The Kogi are relics of a pre-Columbian civilization, one of very few peoples who have remained separate from the European influences that have shaped the history of South America. They continue to live in austere traditional homes and wear only their homespun cotton clothes, as they have done for unknown generations. They follow their ancient belief system, in which Aluna is the mystical world in which reality is conceived. Their homeland, a great massif in coastal Columbia called Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, is rugged and remote enough to have preserved their isolation for hundreds of years.
This same geography is also responsible for providing the Kogi with a unique view of environmental degradation and climate change, since their mountains, which rise from the tropical waters of the Caribbean shoreline to over 18,000 feet (5,700 m), are home to nearly every type of ecological zone in the world. To the Kogi, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of the world, and their spiritual leaders, Mamos, have been entrusted with its care. But over these recent decades they have witnessed so much change and destruction that they—who call themselves Elder Brothers to the Younger Brother of the West—feel they must step forth and engage with the West in order to impart a message, a warning, a lesson: our way of life is destroying the world, and we must learn to see the earth in a new way.
They have decided that the best way to communicate may be through the West's medium of choice: film. And to this end, they have teamed with documentary filmmaker Alan Ereira to make a documentary in which the Kogi hope to show us the way they see the world. As it's described on the film's website:
In the face of the approaching apocalypse, they will take us on a perilous journey into the mysteries of their sacred places to change our understanding of reality. It is a journey encountering the dangers, the terrors, the power of the force that they perceive as driving reality, and which is now being torn apart and about to be released not as benevolent life, but as savage chaos. This is an epic tale in which the struggles of other-worldly heroes, invoked in fearsome masked and costumed rituals, are interwoven with the contemporary crisis. They intend to show that their work has visible and measurable results, that they really are taking care of the entire Earth.
They have even trained an indigenous film crew to work alongside the professionals, so that what the modern film crew cannot see may appear to the camera. The Mamos (spiritual leaders) understand that they have to do this because humanity is wantonly destroying sacred sites for profit. They want to show how and why the resulting eruption of chaotic cosmic energy causes climate change, epidemics of new diseases, geological instability and a relentless increase in murderous conflict.
The Kogi have warned us of climate change once before, in an earlier documentary initiated by Ereira for British television in 1990. Ereira's film, From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brothers' Warning, seems to have come before it's time, since, as the Kogi realized, we didn't listen to them the first time.
The Guardian interviews Jacinto Zarabata, the first Kogi to visit the UK, to find backing for their own film, Aluna:
What are Jacinto's first impressions of our society?
"The first thing that is noticeable to me is that this is still the world," he says. "What's visible is construction, what you have made. This is not something we, the Kogi, are used to seeing. You give precedence to the use of a thing rather than its source. That's the intellectual error. Ultimately, it's all nature." From Jacinto's viewpoint, when we glance at a car we might assess its cost and the status conferred on its driver. We don't recognise it as a clever piece of engineering of resources that once lay inside the earth.
The Kogi are witnessing some of this extraction first hand. Coal mining in the Sierra Nevada has boomed in recent decades (fuelled in part by the demand for cheap foreign coal in post-miners' strike Britain). Over centuries, they survived the wars waged on them by retreating further into the mountains, through dense rainforest and cloud forest dubbed "El Infierno" by settlers. There are still no roads to the Kogi's traditional settlements (Jacinto's home does not exist on official maps), but global capitalism is slowly conquering the Kogi's isolation.
Why is little brother so greedy? Jacinto chuckles and rubs his gourd, a sign he is thinking. (The mushroom shaped cap on the gourd, which men carry to symbolise their connection with the womb, is a sign of his accumulated thought.) "Habit," he says, finally. "That ambition to have more doesn't have a framework. It's just a drive to accumulate. The habit is a competitive one. 'What everyone else has I must have too, otherwise everyone else has power over me.' The consequences are evident, but it doesn't seem obvious to you," Jacinto says. "You can go and live in space, that's fine, but you don't seem to be able to go back to the understanding of how to live harmoniously with the earth. That's something you've forgotten."
Yet the Kogi hope we can still reconnect, by seeing the value they place on thinking and their spiritual world. "When you understand that, you begin to understand yourself a bit more," Jacinto says. "Originally, the great mama brought us into being so we would be guardians of nature. You, the little brother, was given this knowledge of how to treat the earth and the water and the air. At some point there was divergence and you, the little brother, went on a different path.
"We, by example, don't live like you do. You come to the Sierra, there are no factories, there is no industrial agriculture. Now we really want you to look at the images of how we live."