Indigenous Environmentalism is Calling,

Science Fails to Respond

By Michele Affinito | Magazine | November 13, 2021

Cover Illustration: Small nipa huts in the mountains of Magdalena, Colombia. Unsplash

Humanity has become too detached from nature, and so has science. From the Global North to the Global South, humanity in the 21st century shares the idea of progress as an arrow pointing towards the future. However, in one corner of the world, a hidden civilization views the world through a different lens. In an isolated triangle of land in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, lives an indigenous population whose words we would do well to heed: the Kogi. For the Kogi people, progress goes hand-in-hand with the past: as generations succeed each other, knowledge of the past is the key to access the secrets of the world we live in. 

This idea might be met with doubts in our modern society that owes so much to scientific progress. However, the science that has facilitated astonishing miracles and technological advancement is also the one which has been incapable of addressing environmental injustice. The scientific community cannot stomach their lack of control over nature, it tears it into pieces while ignoring the consequences of these actions. This is the reason why industrialized humanity must put aside its scientific pride and listen to the words of people in close contact with nature.

The Kogi are one of the last surviving pre-colonial civilizations in Colombia, whose geographic position has allowed them to preserve their traditions and way of life. In a 2012 documentary called Aluna, the Kogi go into more detail about their beliefs. Aluna represents “The Great Mother”, whom they see as the creator and force of nature. They believe that their mission is to protect the earth, a mission rendered practically impossible by our destructive behavior. They see the Earth as a living being, and humans as its children, viewing themselves as Elder Brothers and humans outside their civilization as Younger Brothers. In this documentary, the Kogi decide to address their Younger Brother and warn “him” of the consequences of “his” actions on the environment. Thousands of years of observing nature have made the Kogi experts in environmental conservation, despite the skepticism that many scientists still have towards their culture.

Their different conception of knowledge gives the Kogi a quality that modern science has long lost: humility. The Kogi do not stress an idea of superiority of their knowledge, but choose to focus on a red thread linking nature together. Their mission is to prevent the thread from breaking. We are under the impression that humanity can snip this thread, and with the help of technology, it can simply be stitched back together when needed. These snippets of the thread can be sold, rented or commodified. We tell ourselves how majestic nature looks on TV from the comfort of our homes.

As the world looks attentively at politicians making ambitious promises at the COP26 in Glasgow, we are still not ambitious enough to recognize the limits of science. If we are not able to transcend scientific boundaries to understand the interconnections among natural phenomena, if we continue to treat science as a set of different disciplines, it will be part of the problem, as much as we want it to be the solution. 

We are part of the ecosystems that we long to protect: protecting them means protecting us. Indigenous knowledge and its conception of nature is crucial to tackle the climate crisis and to reestablish a healthy relationship with nature. We must expect more from science: more humility, more cooperation, more respect for nature. Science can and must become the solution. 

“The world is our mother. If we destroy it, where will we live?”. – Kongi people, Aluna (2012)

“The world is our mother. If we destroy it, where will we live?”.

This phrase, said by a member of the Kogi tribe in Aluna (2012), is aimed at all of us, and still holds the same power nine years later. Every day, indigenous peoples around the world fight the battle for environmental justice for all of humanity, and remind us that nature’s struggle for survival is our struggle for survival. So, let’s do better.

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