Maria Pito has dedicated her life to protecting “Uusdy´Ju Yajcha Umiñisa” — a Nasa Yuwe term that roughly translates to “the web of life.” A 52-year-old leader of the Nasa ethnic group from the town of Pitayo in the Colombian Andes, Pito founded an association called Mama Wala, or “Mother Earth,” in the early 1990s, driven by a concept of interconnectivity and the conservation of culture and the environment.
“Mama Wala promotes the rights and autonomy of Indigenous women and territory and the recuperation of lost and dying Nasa traditions,” Pito said.
For over 30 years, these rights have been the center of Mama Wala’s efforts. During that time, Pito has served as one of the first female leaders in the Pitayo Indigenous “Cabildo” and a representative of Indigenous Authorities of Colombia (AICO). She also works to preserve Nasa traditions through language, traditional medicine, and woven handcrafts.
But Pito’s principled actions have resulted in numerous threats within an ecologically critical and highly volatile region of Colombia. Pito and her family have been threatened on numerous occasions. Militant actors have killed her family members, and leaders of her own people have threatened her more than once, spurred by interests that they felt her activism compromised.
Pitayo is situated in Southern Colombia’s Cauca department, the center of a complex ongoing conflict between guerilla groups, neo-paramilitaries and criminal gangs, much of it involving disputes over territory and control of the drug trade. These illegal groups also fight against or work alongside speculating multinational corporations and the Colombian military. There are a lot of blurred lines between all of these groups.
Cauca also harbors some of Colombia’s most invaluable ecosystems and watersheds. Some call it a “water factory,” where high-Andean paramos and cloud forests give birth to some of the country’s most important river basins. The headwaters of the Cauca, Paez, and Jambalo Rivers, for example, are within the Cauca paramos, while Colombia’s principal river, the Magdalena, rises in the high mountains along the border between the Cauca and Huila departments, as does the critical Caqueta River that connects Andes and Amazon ecosystems.
Paramos are a kind of moorland that exist at an altitude between 3,000 to 5,000 meters, or 10,000 to 16,000 feet. More than 50 percent of the world’s paramos are in Colombia, and an estimated 70 percent of Colombians depend on paramos for clean drinking water. These landscapes are also rich in endemic biodiversity, especially birds and plants, and function as buffers against the impacts of climate change, such as melting mountain glaciers and extended droughts. Paramos, however, are also threatened by climate change and human land use, especially road-building, mining, grazing, and agriculture.
In Cauca, these essential watersheds are within the ancestral territories of resilient Indigenous groups who still fight for their protection. Pitayo, for instance, is situated below the “Pisxnu” Paramo (called “Moras” Paramo by non-Nasa).
Constitutionally recognized autonomous Indigenous territories in Cauca, concentrated in the highlands of the Central Cordillera of the Andes, house the second largest Indigenous population in Colombia, second only to the department of La Guajira.
Seventy percent of the 300,000 Indigenous people in Cauca belong to the Nasa (often referred to as Paez), followed by the Yanacona and Misak. Self-identifying as the “children of water and the grandchildren of thunder,” the Nasa are known as active defenders of their rights and territories. Many national human rights and environmental rights movements and protests, such as Colombia’s recent “National Strike,” have been sparked or fortified by the “mingas” (which translates as collective work or communal actions) and “Indigenous guard” of the Nasa.
But Cauca is also at the confluence of some of Colombia’s most notorious militant and illicit economic forces. The climate and mountainous terrain of Cauca is ideal for growing and hiding marijuana and coca plantations. The relatively easy access to the city of Cali and the “legal” industries of the Valle de Cauca department, such as sugar cane and construction material, keeps the money flowing. The ports of Buenaventura, Tumaco, Guapi and other Pacific Ocean outlets within the Choco Rainforest can be accessed through roads and extensive river networks in places with no state presence. These isolated rivers, such as the Naya River, allow for the trafficking of drugs from the Andean slopes — or all the way from the Amazonian departments of Putumayo and Caqueta — through the mountains of Cauca, and to the coast for export. Illegal gold mining is also a pervasive scourge in the region.
There remains almost no state presence in the highlands of Cauca. The department was a former stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Drug trafficking and illegal gold mining funded much of their activities. Many groups, including FARC dissidents, still-active National Liberation Army Marxist Guerillas, the “New Sinaloa Cartel,” neo-paramilitaries, and less organized gangs of drug traffickers are now vying for control of this “corridor” after a power vacuum formed following the 2016 Peace Accords between the FARC and the Colombian government, and subsequent lack of implementation. Much of this chaos is taking place within the territory that Indigenous ethnic groups — principally the Nasa — claim as their ancestral land.
Some compromised Indigenous leaders agreed to be complicit in certain endeavors, such as the expanded planting of coca (a traditionally sacred plant for the Nasa) and marijuana, or mining and road building, within and through their territories. They did this presumably to reap certain financial benefits or to avoid conflict at a particular time. Once these forces were allowed to enter, however, it was and remains a dangerous proposition to try to remove them.
“All combined this has made Cauca, especially the Northern and Western parts of the department, a strategic corridor for drug trafficking, and created a ‘perfect storm’ that explains present and past conflict in the region,” geographer Juan Gonzalez explained to me at Cauca University in Popayan.
For those reasons, the department has been plagued by conflict for decades, and Indigenous communities have found themselves at the center of it.
Pito knows these realities well. “I was first abducted by the since-defunct M19 Guerillas, whose leaders unsuccessfully tried to indoctrinate me,” she told me of an experience back in the 1980s. “Soon after that I was questioned by the Colombian army who accused me of being a revolutionary.”
But despite those and many other hardships, Pito’s social activism has begun to leave its mark in Pitayo. With Mama Wala, Pito addressed the unjust suppression of Indigenous women as income earners, both by challenging male-dominated Indigenous governance and through broader movements supporting women’s rights in Colombia. This was at a critical time when many Indigenous men were being threatened and forced into Colombia’s conflict.
Mama Wala has also recovered many Nasa traditions of weaving, language, symbolism, native seeds, and traditional medicine practices (Pito is also a trained nurse). The “Cuatandera,” a Nasa representation of the stages of existence from the communal fireplace to the paramos and the sky, is one deep cultural heritage that Pito has helped recover and preserve through the Mama Wala group. “Recovering the weaving techniques and symbolism of the Cuatandera has also helped us to strengthen our families, language, traditions, territory, and communal defense of the paramos,” she said.
Pito has also led many fights over the years to preserve the paramos and the rivers that rise within them. In the 1990s, for example, she successfully halted the expansion of poppy cultivation — the base ingredient of opiates like heroin — within the paramos, saving both the ecosystem and her people from potential untold conflict.
“We have largely been able to keep the drug trafficking and illicit crop cultivation that intoxicates surrounding territories and threatens the vital Pisxnu Paramo out of Pitayo, for now,” Pito said emphatically. “The paramos and rivers that are born from them weave together the essence of our culture, our health, our connection to our ancestors and our relationship to other people and living beings. They must be protected.”
Pito’s most recent fight focused on a road building and mining initiative within the paramo and sub-paramo ecosystems concentrated around the sacred mountain El Peñón.
The expanded dirt road in question connects the high-conflict region of Jambalo in Northern Cauca with the municipality of Silvia and will intersect a soon-to-be paved road through the Pisxnu Paramo and Nasa and Misak territories. This new network of easily transversable roads through fragile ecosystems and a high-conflict corridor for drug trafficking will undoubtedly have numerous social and environmental consequences.
Pito’s struggle did not focus on the actual construction and expansion of the road, however, but the 54 hectares of land around El Peñón granted for mining concessions, officially for construction material for the road.
El Peñón is a large granite rock that sits between high Andean forest and sub-paramo at around 3,000 meters, just below the Pisxnu Paramo. The slopes of El Peñón are described as an “estrella fluvial,” or fluvial star, which means that it’s the source of many rivers and streams. These rivers flow into the massive Cauca and Magdalena River Basins, making El Peñón a high-priority area for conservation.
The cultural significance of El Peñón is equally profound. As Pito explained, “El Peñón is a sacred natural and historical site for the Nasa, where we pay respects to Mama Wala and where Nasa warriors once expelled Spanish conquistadors.”
Pito also questions the true intentions of the mining operation. Geomorphological maps reveal that El Peñón and the land immediately around it are dense in ancient volcanic fluvial metamorphic rocks likely rich in valuable mineral deposits like gold, platinum, and rare-earth metals. Pito says mining experts were clandestinely brought in to determine points of extraction. “If the true intention of this operation was to not only destroy El Peñón for material to build and expand the road, but to mine gold, we would have been violently displaced like so many others in Colombia,” Pito said.
In May 2018, after rallying the approximately 400 Nasa of a “vereda” adjacent to El Peñón called Buena Vista, Pito, her 30-year-old son Wilson, and others successfully expelled the corporation that was tearing apart the mountain. They did so by demonstrating the clear violation of two Colombian laws: First, the “Second Law of 1959” prohibits mining in forest reserves and fragile paramo ecosystems, and second, Indigenous communities have no obligation to provide road-building materials when roads are built through their territories.
Of course, the Nasa governor of Pitayo at the time had illegally sold away these rights. As a result, Pito, Wilson, her brother Edilberto, and one other Nasa leader were threatened and blocked from participation in Indigenous governance for 10 years. But that hasn’t stopped Pito and other Nasa leaders from continuing to fight for the survival of her people and the land on which they depend.
“They cannot keep us silent,” said Pito. “If four of us are not allowed to speak, six more will come and fight for the web of life.”