Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta
Corazón del Mundo - Heart of the World
Considered one of the tallest coastal ranges in the world, soaring to more than 18,000 feet from the sea, this isolated mountain range is valued for its variety of ecosystems that include coral reefs, sandy beaches, deserts, rainforests, tropical dry forests, savannas, tundra, alpine lakes, and glaciers. It was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979 and is said to contain more endemic plants and animals than almost anywhere else on Earth. For hundreds of years, it has been home and sacred land to four separate but related indigenous groups: the Arhuaco, Wiwa, Kogi, and Kankuamo. They are the descendants of a sophisticated pre-Hispanic civilization known as the Tayrona and believe their purpose in life is to protect the spiritual and ecological balance of the region. To them, the Sierra is known as the Corazon del Mundo - Heart of the World.
The Sierra has been off limits for many years during Columbia’s decades long civil war that has left behind thousands of victims. This, in part, has prevented exploitation especially in the higher elevations. Since 2016 the country has been in the midst of a tenuous cease fire which has brought new opportunities to the region for exploration, and with it the challenges of development.
The entire region, including the Sierra Nevada was experiencing a meteoric rise in tourism when I was there in January of 2020 to document the work of a local environmental organization, Misión Gaia. Their concern like others in the community, was about the strain this puts on the regions environmental support capacities. While Colombia has laws and agreements in place, there is an obvious lack of authority available to enforce the sustainable use of resources in the region.
The bulk of conservation efforts, therefore, are left to organizations like Misión Gaia and like- minded individuals such as Juan Carlos, shown in these images tending his organic coffee farm. Together, they and others work to protect this unique and fragile part of the world.