“In the beginning there was darkness, there was nothing at all, only the mother; she was Aluna”. The documentary film Aluna starts with this quote from Kogi cosmology. Aluna is the cosmic consciousness that pervades everything, rocks, plants, animals, people. Through her, the Kogi believe they can commune with the world.
The ancestors of the Kogi, the Tayrona, built urban centres in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta coastal mountain region in present-day Colombia. Archaeology has revealed roads, stairways, terraces, and networks of storm drains. Their world was turned upside down by the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century. A century later the Tayrona were forced to abandon their towns, losing most of their ancestral lands. They retreated higher up in the Sierra, keeping their knowledge, traditions and language.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta rising sharply from the sea to 6000m above the Caribbean coast has a full range of biomes, from mangroves and rainforests to snow-capped mountains. It was declared a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1979. More recently the region has acquired the dubious distinction of being top of the list of sites with the most endangered species on Earth. Conversely, this proves that it is not humans in themselves who are wildlife annihilating but their attitude to nature since traces of human presence dating back thousands of years have been found in the region.
By the late 1980s, the Kogi who practice a self-sufficient way of life were alarmed by the changes they saw in local ecosystems, which they attributed to changes in the world beyond. British documentary film maker Alan Ereira happened to be in the region preparing a documentary on Tayrona sites for the BBC. The Kogi seized this opportunity to ask for help to diffuse their ecological warning to the world. The result was the film From the Heart of the World: The Elder Brother’s Warning.
The “elder brother” is the Kogi, the younger brother is everyone who has accepted by choice or by default the narrative that economic growth is society’s ultimate purpose and that the planet is essentially an inert base, a source of commodities and a waste dump for human activities.
In contrast, the Kogi believe that it is their duty to take care of the biosphere and to maintain its balance, which compares with monotheistic religions’ concept of human stewardship of Earth. This can be understood as acknowledging the dangerous potential of human thought, while subtly enticing it to behave well toward the rest of creation, instead of running it backwards as we moderns are.
As a day-to-day precaution, Kogi men carry around with them a stick they rub against a cylindrical object. Besides the fertility symbolism, it is meant to keep in check the destructive aspect of human nature, in particular in the male, suggesting too that the Kogi do not believe in the myth of the “noble savage” that attributes innate goodness to the human living in nature.
In the 20 years since the film From the Heart of the World, things continued to deteriorate, so the Kogi appealed again: “We have not spoken clearly. We need Alan to make a new film”. This film, Aluna, came out in 2013.
Alan Ereira says the core message of the Kogi in Aluna is that there is a network of connections in the natural world and interfering with one part impacts on the others. This perception corresponds to the science of ecology which is by definition “the study of the environment and the way that plants, animals, and humans live together and affect each other”. Industrial civilization is interested in interconnections too, but narrowed to economic exchanges. The contrast between these two types of connectedness is vividly illustrated in scenes from Aluna. We see a Caribbean port facility loading coal on a tanker for distant markets and further along the coast a dead mangrove.
Through the film Aluna, the Kogi share their experience in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta about how to take care of the planet. To be taken seriously they ask academic scientists to interpret their form of knowledge to the outside world.
For instance, the Kogi say that the draining of lagoons—this has been done to build industrial infrastructures—is diminishing the replenishment of rivers high up at their sources. A specialist in ecosystem restoration agrees with the Kogi and says that in Spain coastal rivers that had been canalized were being restored to improve water flow at the top of mountains.
A doctor who worked for 35 years with the Kogi in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta describes the astonishing restoration of the Guachaca River Basin by the Kogi. It had been deforested, turned into mono-cropped plantations and cattle ranches; the river had dried up. Twenty years ago it was returned to the Kogi. Today the forests are back with many wild animals and the rivers are full again. The doctor says that only the Kogi with their special knowledge could do this.
The Kogi are also versed in astronomy. Their notions about the Universe are similar to those of mainstream science: it is very large and, like the current dark energy dark matter theory, a lot of it is dark and cannot be seen.
Whereas in our world cost-benefit analysis is central to every decision, Aluna does not broach the financial aspect of taking care of the biosphere. Without a broader conception of reality such as the Kogi have, nature stewardship comes to be viewed as a side-issue for a handful of nature lovers and experts most of them in rich countries and a loss of income for poorer countries, requiring assistance and a payoff. One approach which combines the two is to request from the wild that it should pay for its right to continued existence via nature tourism or ecosystem services.
Nature conservation has been practiced by the Kogi, other indigenous peoples and our own distant ancestors without spending a penny because their relationship to nature was viewed in its reciprocity, the land and the wildlife sustaining the people and the people sustaining the land and the wildlife. Given the present circumstances, the Kogi endorse the idea of giving an international legal basis for our care for Earth by criminalizing ecocide, the killing of an ecosystem.
Through Aluna, the Kogi do not seek to impose their way of life or beliefs to the rest of the world, but they advise us to listen carefully and to think. Will the Kogi elder brother manage to convince younger brother to amend his ways?
The German sociologist Wolfgang Sachs has said that politics should no more be divided between “right” and “left” but between those who accept economic limits and those who do not. Will the pro-limits younger brother succeed in convincing the no limits younger brother to plan for de-growth so as to leave options open for the future?
The film Aluna reminds us that the good life is possible without the trappings of consumerism and with score zero on the UNDP Human Development Index, which measures “knowledge” as years of schooling and a “decent standard of living” as income.
It is good to be reminded of this since the future lies in some form of self-sufficient lifestyle, in other words relocalization, where we obtain the greater part of our food, water, medicines and other needs close to where we live and deal with waste locally. This system has a guaranteed sustainability since people have survived in this way since humanity began one million years ago, whereas industrial civilization as a global project has existed for just 70 years and is already putting severe strain on our biosphere in its Holocene phase.
What grand finale will younger brother choose for industrial civilization? Will he actively move to an eco-centric de-growth civilization such as has been worked out by a school of economists and sociologists? The obstacles to this are people’s expectation of ever-increasing affluence, the economic interests of the powers that be, disentangling the globalized economy and the geopolitical risks those countries that would adopt de-growth first would face.
Or will younger brother passively stick to his business as usual routine, leaving it to Earth to reorganize human life and planetary systems in a more swashbuckling à la collapse-science-fiction way as she evolves to a new biogeochemical equilibrium to us unknown?
Ereira says that the Kogi see a possibility of hope if we listen.
Alexander, Samuel , 2016, https://theconversation.com/limits-to-growth-policies-to-steer-the-economy-away-from-disaster-57721 [The obstacles to this…would face.]
Aluna: the movie website, http://www.alunathemovie.com
Aluna: There is No Life without Thought, Dir. Alan Ereira, BBC, documentary film, 2012
Gentil Cruz: Passeur de mémoires, Dir. Philippe Bruolois, Association Tchendukua, documentary film, 2012.
Kallis, Giorgos, Ecological Economics, 70, p. 873–880, “In Defence of Degrowth”, 2011.
La Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City): From the Heart of the World: the Elder Brother’s Warning, Dir. Alan Ereira, BBC, documentary film, 1990. [“unbalanced masculinity without the civilizing power [of the poporo] would be dangerous”].
McKibben, Bill.[“We moderns are running Creation backwards.”].
Reddy, Jini, What Colombia’s Kogi people can teach us about the environment, www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business, 29 October 2013.
Sachs, Wolfgang, http://www.footprintnetwork.org/pt/index.php/GFN/page/testimonials/