Beautiful Mother Earth

There are two rivers in the small village of Alto Guayabal, the smallest is turquoise in colour and is called Jancadía and the largest is amber-green in colour and is called Jiguamiandó which means river that brings fever in the Emberá indigenous language. The name does this area justice, as mosquitoes are rife and people often catch tropical diseases.

The Jai Katumá mountain, where the spirits of the Emberá people live, stands majestically in the distance. The 87 families in the community live in ranches on stilts to avoid the devastating impact of the waters during the rainy season. The roofs are made of zinc or braided grass, and in the houses there are large and colourful cloths, which the women use as cross-over skirts that they call parumas.

Alto Guayabal, Jiguamiandó, 2017
3.4% of Colombians (1.3 million people) identify as indigenous. Colombia has 102 different indigenous communities. The majority live in isolated areas. Indigenous people are in the midst of a critical situation; their territories have been invaded by settlers, landowners and drug traffickers; and many have been forcibly displaced by the armed conflict. Photo: Bianca Bauer

The village belongs to the Urada – Jiguamiandó indigenous territory. For the Emberá, the earth is sacred and they are its guardians. When they cut down a tree they plant five more – that is what is written in their community regulations – and they do not cut down trees near the river, nor do they shoot snakes into the stream because they could contaminate the waters with the poison. The river is life, there the community bathe, wash, play and collect water to drink. The jungle is life because there are wild animals to be hunted there. Thanks to their care, most of the 90,000 hectares of the territory still contain native forest. Each family uses only what is necessary to grow cassava, corn, plantain, rice and pineapple.

105 Alto Guyabal_BB
Under the constitutional reform that took place in 1991, indigenous people received significant legal and political recognition. Nowadays, 28% of the Colombian national territory contains 768 legally-recognised indigenous territories, totalling 30 million hectares. Indigenous peoples’ territories are among the best preserved regions with the greatest biodiversity in the country. This is not due to chance: traditional practices are more favourable for conservation than business activities aimed at obtaining profits. Photo: Bianca Bauer

The people of Alto Guayabal are the owners of this land, which is legally constituted as an indigenous reservation, a special category of land in Colombia. Still, mother earth has many enemies here. For four years, settlers have burned trees and replaced them with coca crops. They have built laboratories in the middle of the thick jungle where they process the leaves. The waste ends up in the colourful rivers and that is why there are days when bathing in the water causes itching and stains the skin, gives people diarrhoea when they drink it and makes the fish die.

Nowadays, men dressed in camouflage with guns and radios pass through the thick jungle.[1] For fear of bumping into them, the indigenous men do not go out with their lanterns to hunt at night, nor fish far from the village, which is why at times food is scarce.

They have already lived through one cycle of violence, and they fear that they will have to abandon their mother earth again to protect their lives, as they did once before in the year 2000, when after a military operation, the families ran away and only returned eight years later.

105. Kolko-consulta embera (3)

105. Kolko-consulta embera (4)
The Embera voted against mining in their territory. Photo: Kolko

The sacred mountain Jai Katumá is also a symbol of resistance. There is gold under the mountain; in fact, when they need money to buy salt and clothes, the Emberá come to the mountain and search for a sliver of gold, just as their ancestors did. But in 2009 a multinational company arrived with the Mande Norte project, and tried to occupy the mountain to take its gold. In response, Emberá women, men and children climbed Jai Katumá and stayed there for six weeks, demanding the departure of the army and the company workers. They took jaibanás, their traditional doctors, to call upon the spirits and scare the occupiers. In the end they were victorious. It was one more battle for the protection of their beautiful and abundant mother earth. The daughters and sons of these protectors of the jungle and the rivers run freely through the flourishing green environment, shouting with joy because they have not known the violence their parents faced and hopefully they never will.

Bianca Bauer


[1] In March 2017 more than 100 men from the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AGC) invaded the territory. El Espectador: Denuncian incursiones paramilitares en Chocó durante fin de semana, 13 March 2017

*Cover photo: Bianca Bauer

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