EARTH & US: Paramos of Colombia

Cathy Holt


The true origin of water

I am grateful to be learning about the paramos of Colombia, thanks to Gualanday, a young artist whom I met recently, who has lived there. Gualanday’s paintings seem to emanate an other-worldly brilliance. I paused in front of a painting he had done of a mountain spirit. He told me it depicted a place called Chiribiquete, a national paramo reserve protected under UNESCO, where pictographs have been found and some indigenous people live free of contact with the outside world. These inhabitants consider it to be the navel of the world, surrounded by the apus or mountain spirits.

Gualanday suggested I watch a movie, “Los Paramos,” that was streaming free on Christmas Day. I learned that the paramos are a unique ecosystem of cloud-forests and mists, between 3000 and 5500 meters high (9,000–16,000 feet), with threatened glaciers. These high cloud-forests are the birthplace of rivers that 80% of Colombia’s population depend upon for drinking water. This biodiverse area has 4700 species of plants — 600 species of orchids alone! About half of the paramos’ area is in protected parks.

Several indigenous peoples live in the paramos. Under colonization, they suffered to the point of almost disappearing. There are 21 indigenous reserves in the paramos; they are the guardians of these ecosystems. The Muiska believe that without pagamentos or offerings to the spirits of the water and the land, human life would not be possible. The U’wa people seek to elevate our understanding about the importance of these sacred places of water and biodiversity. They believe we must return to seeing the sacred in all.

Threats to the paramo

Between 2017 and 18 alone, over 2,150 hectares were deforested. Gold and silver mining are a threat to these highly sensitive areas; 60% of mining is illegal. Large scale mining has gone on for 21 years ($13 million US of gold). Gold mining causes mercury and arsenic to get into the water. An abandoned coal mine has polluted water with lead and nickel. Eight other contaminating metals, including radioactive uranium, have been found in the water. All of this contamination flows into the Magdalena River.

The indigenous peoples, who know how to live in balance and harmony, must be included in conservation efforts. Colonial agreements have been broken. The indigenous believe that many solutions exist in the store of the ancestors, the wise ones. Protection of the paramos, these holy places, must be non-negotiable. “Otherwise, the darkness cannot be undone by anyone or anything.”

Pictographs found in Chiribiquete

“Chiribiquete, Heart of the Amazon” is a documentary that tells the story of the discoveries of anthropologist Carlos Castaño-Uribe, who spent 30 years investigating that one paramo: its size is 4.2 million hectares, over half of which he never explored. He discovered ancient pictographs, hidden in dense jungles and forests, thought to be 20,000 years old. These pictographs are seen as living spirits, guarding a center of shamanic ancestral wisdom, protected for centuries by its own shamans — the key for good management of the planet. This is one of few intact sites on earth, filled with symbolism and mythic meaning and cosmic significance. The Carijonas, Huitotos, and Urumis have lived in voluntary isolation, never contacted by the colonizers. One of the tragedies of colonization, the film points out, is that so few Colombians truly identify with their deep indigenous roots.


Much gratitude to Gualanday for helping me raise my consciousness about the birthplace of water and its indigenous guardians. The tag on a T-shirt I bought from him says (in Spanish): “Water holds a vital place in the cosmovision of the original people around the planet. Water is seen by the indigenous peoples as a living being, omnipotent, creative, and transformative. We are children of water… we must wake up and remember the sacred.”



Cathy Holt

Cathy has been living in Colombia for 2 years. She’s passionate about regenerating landscapes with water retention, agro-forestry, and biogas digestors.