They said the gods smiled upon us long enough to complete our task. Then the rain came. We sailed down the Apaporis River, away from La Libertad, a sacred waterfall considered to be the origin of life for the seven ethnic groups of the Yaigojé-Apaporis National Natural Park in the Colombian Amazon.
As we made our way over the dark waters, a storm quickly approached, its white, wet air creating a blanket between the thick jungle on either side of the river. Small raindrops covered us in a refreshing mist, cooling us down after the long hours spent travelling upriver under the sun in the fifteen-horsepower engine boat.
Before arriving at a sacred sandbank, we passed other sacred sites like the Pork and Star Falls, their rocks almost completely covered by the risen river.
Edgar, our guide, advised we all have mambe when entering or leaving a sacred site. Mambe is a bright green powder made of toasted coca leaves and ash from the Yarumo tree (Cecropia peltata); the combination becomes a basic conductor to spiritual contemplation and learning—and in this case, a way to appease the gods for stepping on their sacred places.
These places, thought of as natural malokas (communal houses central to indigenous communities in the area) are said to have been where the gods lived before they were turned into rocks, water, sand and precious minerals.
This beach looked like any other sandbank would, but to me, it was magical. I spotted a river stingray, who was vacuuming nutrients from the soft sand only centimetres away from my face. Seemingly a chance encounter, I’d like to attribute it to the blessings of the gods; a reward for not overstaying our welcome at La Libertad.
As we were leaving, Edgar said we must mambe (in Spanish, it’s a noun and a verb: mamebear) so we could leave the place peacefully, a way to continue without bringing punishment on ourselves. We were told our visit to La Libertad was special and rare. Communities seldom allow outsiders to step foot on the rocks, let alone to photograph the water, which the indigenous people themselves may not look at for long as it is believed to be the very loins of Mother Earth.
Traditional narrative tells the story of a woman who tried to take men’s power with her own spiritual strength, so they used their combined power to turn her into the Earth, into the Mother, the provider. Her head is upriver, where the falls start, and her legs downriver, where they end.
After her transformation, she regained her power in a new way: she now dictates how men must care for her in exchange for her bounty. If her rules are disobeyed, it is said she will punish and even kill, manifesting her displeasure through displays like thunder, disease and the deaths of children. Two researchers came with us and Edgar to see this place. Jaime, another elder, was meant to come too but was mourning the death of his five year-old granddaughter from a snake bite a few days earlier.
“Each sacred site has an owner,” Edgar explains,”it is their home. It’s not correct for anyone to come into a home and remove something without permission: it’s stealing.”
Extracting sacred minerals like gold, petrol, emeralds, uranium, or diamonds that grow from the Earth, is seen as mutilation and destruction of the gods, their malokas and the people’s instruments for communicating with them. They see mining as a clear sign of disrespect, theft, violence.
We were allowed to witness this beautiful place and to photograph it because the short documentary film being produced has no commercial purpose and is meant solely as a vehicle to share the indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge with the outside world; a platform for their voices to be heard; a message to the mining companies and the magistrates of the Constitutional Court, who are yet to make their final decision determining whether the national park that safeguards the Yaigoje-Apaporis remains or if the illegal mining license the government granted the multinational after the creation of the park will allow the destruction of these sacred places for the extraction of gold.
We made our way back to Edgar’s wooden house in Ñumi, a small community of seventeen families, where his four young children played with rubber balls with FC Barcelona’s logo and watched pirated Dragonball-Z DVDs on an old TV set hooked up to a diesel-powered electric plant, the dubbed voices at an excruciating volume, the kids’ faces aglow with blue flickering light.
Once the power was switched off, the only sounds were those of frogs and nocturnal birds; the only light the reflection of the full moon. I don’t know that I’ve ever slept so deeply.
The house came to life with dawn, at around 5am, as the air filled with the voices and cries of children, pans clanking in the kitchen and chickens clucking outside. The morning started slowly with the kids going to school and breakfast being served: a communal pot of steaming hot, very salty fish broth, casabe (yucca starch) and farinha (yucca flour). Bones and unwanted bits were thrown through a hole in the wooden floor, below which chickens waited anxiously for leftovers. After we ate, we went to the maloka to mambe with Edgar and his father.
We sat in the dark, round house, the packed dirt ground creating a cool, wet atmosphere. Outside, kids and women cleared the basketball court of weeds with machetes under the oppressive overcast sky for an upcoming mothers’ day celebration.
We heard ancient stories passed down over generations through oral narrative. Jorge spoke of the birth of the Apaporis—once a great tree which was cut down and became the river as it sliced through the mountain. He was lively and energetic, switching between Spanish and his native tongue, sitting on his thinking bench, proudly displaying a generations-old necklace with eight jaguar teeth and a heavy wooden staff. At one point, Jorge broke down crying while clutching a wooden cross for his son who had recently passed away.
We left Ñumi and headed back to the land crossing that would take us once again to the Caqueta River, about two and a half hours away. We stopped for lunch at a small house that guards the entrance to a chain of seven sacred lakes and exchanged bags of rice and sugar for smoked fish which ate on the sand with some casabe Edgar’s wife had packed for us.
Once at the crossing, we walked through the jungle with our packs and gear while we fought mosquitoes and waited for our boat to pick us up.
We had succeeded in our mission: we saw places many indigenous people themselves only ever hear about, returning wet with rain and sweat, our equipment foggy and threatening to break down, but happy and satisfied.
The great rivers of the Colombian Amazon and the communities who inhabit the thick jungles are under threat from multinationals seeking to extract their sacred minerals, backed by an undecided government who oscillates between protecting its people and fattening its pockets.
Gaining a deeper knowledge of the culture and the jungle has only made the threat seem more real and the possibility of the ancient territory and traditions disappearing even more tragic.
Although they’re hopeful for the future conservation of their land and traditions, the local communities are aware of the commercial wealth their territory represents for both the miners and the national government. They can only ask the spiritual and cultural wealth it represents to them is understood and respected by the outside world, and that righteousness prevails over greed.