Farewell to a friend, leader and voice for the ‘Heart of the World’ – by Fiona Wilton

For the Arhuaco people of northern Colombia, there is life and spirit in all the elements that manifest together as the Universe – in the water of the sea and the rivers, the moon, the stars, the plants, the animals, the morning dew, the thunder, the air, and in us.

As we bid farewell to the charismatic, ever-positive and courageous Arhuaco leader, Danilo Villafañe, his life and spirit will surely remain present, through his family and loved ones, and through the legacy of his efforts to protect Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the ‘Heart of the World’.

Danilo held the revered position of governor for the Arhuaco people. He died in turbulent waters near where the Palomino River joins the sea, on 25th December, in a heroic attempt to rescue others from drowning.

Danilo and his daughter, Ati Viviam, by Pavel Martiarena

Danilo and his daughter, Ati Viviam, by Pavel Martiarena

From an early age Danilo was unwavering in his fight to protect the Sierra, the world’s highest isolated coastal mountain, the ancestral lands of the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa and Kankuamo, from the deforestation and devastation unleashed by non-Indigenous and exctractivist activities. He was involved in the eradication of illicit crops, and for more than two decades he was tireless in showing that when resguardos (Indigenous territories) are expanded, environmental conservation areas are immediately increased because of ancestral practices. He worked as an advisor on Indigenous issues with two Environment Ministers, and was a spokesperson for the Sierra at international and high-level meetings. His activism often placed him in opposition to formidable foes, including paramilitaries, guerrillas, drug traffickers, and land speculators.

Danilo was a defender both at home and abroad of his culture and Indigenous rights. He held a profound connection to his land and people.

Juan Mayr and Danilo in Seyhua

Juan Mayr and Danilo in Seyhua

For the Indigenous communities of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, their mountain territory that rises from the shores of the Caribbean coast, is the beating ‘Heart of the World’: what happens here happens everywhere, and when its rivers run dry, its ice peaks melt and its endemic species disappear, so do the rest of the world’s.

“For the Indigenous peoples living on the slopes of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, sustaining the balance of the spiritual and ecological world is their sacred task. They call themselves the Elder Brothers, the guardians of the Earth, and that non-Indigenous societies are the Younger Brothers who are Se’muke (meaning an ingenuous or innocent state of mind) leading them to carry out exploitative practices, destroying the mountain’s ecosystem and, by extension, the rest of the planet”.[1]

“The fathers and mothers of everything on this planet can be found in the Sierra. It is the heart of the world, and the rivers that flow from the glaciers are like veins, they bring vital water for people, animals and the planet. Our role as guardians of the Sierra is to keep that vital organ beating, to protect the heart, for people, animals and planet. Our Law of Origin guides how we live. It shows us how to listen to the Earth. As long as people do not identify the sacredness of the land, everything will continue to be damaged.” Danilo Villafañe [2]

Respect and diplomacy were among the important life lessons that Danilo learned from his father and instilled in his own children, along with the conviction that “if you don’t go out and talk, you don’t achieve anything”.

I had the honour of working alongside Danilo on an ambitious project during 2006-2011, mandated by the Mamos, the spiritual and traditional leaders of the Sierra, to reclaim Indigenous lands and protect sacred sites. I had the privilege of becoming a friend and part of the family. The project was accompanied by great allies Juan Mayr (former Colombia Environment Minister, and Gaia international advisor) and Luisz Olmedo Martinez (Director of Colombia’s National Parks, formerly with UNDP-Colombia), with many others such as Gabriela Febres Cordero (United for Colombia), Carlos Vives (singer/actor) and Pablo Mora Calderón (anthropologist/communicator) supporting in different ways. Videos, brochures and visits by small delegations of Mamos to the US with their ‘Message from the Heart of the World’ sowed the seeds of international collaboration for the Sierra that continues to this day. (See Caring for the Heart of the World (2008), by Danilo Villafañe and Fiona Wilton, published in IUCN Protected Landscapes and Cultural and Spiritual Values, Josep-Maria Mallarach.)

Sierra Nevadade Santa Marta by Danilo

Sierra Nevadade Santa Marta by Danilo

Just a couple of months ago, in preparation for the COP28 climate meeting, Danilo shared with me the message he would be taking to Dubai. “For us, the peaks of the Sierra, the rivers, animals, plants, stones and the constellation are all in constant interaction. Unless the Younger Brother is capable of real change, and unless we abide by the Law of Origin, the climate crisis will not relent.” Those words ring loud and clear.

Danilo’s last breath was taken close to one of the sacred natural sites that encircle the Sierra and form what is symbolically known as the Linea Negra (‘black line’). His abrupt death reminds us of life’s fragility, but also of the hope and passion that shines through so many of Gaia’s friends and allies. His legacy will guide future defenders of our beautiful planet, including one of his daughters, Ati Gunnawi Viviam Villafaña, an Indigenous youth climate activist and authentic new voice for the Heart of the World.

[1] Extract from: Guardians of the Heart of the World: Indigenous Cosmovision and Conservation of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (2022), by Ati Gunnawi Villafaña and Fiona Wilton. Published in Religion and Nature Conservation: Global Case Studies, Routledge.

[2] Our Ancestral View of Territory (2009), produced by Zhigoneshi Communications Centre, Organización Indígena Gonawindua Tayrona, including photos by Danilo Villafañe.