Colombia’s Health Institute, more people are dying as a result of drought and dirty water than as a result of the country’s armed conflicts. Some people blame El Niño – a weather phenomenon which influences the amount of rainfall, causing drought, soil-fertility problems and ultimately affecting access to clean drinking water.


The proximity of environmental degradation has also taken a heavy toll on Kogi culture and its connection with earth and nature. Mining, illegal logging and infrastructure activities continue to blight the region alongside an increase in the number of landslides and earthquakes. Todd Howland, representative in Colombia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently warned that almost 40 indigenous groups face extinction as a consequence of increased mining activity in the country.

But this news comes as no surprise to the Kogi elders and spiritual leaders known as ‘Mamos’. A Mamo spends most of his childhood in the dark, and only sees the light of the moon. During his nocturnal childhood, he receives an extensive education about cosmic consciousness and how to keep the world in balance. Makenomistake,theKogiareraisedwithgreatresponsibility.The Kogi are, in their beliefs, guardians of the heart of the earth. They confidently perceive themselves as the ‘elder brother’ while the rest of us are the ‘younger brother’. They believe the elder brother has the responsibility to advise the younger brother.

A message from the elder brother

The Kogi have always warned of climate change and fear that the younger brother’s hunger for energy and commodities is “cutting out the eyes and ears” of our Mother Earth. Very few Colombians have heeded their warnings but this is not the case for a small group of spiritual and cultural migrants who have been dubbed the ‘hippy-Kogi’. The contemporary understanding of the ‘hippy’ stereotype, the flower power-drenched subculture with its origins in the 1960s, would do an injustice to these clean-living nature-lovers.

One hippy-Kogi, Silfo Cifuentes, found a way to quieten all the spiritual questions that plagued his consciousness in his early 20s. Born in Cali, a major city in the south-west of Colombia, Cifuentes chose to live and learn with the Kogi. He explained that the hippy-Kogi are people who want to return to a life with Mother Earth. “In reality, our plan was to become like the indigenous people and demonstrate that men and women from our civilisation can return to nature,” he explained.

How the Kogi survives

The Kogi are the living embodiment of man coexisting harmoniously with nature. The group maintains a respectful attitude towards its small food crops – behaviour that is forged in childhood. Community decisions on what we term ‘sustain- ability’ have long been a way of Kogi life. For example, various Kogi communities have banned the keeping of cattle due to its effects on the land.

The Kogi have never developed a written language nor migrated outside of their territories but there is still an immense amount of intellectual richness to be found within their culture. Having survived centuries in isolation, the people possess a deep knowledge of the natural world’s interconnectedness.

Although the Kogi may have a completely different concept of the world to academia, both spiritually and astrologically, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Alan Ereira’s recent film about the Kogi, ‘Aluna’, showed that river scientists are beginning to accept that ecological effects travel and the estuary of a river does indeed affect the source. This is something the Kogi have been aware of since time immemorial. It’s an unassailable fact that port constructions and infrastructural expansions on the Caribbean coast have a knock-on effect in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The Kogi have many lessons to teach the corporate world about respecting the often invisible interconnectedness of ecosystems.

An example of human ambition coexisting with a respect for nature can be seen in the construction of Ciudad Perdida (the ‘Lost City’) by the Kogi’s ancestors, the Tayrona. The massive urban complex is thought to have been inhabited by between 2,000 and 8,000 people. Built around AD800 and discovered in 1972, the Lost City covers a vast area of which only a small part has so far been explored. The most important lesson to be learned is how the massive structures of the Lost City remain seemingly unaffected by nature’s course over the centuries. The coexistence between the Lost City and nature is something huge industrial structures don’t share. In the contemporary world, a process of urbanisation is often at the expense of nature. The Lost City, however, shows how a densely populated community coexisted with nature without destroying it. When the Spanish came, the Lost City was abandoned but after more than 400 years, water still hasn’t managed to erode the structures mingled with nature.

The Kogi treat the Sierra Nevada as a single system. They practise slash-and-burn agriculture and maintain farms at various altitudes, making long journeys between them on a daily basis. The different crops provide them with a rich and healthy diet. There is a symbiotic relationship between their agriculture and the ecosystem; all crops are small-scale and don’t interfere with native vegetation. The seeds are blessed before being planted and Mother Earth is asked for permission. Nowadays, the Kogi trade on a limited scale in produce such as yucca and coffee but adhere to strict rules put in place by the Mamos.

As Colombia opens up to foreign investment for extractive megaprojects, climate change is increasingly affecting one of the world’s most biodiverse countries. The Kogi know and always knew how to maintain a world in balance. The future will decide if they can maintain autonomy in their sacred lands. What is certain is that we – the younger brother – will need to address the concerns of our elder brother in the coming decades.


One of the most interesting customs of the Kogi is their use of the ‘poporo’: a hollowed-out gourd. Sea shells collected from Caribbean beaches are roasted and ground to form powdered lime which is then stored in the gourd. The men chew coca leaves and use a stick to extract lime from the poporo and add it to the leaves in their mouth. Chewing the two together produces a mild narcotic effect. Once the mixture has been chewed for a while, it creates a type of cement which the men spread around the outside of the gourd so that over time, it grows in size. The poporo serves several purposes, some practical and some spiritual. On a practical side, it gives the men energy to walk and work at very high altitudes. Spiritually, it acts as a rite of passage as it is given to boys when they reach puberty and accompanies them throughout their life. They believe that chewing the leaves helps them to grow; as the poporo grows, so does the wisdom of the man who carries it.