FARC ‘n SplashMaps collide in Colombia
Our news, just in from intrepid head of the Scientific Exploration Society, Col. John Blashford-Snell, is that SplashMaps has come up against some heavy artillery in the towering peaks of the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains, Colombia.
John and his team were doing their amazing work with the Arahuaco, Kogi, Kankuamo and Wiwa tribes of the region when they were confronted with a heavily armed faction.
“Your map was invaluable in Colombia and was much admired by the soldiers of our escort.” Says John freshly back. Thank you John for another amazing story!
Full story and pictures below:-
VISIT TO ANOTHER WORLD – THE WIWA MISSION EXPEDITION 2016
A SUMMARY by John Blashford-Snell
The towering peaks of the rugged Sierra Nevada rising 19000 feet above Colombia’s Caribbean coastline are home to a wide variety of wildlife and home to the world’s greatest number of endemic species of birds and also the haunt of numerous mammals. The largest of South America’s cats including puma, ocelot and jaguar still prowl the forested slopes, along with spectacled bears. Overhead the great condors circle the snowy summits. There are few flowers and plants that will not grow somewhere in the rocky landscape, with its varied micro-climates and diverse habitats. Up to 53,000 indigenous people jealously guard this sacred territory, but in the past 50 years have suffered gravely at the hands of both terrorists and para-militaries.
The Arahuaco, Kogi, Kankuamo and Wiwa tribes are descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization, which built farms and elaborate cities until the Conquistadores arrived in 1529. The ruthless Spanish enslaved all they could catch and forced the survivors to flee into the snow tipped peaks and valleys of this little known wilderness. Whilst the invaders conquered and destroyed the ancient civilizations to the south, the Tairona managed to live on amongst their remote temples, supported by their unique farming. Those in the south eastern region of the area are the Wiwa.
Our attention was drawn to the Sierra by Scientific Exploration Society member, HSH Grand Duke Leopold d’Arenberg who had made a private visit to the legendary Ciudad Perdida (lost city) of the Kogis on the eastern side of the mountains. If one could obtain permission, it was clearly a place begging for exploration. However, the Tairona were not known to welcome visitors and therefore it was essential to gain their confidence by offering help in return for the privilege of entering their world.
Thus, with the help of a Kankuamo liaison officer working in Bogota, a visit was set up by the SES representative in Latin America, Yolima Cipagauta. In 2014 a team of three visited the old colonial town of Valledupar and met the leaders of the Wiwa people.
Hours were spent with the white robed Mamas or elders, talking, listening and clearly being assessed by them, to determine our intentions and integrity. All the time they chewed wads of coca leaf and to aid ingestation, drawing doses of lime, made from selected sea shells, in phallic shaped gourds named poporos. It was like watching a hamster enjoying lunch, but although coca is the source of cocaine, it takes six pounds of leaf to produce an ounce of the drug. We know coca dulls sensation, limits fatigue, reduces hunger and has been chewed in South America for a thousand years. Fortunately, masticating the small green leaves does not have the same effect as ingesting powdered cocaine.
Eventually the Wiwa gave permission for an initial expedition that would aid them in a number of ways. They need schools, medical help, engineer advice and above all, outsiders who could spread their philosophy that the younger brothers, as we are known, are destroying the world.
We learned that the Tairona remain true to their ancient laws and believe in a spirit world in which every tree, stone or river has a place and, invisible to outsiders, is known as the Aluna. Contact with this unseen entity is maintained by divination, a mental process of composing questions and interpreting answers emitted from a primordial mother. One is tempted to compare it with the reading of tarot cards or tea leaves.
The Mamas are in effect the priests, magistrates, healers and counsellors that have undergone many years of training to use divination. Even so, they are not regarded as infallible by the people, who can criticize or accuse them of self-interest. However, the Wiwa believe that this system or perhaps one could say, religion, works. Similarly we believe in aspirin and electricity, not because they make sense but because they work. Indeed it is difficult for us to understand how anything operates without biological, chemical or scientific action.
The Mamas firmly believe that we, the younger brothers, through ignorance or arrogance, are destroying the world and that alas, they are linked to us and will be dragged down by us to destruction. If we do not mend our ways, the world will die. Furthermore, they are convinced that through their work and communication with the Aluna, they alone can maintain the ecological balance of the planet. The Mamas did not make any predictions, but if they fail they fear mankind will create an ecological catastrophe. All this is pretty hard for first timers in this strange world to comprehend.
Nevertheless our 18 strong team was warmly welcomed by the Wiwa in the 16th century colonial city of Valledupar on 10th February, 2016. The El Nino effect had caused a drought and shade temperatures of 40⁰c which was quite a change for those who had flown into Bogota from more temperate climates. As a consequence some Wiwa children were dying from starvation and under nourishment.
Our party included two British doctors, two dentists, a nurse, engineers, a surveyor, aid workers, a biologist, an anthropologist and interpreters. Indeed, throughout the expedition language was always a problem as none of the Wiwa spoke English and only a few of us spoke good Spanish. Our medics were joined by a Colombian health team including a doctor, dentist and nurses who would work with us throughout the project. The local Health Department was most supportive and kindly provided more medicines and water sterilization tablets for our use.
Four wheel drive vehicles had been hired from the Wiwa and their condition checked. One or two defects had to be corrected. Alas the one ton cargo truck that had been ordered was found to be of Venezuelan origin and currently an hour away in another town and for some reason, not permitted to enter Valledupar. We did not enquire too deeply about this, but urgently needed a truck to carry all our rations and stores including many boxes bulging with medicines and school books. After numerous phone calls, the somewhat embarrassed Wiwa produced a dilapidated vehicle which we had to hire for an exorbitant amount of Pesos. Yolima, who carried our treasury lashed to her body, was relieved to be free of a few million of the local currency!
Thus our convoy set off along a fine tarmac road for San Juan del Cesar on the edge of the Sierra and a gateway to the Wiwa territory. More greetings and a welcome lunch in a local café awaited us.
Thankfully some of the cars had air conditioning as the heat was pretty intense when we drove up into the foothills to the village of Achintukua to make our first base camp. Before we even entered the settlement there had to be a ceremony with the local Mamas at a sacred place , which involved clutching leaves and passing them to the elder, impregnated with our inner thoughts. This all took time when we were anxious to get tents erected. In the thatched village hall there were more welcoming speeches, including one, to our surprise, from a Lieutenant Colonel who had arrived with 100 well-armed soldiers in full combat gear. “My job is to keep your safe”, he said with a grim expression. This was our first indication that the area might not be as peaceful as we had found on our recce. Of course we knew the conflict with the rebels had already lasted 50 years but the presence of the Colonel’s troops, clutching multiple grenade launchers, machine guns and festooned with belts of ammunition and a Labrador sniffer dog to detect explosives, made one realise that there was a new security problem. “We have orders to check every area in which you intend to work” explained our escort, “before you go there”. It transpired that Colombian Government negotiations with the FARC terrorists groups aimed at securing final agreement on a lasting peace had suddenly been announced. As a result up to 400 armed FARC fighters had appeared 18 miles from our base camp. Some came by helicopter from Venezuela that supports FARC. Although later most fighters returned to their jungle bases, the rival ELN rebels did not take part and still had to signify their intention to cease operations. Furthermore, they were moving into territory that FARC had left. Although there was no known threat to us, the authorities were concerned that the ELN might target us to achieve publicity. However, the British Ambassador advised we carry on and obey the Army’s instructions. All this heightened the security situation and the Colombian Army, who provided protection for us throughout the expedition, had to limit our deployment.
This meant some of the tasks we had planned could not be carried out. Nevertheless, we continued with our programme of providing medical and dental aid, distributing reading glasses and school books and doing what botanical and wildlife studies we could under the restricted movements.
One of our major tasks was the building of a primary school for 40 pupils at the remote village of Limnocito, that sits on a mountain some 5 hours uphill march from the nearest vehicle road. Funds for this had kindly been provided by the Newport Uskmouth Rotary Club and although all materials had to be carried up by men and mule, work was well under way before we arrived. A group of us visited the site and found the main building had been erected but needed plastering. Also the bathrooms, in a separate building had to be completed. As the plastic water tank the Wiwa had chosen was clearly unsuitable in the heat, more cement was brought up to build a concrete version. However, after the usual welcome ceremony by the Mamas, our doctors and dentist treated the people and school books were presented. All this was much appreciated and a Rotary plaque was duly fitted to the school wall.
Communications were never easy and for this phase we depended on our satellite phones and our well tried Motorola Walky Talky radios. Although the Wiwa often had cell phones, coverage was very limited. We discovered an extraordinary fact that it was possible to use cell phones if they could be attached to certain wooden pillars or trees in some villages. The Mamas seemed to have blessed this system!
At the villages of La Pena de los Indios, El Machin and Marocaso our engineers studied the need for bridges, health clinics, road improvements and water supply systems. Designs for the bridges are now being produced in Britain.
School books were also given out, including one lot to the Kankuamo village of Atanquez. Our doctors and dentists worked nonstop and helped over 250 patients and for those in need, we also distributed over 160 pairs of reading glasses. Fortunately the Zika virus did not seem prevalent in the Sierra, although some cases were encountered.
Due to the security restrictions, we were unable to look for the double headed snakes reported in a particular area, but one had been seen in the past year in Marocaso. Apparently it had heads at both ends of the body. As one can see on Google, this is not an unknown phenomone.
The Wiwa are great conservationists but our wildlife studies were limited by the security situation. We did however; see fox, rabbits and squirrels. Happily there was neither evidence of hunting nor the cutting of trees.
Alas, the restrictions on movement prevented our viewing archaeological sites. They are said to exist in the forested mountains, but near Achintukua we did study some fascinating giant carved boulders believed to be a sacred map of the Sierra.
At Marocaso the Army reported ELN terrorists in a village only a couple of miles away. “They know everything about you”, confided a sergeant, “but as they are communists and you are helping the poor, it is unlikely they will cause problems”.
For some rest and recuperation we spent 36 hours at a “People’s Recreation Centre” on the Caribbean coast. To reach this involved driving around the eastern side of the Sierra, along roads that lead to Venezuela. Military and Police check points, supported by armoured vehicles were stationed along the route but did not delay us. Petrol smuggled in from Venezuela was on sale at the road side by vendors raising money to buy food to take back across the border where there is a severe shortage of everything except petrol. Even loo paper is much in demand in Caracas!
At the Dibulla Recreation Centre we swam and held a Burns supper, which has become a tradition on our expeditions, regardless of the date! Stahlys haggis and a dram or two went down rather well despite the temperature. However, there wasn’t much energy for reeling after dinner!
Back at Valledupar a conference was held at which we presented the results of our medical and dental work and the engineer projects to the Wiwa Government. As a result the Mayor of San Juan del Cesar agreed to fund some of the projects for the Wiwa communities. It was indeed a very positive ending and hopefully the Wiwa will receive more financial support and health care in the future. Despite constraints imposed on our deployment, we had accomplished the majority of our tasks to aid these unusual people and been privileged to go where few foreigners have been before. The Wiwa thanked us profusely and really seemed to have appreciated our efforts. They also presented us with several proposals for future aid, in the hope that we might return.
Thanks to the support of Nikon UK we shot a video film of the project and hopefully the Wiwa will be able to use this in future to record their culture. Our time with this indigenous tribe had been like a visit to a different world but was well worth the effort.