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Living the Law of Origin: The Cosmological, Ontological, Epistemological, and Ecological Framework of Kogi Environmental Politics



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Parra Witte, Falk Xué  ORCID logo


This project engages with the Kogi, an Amerindian indigenous people from the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in northern Colombia. Kogi leaders have been engaging in a consistent ecological-political activism to protect the Sierra Nevada from environmentally harmful developments. More specifically, they have attempted to raise awareness and understanding among the wider public about why and how these activities are destructive according to their knowledge and relation to the world. The foreign nature of these underlying ontological understandings, statements, and practices, has created difficulties in conveying them to mainstream, scientific society. Furthermore, the pre-determined cosmological foundations of Kogi society, continuously asserted by them, present a problem to anthropology in terms of suitable analytical categories.

My work aims to clarify and understand Kogi environmental activism in their own terms, aided by anthropological concepts and “Western” forms of expression. I elucidate and explain how Kogi ecology and public politics are embedded in an old, integrated, and complex way of being, knowing, and perceiving on the Sierra Nevada. I argue that theoretically this task involves taking a realist approach that recognises the Kogi’s cause as intended truth claims of practical environmental relevance. By avoiding constructivist and interpretivist approaches, as well as the recent “ontological pluralism” in anthropology, I seek to do justice to the Kogi’s own essentialist and universalist ontological principles, which also implies following their epistemological rationale. For this purpose, I immersed myself for two years in Kogi life on the Sierra, and focused on structured learning sessions with three Mamas, Kogi spiritual leaders and knowledge specialists. I reflect on how this interaction was possible because my project was compatible with the Mamas’ own desire to clarify and contextualise the Kogi ecological cause.

After presenting this experience, I analyse the material as a multifaceted, interrelated, and elaborate system to reflect the organic, structured composition of Kogi and Sierra, also consciously conveyed as such by the Mamas. I hereby intend to show how the Kogi reproduce, live, and sustain this system through daily practices and institutions, and according to cosmological principles that guide a knowledgeable, ecological relationality with things, called ‘the Law of Origin’. To describe this system, I develop a correspondingly holistic and necessary integration of the anthropological concepts of cosmology, ontology, epistemology, and ecology. Based on this, I argue that Kogi eco-politics are equally embedded in this system, and constitute a contemporary attempt to maintain their regulatory relations with the Sierra Nevada and complement their everyday care-taking practices and rituals. In Kogi terms, this continuity and coherence is a moral imperative and environmental necessity. Thus framing and clarifying Kogi eco-politics may enrich insights into the nature of indigenous ecological knowledge, and may help address environmental problems.


Doctoral thesis in Social Anthropology. Based on a realist and holistic approach, this work examines how the environmental political activism of the Kogi Indigenous People of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in Colombia, is guided by a wider and complex way of being in and knowing the world. This in turn, it is argued, forms part of an elaborate, interrelated and structured 'system' of human and non-human elements, which can be framed and understood through a necessary integration of the four analytical concepts of cosmology, ontology, epistemology, and ecology.




Barbira-Freedman, Françoise
Robbins, Joel


Kogi, Colombia, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Mamas, Cosmology, Ontology, Epistemology, Ecology, Environment, Political Ecology, Landscape, Indigenous People, Amerindian, South America, Knowledge, System, Realism, Holism, Morality, Ethics, Universality, Essentialism, Reality, Anthropology, Social Anthropology, Activism, Ethnic movements, Andes, Caribbean, Kaggaba Indians, Nature, Culture, Social Theory, Climate Change, Ecological Crisis, Mountains, Origin, Order, Function, Relationality


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge