People from indigenous community in Mexico planting native trees in Colombia

The Great Balance and the Arhuaco Tribe – One Million Trees Saving a Sacred Mountain

After eight years of active engagement with the Arhuaco tribe of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia, The Great Balance (TGB), a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization, is working with the tribal elders to reinforce and improve their traditional educational and health systems, expand their ability to care for the environment, and assist them to preserve and pass on intact tribal traditions to future generations of Arhuaco.

TGB believes that reinforcement and enhancement of the current educational system will allow the tribe to retain their most promising youth in the Sierra, and thus avoid external acculturation and the loss of their language and traditions. TGB educational project helps prepare students to become successful professionals with updated knowledge and skills, enabling them to remain at home and better serve their tribal community. TGB proposes to enhance the existing Arhuaco educational system by focusing on three main components: strengthening the education of Arhuaco children from 0 to 7 years old while at home with their family, supporting the Mamos (tribal spiritual leaders) and the community to guarantee the education of Mamos and Sagas (female equivalent of Mamos) of the future, and promoting primary and secondary education for all children of Simonorwa and surrounding communities.

Furthermore, for many years, the indigenous communities of the SNSM have been negatively impacted by armed conflict, illicit economy, and illegal encroachment of farming communities on their traditional lands. These factors have caused the destruction of 72% of the area’s original forests, resulting in significant erosion. The Great Balance also runs an environmental restoration project in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (SNSM) of Colombia, an area inhabited by over 46,000 indigenous people belonging to four tribes: Wiwa, Kogi, Kankuamo and Arhuaco. SNSM, one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world, is an important biodiverse area, home to many species of animals and plants. Bringing one million native trees to deforested areas is providing environmentally sustainable livelihoods for communities inhabiting these areas, while working on reforestation and watershed preservation in the SNSM, known as the Heart of the World by the indigenous tribes who live there. The 7,000 trees TGB has already planted in the Sierra is a measure of the success of our project. Thanks to our individual donors and organizations like TPP the Great Balance has established new nurseries in different communities, including sites deep into the Sierra where the only access is by mule or on foot.

In the area of traditional health, TGB is helping to prevent fatal snakebite poisoning, one of the main causes of death in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Children are the most affected, as they move from their homes to school, play, run and are usually barefoot. Thanks to donations from different friends, TGB has been able to maintain a permanent reserve of antivenoms, in the same communities participating on the OMT that allow us to save the lives of the children, the elderly, and adults not only from the Arhuaco but also from the Kogi, and Kankuamos tribes when they are affected by the snake bite. Combining the OMT and the health project, TGB is also promoting the creation of medicinal gardens at different thermic levels and at different communities in the Sierra, where vast climatic differences will allow the growing of an enormous variety of endemic plants used in native diets, ceremonies that greet the seasons and the harvests, and for healing purposes.

While these three areas; Education/Health, Environment and Traditional Teachings are viewed here as separate topics, in reality as indigenous principles, they are one. Our mission as an organization is to assure that the Arhuaco maintain that balance as the Tribe moves forward into the future. They are of vast, incalculable importance to the world. Recognizing that our world is out of balance, on individual, social, human and world levels, The Great Balance is endeavoring to identify and heal the imbalances wherever they are generating disharmony, violence, war, arrogance, the sense of superiority, confrontation, and isolation, all of which prevent living in harmony, cooperation, peace and brotherly love. Our cooperating and sharing with the Arhuacos of the Sierra revealed several important issues and opportunities so that The Great Balance could touch, reach and regain balance in living and thinking, balance between humans and nature, between ancient traditions, wisdom, with the western technology-oriented society. The Arhuacos are teaching us how to observe balance in nature by accepting that nature is an integral part of humanity and therefore, we damage ourselves when we are using it only for economic exploitation and careless destruction. Through their own education system based on ancient wisdom and traditional ways, the Arhuacos offer a clear example of living in comfort in a voluntary simplicity in an efficiency-oriented economy.

To be successful in cooperating, teaching/learning and sharing with other cultures, we have to respect and to recognize them as unique but different from our western culture and to integrate diverse activities of give and take by attending to real needs, individual, group and indeed, world needs. We can learn and increase harmony and peace when recognizing the noble Indigenous people as brothers, recognizing the value of their culture, respecting their ways of life, enjoying and sharing values, observing the universal laws and vibrating together as only one Heart.

We received our first seed grant from TPP in 2016 at the time when we were taking our first steps in the Sierra and in the Arhuaco resguardo (reservation). TPP inspired us to design a project to help individuals of all ages in the Arhuaco community, to do the best they know to care for Mother Earth and to bring solutions where needed. At the same time, we wanted to project into the Sierra the care and reverence for life that TPP is promulgating in all its endeavors. With this goal in mind, we create the One Million Trees (OMT) initiative that would help make a great difference in our organization and in the Sierra. Today, we can say that OMT helped us to create what I would like to call a great initiative with strong environmental resonance, by helping many of the communities working with us in being “in tune” with The Great Balance (TGB), the Arhuaco Mamos and authorities in taking care of Mother Earth. The seed grant was small but big enough to bring people together who hold the same ideas and vision. The power of this seed was a power of knowing that encouraged all our volunteers to take the journey of caring for water, for the mountain and for the forest. TPP has been generous with the Sierra. TPP helped us with a second grant and at this moment, with a third one, each one bigger than the previous one. OMT has brought the spring to many deforested areas in the Heart of the World. One Million Trees is a huge project to be accomplished, not step by step, but tree by tree helping our goals to become concrete realities. This is the power of TPP. For us, every penny counts, as we mobilize resources to address the many challenges that the Arhuacos, the living continuation of a Pre-Columbian civilization, must deal with in the 21st century. If this seed grows well and disperse, we all will be winners.

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