Health and Healthcare Systems

Colombia's former president says COVID-19 shows the importance of listening to indigenous peoples on how we treat the planet

In a sacred zone of the Kogi indigenous people, north of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Juan Manuel Santos was inaugurated in a symbolic ceremony as the new President of Colombia attended by leaders of the four indigenous peoples of the Sierra.

Colombia's former president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner implores world leaders to listen to indigenous peoples. Image: Fernando Ruiz - SIG (Presidency of Colombia)

Juan Manuel Santos
Conservation International Arnhold Distinguished Fellow, Former President of Colombia, 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
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How to Save the Planet

  • Former President of Colombia Juan Manuel Santos implores world leaders to listen to indigenous peoples, especially on the environment.
  • The coronavirus pandemic is yet another global threat requiring us to reimagine our relationship with nature.
  • As more leaders retreat from science and global collaboration, the wisdom of indigenous peoples can show us the way.

The day I became president of Colombia in 2010, our “older brothers” – the indigenous peoples that inhabit the mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – gave me some important advice: "Seek peace and reconciliation among Colombians but also with Mother Nature because she is mad, and she is mad because she has been severely mistreated.”

Today, that advice is an urgent warning, one that every person and government on Earth must heed.

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Humanity and nature are further out of alignment than ever before. The world has seen species decline, and 1 million are under threat of extinction. Temperatures are rising, bringing flood and fire across the globe. A pandemic likely unleashed by man’s intrusions into nature is devastating economies and lives.

These global threats can be addressed only through global action. Yet most nations still cling to the illusion that they can survive in isolation, that their borders can somehow magically protect them while the rest of the planet burns.

I understand this impulse. But I am calling on my fellow national leaders to reject it. Instead, we must reimagine our relationship with nature, and follow the guidance of indigenous peoples.

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Although they make up only 5% of the global population, indigenous peoples sustain many of the healthiest ecosystems on Earth. They manage more than one-quarter of all land on the planet, while protecting about 80% of global biodiversity.

On my inauguration day, I met with indigenous leaders to symbolically seek their permission to assume power. They agreed and gave me a baton of authority and a necklace with four stones. The first represented the land that we must take care of. The second symbolized the water that is the source of life. The third stone was for the nature with which we must live in harmony. And the final stone symbolized the government, which must respect the order of nature and the will of the Creator.

These leaders transformed my vision of Earth and its resources. They reminded me that nationhood does not trump humanity, and that humanity cannot be separate from nature.

I spent the next eight years as president with this in mind. My administration ended the terrible human and environmental toll of Colombia’s half-century of civil war, put an area larger than Germany under permanent protection and implemented a carbon tax to fight climate change.

President Santos with indigenous women in 2018.
President Santos with indigenous women in 2018. Image: César Carrión - SIG (Presidency of Colombia)

These actions were good for Colombia, and for the planet. Colombia is the most biodiverse country per square kilometre in the world, the home of unique coastal, marine and mountain ecosystems that benefit the entire region. But these same features are precisely what make us so vulnerable to climate change.

Like every country, Colombia does not exist in isolation. We are always vulnerable to the impact of actions beyond our borders. COVID-19 has reaffirmed this. That is why we launched the Sustainable Development Goals in the Rio+20 Summit in 2012 and strongly supported the Paris Agreement. It is also why I have been so disheartened in recent years by seeing some nations retreat from global collaboration.

President Santos traveled to San Miguel, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, to return the baton given to him eight years ago as a symbol of approval.
President Santos traveled to San Miguel, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, to return the baton given to him eight years ago as a symbol of approval. Image: César Carrión - SIG (Presidency of Colombia)

It has somehow become normal to question science and the lessons we should by now have learned from indigenous peoples. For example, the dangers of disease that come with taking wild animals out of their habitats and bringing them into densely populated cities have been ignored. Meanwhile, the prioritization of climate change and environmental protections is sometimes lacking among world leaders.

Now we face a global public health disaster that has already cost us more than 264,000 lives and threatens to ruin economies and test nations and international institutions to their breaking points. History has taught us that peace doesn’t emerge naturally. We must ensure that after humanity has won the war against this virus, we don’t allow the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism, but rather, build international bridges and heal wounds

Indigenous peoples have been trying to show us the way. They understand the bond between man and nature better than any politician or scientist could ever hope to. By heeding their wisdom, we can save ourselves and the planet.

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Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsClimate ActionNature and Biodiversity
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