In this piece Camilo Arango Duque uses the case study of the Colombian region of Antioquia to explore how particular ideas of the human relationship with nature are constructed. He argues that revisiting the area’s indigenous past reveals a less adversarial association, and that appreciation of this and similar histories could have global significance for new environmental policies.
There are 34 hotspots on the planet, representing 2.3% of the Earth’s surface, which are critical for its conservation. Two of these areas are located in Antioquia, a region of Colombia located in the northwestern corner of South America. Its moors (páramos – high mountain ecosystems) reach 4,500 meters above sea level and it has around 400 kilometers of coastline on the Caribbean Sea. Of the entire Antioquian territory, 58% has forest potential and, so far, more than 14,000 different plant species have been identified in the region’s forests.
Since ancient times, the Nutabes, Tahamíes, Catíos and Emberas indigenous peoples have lived in Antioquia. Although their history has not been sufficiently studied and, on the contrary, has been forgotten or deliberately made invisible, we have enough information to affirm that their practices and worldview implies harmony with nature and significant spiritual ties. In the petroglyphs carved by the indigenous groups of Antioquia, for instance, spiral icons are abundant. Expert archaeologists in the field believe such symbolic representations reflected the equilibrium of the eternal cycle of nature. However, traces of these older conceptions about nature were erased as, towards the end of the 19th century, a certain idea emerged that the Antioquians had a particular and distinctive character, marked by their ability to adapt to a hostile environment with courage and tenacity.
In Antioquia, as in other parts of the world, we currently have serious environmental problems. One key maybe lies in the way the region’s history was constructed: the myths that gave rise to a certain culture that praised one worldview of nature while obscuring another.
In 1913, the Antioquian painter Francisco Cano created a painting called Horizons (shown in the feature image). The painting shows an Antioquian family in search of a better future. The father holds in his left hand the axe that will allow him to build a home and settle on the mountain. His right hand points out to the horizon, in a position reminiscent of the “The Creation of Adam” scene in the Sistine Chapel. This idea of the ‘Adam’ in Cano’s painting was developed in a context where Antioquian identity was built on pride in their ancestors who had lived there at the beginning of the 19th century. It is as if the history of the region began with the newly-independent mestizo Republicans arriving in an inhospitable place, full of trees and mountains.
This idea of the bravery of these ancestors and their ability to tame a wild nature with the blow of an axe was reproduced over and over again in multiple scenarios. In the first instance, the tree became a barrier to the achievement of a better future. A similar phenomenon occurred simultaneously in the forests of the North American Upper Midwest, specifically in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. As Professor Daniel Headrick’s says, “When pioneers first arrived in the region, they saw forests as an obstacle to progress.” For example, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote after visiting Michigan in 1831 that Americans were “insensible to the wonders of inanimate nature and they may be said not to perceive the mighty forests that surround them till they fall beneath the hatchet. Their eyes are fixed upon another sight… peopling solitudes and subduing nature.” 
The axe, on the other hand, became a symbol of progress. It is the tool of redemption, of the man who overcomes hardship, overcomes the fierce jungle and builds a home and a future. In the case of Antioquia, the value of the ancestors was exalted as if they had been placed here by God, or as if they had been expelled from paradise to a harsh environment in which they had to survive. The tragedy of the Antioquian Adam – his exile, his condemnation to work and a difficult life in an unfriendly environment – is at the same time what consolidates his heroism. Based on this idea, this perspective became the official history. This myth of heroism gained strength while the true millenary indigenous past was hidden, eradicated from our history.
A fragment of the poem by the Antioquian writer Epifanio Mejía, published in 1868 and entitled El canto del antioqueño (The Song of the Antioquian), reads as follows:
“The axe that my elders left me by inheritance, I love it because accents resound with its free blows. Forge tyrant despots, long and hard chains for the humble slave, his kneeling feet kisses. I, who was born haughty and free on an Antioquian mountain range, I carry iron in my hands because it weighs on my neck!”
Ordinance No. 6 of 1962 of the Local Assembley determined that this poem would be the lyrics of the official Antioquian anthem since they believed it revealed the feelings and identity of the region’s people.
In 1975, the mayor of Medellín (Antioquia’s capital city) inaugurated a 38-meter sculpture by Colombian artist Rodrigo Arenas Betancur. It was called Monumento a la Raza (Monument to the Race). It shows a group of people composed of men with axes and picks, some women holding small children whilst others carry dead bodies on their backs, and another group of men dragging a jaguar. They all have one destiny: they are heading through a whirlwind made of rail roads, through the jungle to redemption. This human collective overcomes the difficulties of the environment and moves towards the summit. At the top of the sculpture, a man with spread wings – the result of his hard work – flies towards the cosmos.
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, there were a series of Colombian writers, mainly poets, who expressed in their works visions opposed to this official progressivism. In 1906, for instance, the poet Porfirio Barba Jacob wrote a poem entitled Parábola del Retorno (the Return Parable) in which a man returns to the rural home of his childhood and finds that the country setting has been lost in the mists of time:
“Tell me: Is this the farm that belonged to Ricard? Was not it shy under gloomy foliage, did not it have an orange tree, a willow, and a palm tree? (…) Madam, and who picks the branches from the orchard? The overgrown grass hides the path. Whose factories are these? Who made a real bridge?”.
Their pain, then, was the nostalgia for the lost home, and these types of romantic manifestations were also a constant counterpoint to the dominant vision of nature.
The indigenous perspective, however, was practically forgotten. Their worldview, according to which nature represented a mother, a living entity, does not appear in our cultural heritage. The Congressional Act 89 of 1890 is very revealing: “By which the manner in which the savages who are being reduced to civilized life are to be governed is determined.” It is important to note how the term savage is used. The indigenous people, like the jungle or the forest, had to be subdued and civilized.
This monumental vision has led to a progressive vocation linked to the idea that progress implies defeating nature. The axe was replaced by the backhoe, wooded places have been destroyed and old roads of bucolic aspect have become empty paved roads. In some lonely corners, with no pedestrians or vehicles, the red and green of traffic lights illuminate the spot.
Amongst other things, a vindication of the forgotten history of the ancient communities will allow us to understand that progress could be also measured by the number of trees per inhabitant or the quality of the air we breathe. Instead of continuing to develop and promote anachronistic policies, we should fully understand our past and the true dimension of our historical relationship with nature without forgetting or deliberately hiding more encompassing and sensitive relationships to it.
The Antioquian case is not unique. It is part of a much broader problem created by a series of global ideas in which there is a common denominator: the adversarial relationship of human beings with nature. In recent times, local governments have begun to develop new environmental policies although the representation of the tree as an obstacle is sometimes still persistent. As this case study demonstrates, humanity needs to rethink its relationship with nature and it can be done by revisiting our history and appreciating the many lessons the past can offer us.
Camilo Arango Duque is a Professor in Environmental Law at the Universidad Catolica de Oriente as well as a lecturer at other univerisities in Colombia and Ecuador. He is currently completing his PhD in Humanities at EAFIT University and was a visiting student at the University of Oxford until June 2021.
Featured Image: Horizontes painting by Francisco Cano in 1913. Museo de Antioquia.
 Headrick, D. R. (2019). Humans vs Nature. Oxford University Press. P.57.
 Tocqueville, A. (2003). Democracy in America: And two essays on America. Penguin UK. P. 64.
 Link: http://dgsa.uaeh.edu.mx:8080/bibliotecadigital/handle/231104/1337?show=full