For more than three decades, ancient treasures remained hidden among the light green coca plants of Raudal.
This article originally appeared on ¡PACIFISTA!, VICE Colombia's platform for promoting peace. It is part of "The COCA Project," which aims to establish and bolster the public policy debate on issues related to the aftermath of coca production with stories from rural regions.
Decades of conflict between Marxist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian government meant few people made it to this canyon along Guayabero River, where dense forest protects one of the country's most significant but least-known archaeological sites.
On the smooth walls of a rocky outcrop within the mountain region known as Serranía de la Lindosa, there's a wall with one of the most important rock paintings in Colombia. Archaeologists still haven't been able to date it, but they’re certain that the paintings are more than 400 years old.
Cryptic scenes are superimposed on the whitish slabs about four meters tall, among them depictions of tapirs, lizards, pregnant women, ladders, and ritual dances. Protecting them is a community that, for years, lived off coca plants, and that today is betting on a tourism project that currently provides a living for some 60 people.
The rebirth of Raudal
The history of Raudal, this small town along the Guayabero River, was forever altered about two years ago. In part, that’s because the 7th Front of the left-wing FARC rebellion—which was already in Havana negotiating peace with the government—stopped prohibiting the arrival of people from outside the region. But above all it was because locals organized and decided to launch a community tourism project.
Today, thanks to coordinated efforts by the guides of San José del Guaviare and the local community, up to 100 tourists a day are traversing the trail that separates Raudal from the capital city of the department (or state). There, tourists talk with community members and eat the food they've prepared for them, cross the canyon in an electric canoe, visit the paintings with a guide, and climb up to a natural overlook that has an impressive view of the whole river and the Macarena National Park.
“We’re moving ahead with tourism. It’s the only opening we have and we’re conserving the area around the river, the forest, and the animals,” says Disney Ardila, a 40-year old woman who receives visitors in a wooden house along the river and leads the organization.
“Tourism is strongest for us in the summer, from December to March," she adds. "There’s a good cash flow for everyone: The women who cook, the young people who are guides." Behind her is a sign reminding neighbors how, every other Thursday, the instructor from SENA (Colombia’s National Vocation Agency) visits from San José to teach a tourism course.
The tourism boom remains a modest one, but it’s helping Raudal recover from years of isolation and an attendant lack of economic opportunities.
“There wasn’t anything but coca here,” says Ardila, sitting in front of a small snack shop. She’s referring to the beginning of the 80s, when she was a seven-year-old girl living in the homestead founded by her father. He was a fisherman from San Martín de Loba, in the south of the Bolívar Department, who came here to dedicate himself to the business of selling tigrillo (small, tiger-like cats) pelts and the skins of caimans (a crocodile-esque beasts). It was a cash business.
But Raudal was the center for the purchase of coca paste, which rural people from the whole region processed by hand. Right in front of the house where Ardila grew up sat three or four chichipatos—that’s what the coca intermediaries were called—which weighed the bricks full of white powder people brought them. Later, they’d head out on speedboats toward San José del Guaviare.
“There was so much money that people went to town, to Puerto Concordia or to San José, to buy plantains or yuca. Picture that: people bringing plaintain from the city to the countryside where we can grow it,” says Don Carlos, president of Raudal’s community action committee, as he sits in front of the booth where tourists are greeted.
The bonanza went up in smoke in 1986 and never returned. Being so close to the edge of the Guayabero River made coca an easy target for government airplanes that fumigated the area with glyphosate—a systemic herbicide—as well as military operations. The ruins of a nightclub, a pool hall, and a market are the only remnants of that era.
Poverty became widespread, as did violence. In fact, the story of the Ardilas—and Raudal itself—is woven into the story of the decades-long conflict.
In February 2017, when three boats carrying more than 200 FARC guerrillas came down the Guayabero River and disembarked in Raudal—they were en route to the encampment area of Colinas, where they would later hand in their weapons—there was an intense reaction from the community. A nephew of Ardila’s who showed up at the homestead saw his family for the first time in nine years.
Painful memories remain. Ardila is still waiting to learn the whereabouts of her brother, Edwin, who has been missing for more than ten years and is one of the 45,000 people throughout Colombia whose fates have yet to be determined by the peace agreement between rebels and the government. There has been no sign of him since some FARC militants showed up at the family farm, where he was harvesting plants, and took him away.
His family believes he was recruited into the force because, generally speaking, if the guerrillas want to kill someone, they do it right then and there. She still holds out hope that he’s in one of the jungle zones where guerrillas turned in their weapons and simply has no way of communicating with them, although, judging by her face, she’s not convinced this is likely.
The Colombian Lascaux
Despite the fact that everyone in Raudal knew from a young age about the huge slab with the rock painting that’s just 15 minutes, at most, from their homes, few understood its value. At the end of the day, very few people—during the most violent years—came to explore this complex of paintings scattered along the vertical rock walls of the mysterious geological outcropping in the Serranía de la Lindosa. Described to outsiders for the first time by French explorer Alain Gheerbrant in the 1940s, they've been a source of fascination for archaeologists and anthropologists, but they’ve never been an icon renowned at the national level.
“Although the majority of people don’t even know that we have rock art, Colombia could truly become a pilar of global tourism. Because what we have is comparable to paintings like those in Lascaux, France, or Altamira, Spain. They have an incalculable value,” says Fernando Urbina Rangel, who has dedicated 40 years of his life studying the country’s pictograms and rock art.
Speaking with palpable emotion and still wearing his fisherman’s hat while sitting in the living room of his home, the professor emeritus of philosophy at the National University takes out books he’s published about rock art in Colombia and points out various drawings. He stops on one of them: some copper-colored animal silhouettes with concentric circles drawn on the feet and maintaining a running or galloping pose
They’re the “dogs of war,” one of his finds in Cerro Azul—a monumental painting 50 meters in length along the path neighboring Ruadal. The dogs have been fundamental for understanding some relics that remain obscure to archaeologists.
It was this image that allowed him to propose that some pictograms date to the first half of the 16th century, when a German explorer named Felipe von Hutten traveled the Guayabero region on a mission to find the gold of El Dorado. (He meant to satisfy the ambition of the banking family, the Welsers of Augsburg.) The dogs, an animal that had never been seen by the indigenous people in the area and that appear in the drawings from the German military expedition, were the key that allowed this connection to be made.
The value of the paintings to the Colombian government is clear: Officials are considering creating an archaeological park to protect the 60 distinct sites that have been identified to date in the region, including the one that’s cared for by Disney Ardila and her neighbors in Raudal.
Last year, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History made a complete inventory of the sites and are now mapping them, one by one, which will clarify who lives in the area. The idea is to formulate a management plan with the community, identifying appropriate and prohibited uses, with the hope of establishing an official archaeological zone in 2018.
After all, as is the case with forests and fauna, the only viable means of conservation lie in the hands of the people living in communities like Raudal.
“We should focus on the economic incentive that will be generated if we conserve [this place] well. That incentive is, realistically speaking, the only thing that works,” says Urbina, who has a personal obsession with kickstarting a national education program related to Colombia's archaeology and the project of peace. “Or if not, what can happen to us is what happened in Mediterranean Africa, where 75 percent of the rock paintings ended up being plundered and taken to private collections in Europe.”
The formula to achieve this might already be in place in Raudal del Guayabero and in other models intended to convert communities into conservation partners, just like those old coca harvesters who today protect archaeological sites.
For the time being, Ardila and her colleagues have a plan: They want to make a ecological trail leading between the paintings and the town, which will help educate visitors about the forest and the animals that live there.
This story was made possible thanks to a journalism grant from the Earth Journalism Network for reporting on biodiversity.