The lost tribe that is trying to save the world

More than 20 years ago, Alan Ereira made a film about an elusive Colombian people who changed how he saw the universe. A follow-up has an urgent warning for mankind

Tue, Dec 10, 2013, 01:00

More than 20 years ago, the British documentary film maker Alan Ereira began researching a film about a lost city in the rainforests of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, the highest coastal mountain in the world.

In his book The Heart of the World, Ereira refers to the city’s location as a place “encouragingly known as hell because it was somewhat difficult to move through”.

The description is typical of the shrewd, laid-back charm he brings to the complexities involved in setting up, making and selling a film. In 1990s Colombia it took courage, chutzpah and experience as well as that charm to negotiate warring drug barons, labyrinthine government bureaucracy and a group of massively obstructive nuns. But in the end, the place known as hell proved to be the gateway to a Garden of Eden. And Ereira didn’t just find the lost city. He found a lost civilisation that changed his perception of the universe.

Aluna trailer

At an early stage in his project, Ereira heard that the Kogi tribe lived in the area of the lost city. Along with two other indigenous tribes, the Arhuaco and the Assario, the Kogi of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are descendants of the ancient Tairona civilisation, which flourished in Colombia at the time of the Spanish invasion. They escaped destruction at that time by retreating high into the mountains.

Ereira set himself the difficult task of contacting their mamas or elders. The Kogi are elusive, and, at that time, getting to them required either a four-day hike or a helicopter ride through country controlled by guerillas. The best Ereira could do was to send them a series of messages that he hoped would get through.

A warning to the world
A year later, he received what was effectively a summons, sent by the mamas after grave deliberation. Their motivation was simple: they were afraid. The Kogi call themselves the “elder brothers” of the human race, and believe they are charged with the task of holding the health of the planet in balance. The world’s general population, which the Kogi refer to as the younger brothers, are precipitating a major ecological crisis that threatens the planet’s survival, evidenced by changes the Kogi have witnessed in their mountain environment. Ereira’s messages had arrived just as the tribe was considering how to send a warning to the rest of the world. Now they had their answer: Ereira must make them a film.

That film, also called The Heart of The World, and made for BBC television, became a global sensation. Its final image of an impassive Kogi sealing the bridge that leads to their mountain home symbolised their uncompromising message: “The younger brother is doing too much damage. He must see, and understand, and assume responsibility. Now we will have to work together. Otherwise, the world will die.”

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