Safeguarding a Cultural Treasure – The Jaguar Shamans of Yuruparí

San Miguel, Vaupes.

The term ‘sacred site’ generally conjures up images of a tangible object – like  the Egyptian pyramids, Japan’s Meiji Shrine or the Hagia Sophia in Turkey.

But when it comes to the remote jungle of the Amazon basin, in the area known as the Pira Paraná River which stretches across the Colombia-Brazilian border, there are no tangible man-made sacred sites visible to the untrained eye. This means the ancient indigenous groups who govern the area have a difficult task in gaining the official protection and recognition of their land as a “sacred site”.

For the six indigenous groups that inhabit the area – the Barasana, Eduria, Makuna, Bará, Tatuyo and Tuyuca– the earth itself is considered sacred – including everything from the broad, cascading river, the flora of the dense, verdant rainforest, the minerals in the ground and the myriad animal species that live there.

Fundamentally important to the Pira Paraná River culture is the tradition of the Jaguar Shaman of Yuruparí (or paye). Believed to be descendants of the omnipotent Yuruparí anaconda, a mythical creature who lived in the form of a human, the payes are considered to be the masters of knowledge. That is, they are experts in maintaining the earth’s natural balance through the flow of vital energy. They believe the earth functions as a living, breathing body, where everything is interconnected – the rivers, the earth, the sun and the animals – which need to be cared for as a whole in order to maintain a dynamic equilibrium. The indigenous groups, for example, have special sustainable agricultural practises and hunting laws that, when properly applied, ensure the land is not damaged or exploited from one year to the next.


The Jaguar Shaman culture of the Yuruparí is so special that in 2011 it became the first ever cultural complex to be recognized by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding. That is, the entire cultural complex of some 2,000 people made up of six ethnic clans was officially recognized. This one-of-a-kind UNESCO listing contrasts with the other items that are typically listed such as a specific cultural implement, a dance, musical instrument or festival. The UNESCO recognition recognizes that the traditions of the Pira Paraná river basin are so rich and unique, that despite a scarcity of tangible man-made monuments like churches, mosques or temples, the area’s heritage must be properly protected for its exceptional cultural value.


Thankfully, progress is being made to help safeguard this important cultural complex.  “ This is the first generation that is putting forward how to safeguard their traditional culture and are obtaining national and international support, up until now since the arrival of the europeans they have spent all their energy surviving the destrucción of the western expantion.” says Gaia Amazonas Founder Martin Von Hildebrand.

“After many years of meetings and many different gatherings we are finally reaching a point in which we have concrete results”, agrees Silvia Gomez, the advisor on intangible cultural heritage to the Colombian Ministry of Culture.


One main achievement is that indigenous groups are seeing the fruits of 15 years of practical efforts to secure the protection of their territory and culture. In order to demonstrate, in a tangible form, the extent and depth of the Jaguar Shaman culture, ethnic groups have undertaken a rigorous research effort to collate and record their collective history and traditions. This includes the proper documentation of languages and ancient ecological calendars, detailed mapping of important locations and traditional rituals such as healing practises. Through the coordination of ACAIPI  (the Association of Indigenous Captains and Authorities of the Pirá Paraná), local indigenous groups have been given a real voice to help safeguard their heritage. And many in the local community are taking to the project with gusto – especially the indigenous youth who have been enthusiastically engaged in documenting their culture through computerized research and mapping tools. These effords were rewarded in 2009  when the 7 cultures of the Pira Parana basin were declared by the Colombian governmentprotection as national intangible heritage, which paved the way for the UNESCO world listing.


These important cultural maps, traditions and rituals are being collated in a booklet to be published in 2014. The booklet is, according to Gomez, a testament to the empowerment of indigenous communities and successful collaborative efforts. Importantly, conservation efforts are treating the two elements of cultural heritage and the environment as a whole, which historically was not the case. They are now realized as being inextricably linked and should be protected as such.


In 2009, in the context of  the CANOA program, the governments of Colombia and Brazil ratified an agreement to safeguard the inmaterial culture of the North West Amazon basin. Shortle the first report on the sistema of sacred sites in this área will be published. Gaia Amazonas, ISA and ACAIPI are hopeful the agreement will be reinforced and renewed when the ministers of the two countries meet again in March 2014.


Despite these promises to safeguard the territory, mining remains a real threat. The area is a rich source of gold and coltan, a valuable mineral used for making electronic products. While ethnic groups legally own the Pira Paraná territory, the Colombian state owns the subsoil, which leaves the area vulnerable to mining interests. “Mining is definitely one of the most dangerous realities,” , says Gomez. But she adds that the goverment, the Idigenous governments and Gaia Amazonas are taking steps in research and diagnostics with the aim to put in place a concerete policy outline to protect the sacred sites by the end of 2013. “It is a very very complex issue because there is an immense diversity of ethnic groups and there needs to be a common understanding of what constitutes a sacred site, how to identify and protect them.“


With a two year moratorium on mining due to be lifted in mid-2014, opening up areas like Pira Paraná River to the threat of mining, the need for a proper policy framework to ensure the protection of these sacred sites couldn’t be greater.

 Watch a video on the unique culture of the Pira Paraná River peoples, known as ‘Hee Yaia Keti Oka’.

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