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Where Development will lead to Mass Suicide

By Monica del Pilar Uribe Marin

"Our law is to take no more than is necessary; we are like the Earth that feeds itself from all living beings, but that never takes too much because, i f it did, all would come to an end. We must care for, not maltreat, because for us it is forbidden to kil l with knives, machetes or bullets. Our weapons are thought, the word, our power is wisdom. We prefer death before seeing our sacred ancestors profaned." - the U'wa people.

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The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 1, January/February 1999 WHERE DEVELOPMENT WIL L LEA D TO MASS SUICID E

The presence in Washington of Roberto Afanador Cobaria, President of the Association of Traditional U'wa Authorities, before different international bodies demonstrates yet another of his community's determined last-ditch efforts to fight for its rights to an independent existence. In Colombia, the U'wa have a culture that is one of the most deeply rooted in tradition. Today that culture is on the verge of extinction, and the U'wa people, unprepared to compromise their ways to accommodate a fundamentally destructive 'development' pattern, are threatening to commit collective tribal suicide.

Central to U'wa philosophy is the importance of accumulated ancestral environmental knowledge. With that knowledge, passed down through the generations, comes an understanding of and respect for the workings of nature, and a means not only of surviving, but of flourishing as a people. Thousands of years old, U'wa culture is rich in myths, chants and poetry, all of which form part of what they describe as the "permanent

ritual of life".

The U'wa oral tradition, which plays an elemental role in learning, has absorbed the changes that followed the Conquest, the colonial period and Colombia's republican life. An underlying theme has been the notion of the Riowa (the Whites) and their goals of possessing all the riches of the world. Nevertheless the U'wa have survived the passing of centuries on account of never having abandoned their chants and rituals, the two most important of which are the chanted myths of El Reowa - the ritual processes of purification - and El Aya, which is celebrated after El Reowa, for the purpose of maintaining the order of the cosmos and those beings that inhabit it.

Residing in the mountains, the U'wa maintain communion with the different levels of the universe, the spiritual and the physical worlds, through their spiritual leaders, the Werjayaas, to whom the utmost respect is paid. It is they who read daily and cyclical events through the eyes of their ancestors, and i t is they who act as guardians of ancestral knowledge. Their purpose is simply to maintain harmony between the forest, the garden, man and spirit. The world-view of the U'wa, like those of all traditional peoples, is tied intricately to the land of their ancestors, the environment of which they see themselves to be an inseparable part, and the spirits that they have come to know, and which govern the order of the cosmos. To be severed from their place, to be removed from the context of the stories which they have passed down from generation to generation, is to be killed as a people, and is, as they have made very clear, a fate worse than death.

To be severed from their place, to be removed from the context of the stories which they have passed down from generation to generation, is to be killed as a people, and is, as they have made very clear, a fate worse than death.

The cosmological beliefs of the U'wa, together with their religious, mythical and poetic knowledge has always kept them both immersed in the actual world and yet united firmly to that of the spirits. Anthropologist, Ann Osborn, explains that "the acts of the ancestors and the gods are recreated every instant through daily practice as well as in the very special temples with the celebration of principle rites ... The U'wa exist somewhere between the two ancestral divinities, Kaba-Yaya and Thira (Sira), which both represent and embody the delicate balance between the lower and upper extremes of the cosmos. Their role for the most part is to maintain that equilibrium and they must propitiate in the correct and timely unravelling of the processes that take place within the universe through mediating the celebration of the chanted myths and through ensuring that one's life is governed by the rules of balance and harmony. I f that equilibrium is broken, the consequences are the very reverse of order: red moves upwards and invades the white, all of which signifies the end of the universe."

According to myth, Yagshowa handed over the newly created world to the U'wa, to the Werjayaas and chiefs. With the handing over of the world, the Werjayaas were charged also with the responsibility of ensuring that cosmic harmony be maintained. To that end, they were granted the unique ability to communicate with the gods, the different worlds and the spirits. I t is they who carry the necessary knowledge of how to recite and chant the myths; it is they who understand the reasons for sickness and death, and i t is they who must act to restore the natural order in the event that sickness arises.

Recent colonization has nevertheless brought with it a loss of lands and encroachment, with the result that after the demise of the Biribira and the Ruba that once lived in Chiscas, Guican, El Cocuy

The Ecologist, Vol. 29, No 1, January/February 1999

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