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Colombian shamans want to restore traditional power via national network

by Maximo Anderson on 14 August 2017

A Colombian organization known by the acronym CAAENOC is comprised of 35 elders from across Colombia.

CAAENOC seeks to revive an ancient shamanic network that had existed for thousands of years until the 1600s.

Employing indigenous beliefs in the spiritual realm, shamans in Colombia are attempting to restore the natural balance of the world based on a holistic concept of cosmology, land, memory and justice.

Known as derechos mayores (or higher authority), at the local level, it seeks to restore the traditional place of the shaman within indigenous communities as the political and spiritual leaders of the tribe.
SASAIMA, Colombia – On April 1, floods devastated the Colombian town of Mocoa, situated in a rural southwestern corner of the country between the Amazon jungle and the Andean foothills. That day, record high rainfalls caused huge landslides that killed 329 people.

Unfortunately, it was a tragedy foretold.

The state environmental department had put a warning out about the threat nine months previously, stating that deforestation coupled with inadequate town planning and erratic weather caused by climate change would sooner or later cause a huge disaster.

Among the victims of the Mocoa tragedy were a number of shamans who formed part of a little-known national council of Colombian shamans that goes by its Spanish acronym, CAAENOC. When word got out about their deaths, a CAAENOC delegation traveled across the country to help out in the aftermath of the disaster, which took weeks.

Formed in 2008, CAAENOC is an organisation of 35 shamans from across Colombia’s diverse regions, from the Amazon basin to the far northern sierras and deserts of its Caribbean coast. The council seeks to revive an ancient shamanic network that had existed for thousands of years until the 1600s, when settlers began to divide, conquer and even hunt its indigenous population.

Employing indigenous beliefs in the spiritual realm, CAAENOC is attempting to restore the natural balance of the world based on a holistic concept of cosmology, land, memory and justice, known as derechos mayores (or higher authority). At the local level, it seeks to restore the traditional place of the shaman within indigenous communities as the political and spiritual leaders of the tribe – a position that has all but disappeared in modern day Colombia.

As part of its initiative, the council has led a select group, known as “walkers,” to travel up Colombia’s nine sacred mountaintops over the last decade in order to spiritually “cleanse” them – an elaborate pilgrimage to restore the damage done to the land over the last 500 years since the arrival of the first conquistadors.

Shamanism is often misunderstood. The classical definition of shamanism refers to an archaic religion that originated in Siberia and later spread throughout the native cultures of the Americas – from the Arctic Circle down to the Amazon jungle, and beyond. Nowadays, shamanism is associated with a romantic – and perhaps a fetishized – idea of a generic Indian sage, or at worst with new-age hucksters brandishing the title in order to peddle merchandise.

But the term shaman isn’t used in Colombia. They prefer Mayor, Mamo, Taita or Originario, which roughly translates to “wise one,” “sage” and “the first people.” Each community tends to have its own term for it, but what they all have in common is that the shaman holds a central position in the community as a spiritual leader, a storyteller and a doctor. Traditionally he would have been the political leader too.

Colombia has long been a pilgrimage site for shamanism, first popularized in the 1950s with William Burroughs’s beatnik experiments with ayahuasca, and then by the Harvard ethno-botanist Richard Schultz’s own forays into the jungle in the 1940s. Then came the psychedelic tourists of the hippy era, which has evolved today into the ayahuasca retreats found throughout South America offered by “shamans” or “medicine men.”

Whether authentic or not, it was a category that was first imposed on the indigenous population by anthropologists eager to make sense of cultures that they couldn’t fully grasp, and is now a title saturated by the global economy – a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Future plans
One of the leaders of the council, who has acted as a spokesman and traveled extensively, is Lorenzo Seuny Izquierdo Arroyo. Lorenzo is referred to reverently as Mamo Lorenzo, or the wise Lorenzo. He is an Arhuaco shaman from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains in the Caribbean, though he now lives on a farm two hours south of the Colombian capital of Bogota. Lorenzo moved here from the Sierra with his 11 children to have a central meeting point that would make it easier for shamans across the country to travel to.

For now, Lorenzo’s home acts as CAAENOC’s base, but the plan is to build a permanent office in Bogota, which is one of the nine sacred sites in Colombia. Soon, says Lorenzo, the council will publish a manifesto based on years of spiritual work and meetings, which will state CAAENOC’S mission and its directives as the “higher authority” of Colombia’s indigenous people.

CAAENOC is the fruit of a collaborative project between the Arhuaco community indigenous to the Sierra Nevada and a group from Bogota’s National University, called Region and Territory. The original aim of the project was to record the oral history of the Arhuaco, which went back 3,600 years – equivalent to over 90 generations. The Arhuaco share their ancestral land with 9 other indigenous clans, numbering more than 40,000.

One of the so-called philosopher tribes of Colombia, they believe themselves to be the guardians of the world (Arhuaco translates to “those who guard life”) and consider any upset in the natural balance of the world to be their responsibility. Existence itself is seen as upsetting the balance of the world; therefore it is their responsibility to make offerings and incantations to maintain that balance.

The Arhuaco have a mandate to restore the ancient alliances between tribes that had long been abandoned, which brought shamans from across the country together to trade goods, maintain alliances and share medicinal knowledge.

This mandate was based on a prophecy that the indigenous people of the Sierra Nevada all share: they foresaw that “brothers” from another continent would come to destroy their “alters” – everything they held sacred – and loot their gold. But there would be a rebirth, with Arhuacos of the Sierra at the helm.

This rebirth began with the pilgrimage to Colombia’s nine sacred mountaintops.

Examining national identity
The undertaking comes at a time when Colombia is redefining its national identity. With the official end of the longest-running conflict in the western hemisphere, the FARC guerrillas have retreated to 26 demobilization zones, leaving almost a third of the country that was previously occupied by the insurgency, or a no-mans-land, under the sovereignty of the state.

One of the unlikely positives of the civil war has been that it has conserved huge swaths of forest and impeded most mega development projects like hydroelectric dams and industrial goldmines.

Recently, environmental experts have argued that for Colombia to reach its Paris Climate goal of 20 per cent reduction of carbon emissions by 2020, the government needs to strengthen local governance, especially that of indigenous communities, who have best protected the land in the past (over 70 percent of Colombia’s indigenous people live in the countryside).

Colombia has the eighth largest forest cover on earth according to Global Forest Watch. In addition, close to half of Colombia’s carbon emissions are a result of deforestation related to agriculture and cattle ranching, according to a report by Mapping the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP). Massive invasion of national parks is also an issue, with 37 of its 59 parks currently affected.

Meanwhile, the National Planning Department calculates that Colombia could potentially save $2.4 billion if it controls the current level of environmental degradation, no small sum for a country that is currently grappling with a government budget deficit.

A new approach
Governments have largely ignored and disregarded indigenous knowledge in the past, since it was seen as parochial, and unscientific. This knowledge wasn’t deemed “useful,” but now that Earth is officially in the age of biological annihilation brought on by manmade climate change, experts are turning to indigenous communities to combat climate change. UN officials have stressed the need to incorporate traditional herding and climate forecasting methods, and some governments are beginning to listen, too.

In 2002, Australia set up the Bureau of Meteorology’s Indigenous Weather Knowledge, which uses aboriginal forecasting methods based on the observation of animal and plants. While science is often seen through a narrow purview, new research is blurring the lines. In the field of biological psychology and zoology, researchers have discovered that the African grey parrot, among other animals, also have consciousness and complex language systems. What was before considered mystical or folkloric is entering the mainstream.

One of the remarkable aspects of the shamanic tradition is the knowledge and history it can store. One community in southern Australia could describe mountains that had been under the ocean for more than 10,000 years. The Arhuaco have an oral history that goes back almost four thousand years, and it is only through their culture – through their shamanism, their myths and rituals – that this is possible.

Myths, stories of origin, and family histories are often interwoven and narrated in many different forms – from dances, to songs or painted. This form of recording history is astoundingly robust, but only insofar as the fabric of the community stays strong.

According to Duvan Murillo Escobar, an anthropologist and member of CAAENOC, this initiative is rescuing the traditional place of the shaman while also protecting an insurmountable wealth of ancient knowledge, which is increasingly threatened. One aspect of this is the loss of language – on average one language dies every 14 days worldwide.

Indigenous people, he says, have had to pick up arms in the past, lobby the government, and even join it. But this is a new form of resistance, which is in line with a broad cosmology and tradition that dates back millennia.

Still vulnerable
The disaster in Mocoa was a tragic reminder that mismanagement of the environment comes at a high cost. The only area that was left standing in the town was a patch of virgin forest, less than one square miles in area. Almost 400 municipalities around the country remain equally as vulnerable as Mocoa. If the government had acted quicker and heeded the warnings, then perhaps the disaster could have been avoided.

Though the council’s initiative is currently national, Lorenzo says that the goal is “global.” He has already traveled to the US, Chile and several European countries to swap ideas with other shamans and divulge the council’s teachings. CAAENOC was formed to conserve the collective knowledge and memory of Colombia’s shamans. It is a closed group that doesn’t share its esoteric knowledge and rituals with outsiders, and that is part of its strength.

Mamo Lorenzo believes his purpose is to look after the world and teach us how to live on it.

“I [left the mountains and came here] on purpose to divulge this message. The point is not to show but to remember,” he said. “We are losing our spirituality – the more technology we acquire the more we regress. We are becoming uncivilized…we used to be telepathic, we didn’t need cell phones,” he added.

Though Lorenzo owns a cell phone and uses Facebook, he says the essential role of the shaman hasn’t changed.

“We’ve had to adapt, our diet has changed – many things have changed,” he says. “Because of this, other mamos think they have lost the light of the sun. But that means they’ve lost the horizon, not the light.

Maximo Anderson is a freelance journalist and photographer currently based in Colombia. You can find him on Twitter at @MaximoLamar.

Shaman Hade Ramón Gil in the Talking Circle. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, 2014. Photo courtesy of Duvan Murillo Escobar
Banner [screenshot] image: Mamo Lorenzo with shaman Pachankachay in the Talking Circle (left to right). Valle de Saquenzipa, 2014. Photo courtesy of Duvan Murillo Escobar
“Walk of Recognition for the Ancient Homeland.” Valle de Saquenzipa, 2014. Photo courtesy of Duvan Murillo Escobar
Talking Circle. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, 2014. Photo courtesy of Cuvan Murillo Escobar

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