The Sierra Nevada del Cocuy has an impressive bio-cultural diversity. Its area not only teems with a rich flora and fauna, it also overlaps with the ancestral indigenous U’wa territories and with campesino lands.

Indigenous inhabitants – the U’wa
Compiled by Rodrigo Cámara Leret.

In times of the Pre Conquista different indigenous groups inhabited the Sierra del Cocuy (Muiscas, Laches, Guanes, Chitareros) but only the U’wa remain today. In the past, the U’wa clans inhabited an extensive region, stretching east and west of the Cocuy and covering different altitudinal belts. Today the U’wa number is about 7,600 in the Colombian departments of Arauca, Boyacá, Casanare Norte de Santander and Santander which together cover an area of 352,422 ha (DANE 2005). Most U’wa are united under the U’wa Unified Reserve, which comprises 17 U’wa communities. The Cocuy National Park overlaps with 132,000 ha of U’wa lands, including five different U’wa resguardos (Ospina 2005).

The U’wa conception of life is inextricably linked to the vertical character of the land they inhabit. They divide their territory into the lowlands, middlelands and highlands, with each altitudinal belt characterized by a unique set of symbolic properties. The highlands and lowlands are considered indestructible, but the middlelands can only exist if the balance between the first two is maintained. The U’wa see themselves as responsible for maintaining the balance between the highlands and the lowlands; failure to maintain this balance according to them would suppose the end of the Universe (Osborn 1990).

While the U’wa generally inhabit the middlelands, they hunt, fish and grow different crops for subsistence from the lowlands to the highlands. However, the vertical use of the landscape by the Uwa cannot be explained by economic or food security reasons alone. Their traditional vertically itinerant horticultural productive system is largely oriented to the celebration of religious ceremonies (Osborn 1990). In so doing, the Uwa cultivate maize from the lowlands to the highlands not for provisioning maize throughout the year but to have sufficient product for their ceremonies. 

Every year they celebrate two religious rites that imply a vertical movement of some clans from the lowlands to the middlelands and to meet in the more traditional communities. The two festivities are 1) the Reowas, a purification rite during May in which myths are narrated blowing of the hallucinogenic yopo (Anadenanthera macrocarpa, Fabaceae) takes place; and 2) the Aya, a series of dances celebrated from August to November meant to “ordain” spiritually the territory (Osborn 1990). 

Campesino inhabitants
Compiled by Ingrid Olivares.

During the 16th century campesino populations of different origin occupied the current territory in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy. Costumes and traditions of campesino inhabitants in the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy are the result of a long history of cultural intermixing. In these campesino communities current food preparations and construction modes are of colonial origin. However, for health care and medicines, people appeal to the knowledge inherited from their indigenous neighbours, using plants provided by the surrounding forests and páramos. The large amount of tales and myths related to the good and evil spirits inhabiting the páramos evidences their indigenous inheritance (Barón 2008). Collecting medicinal plants is apparently common and they are sold on the markets of El Cocuy and Güicán and downslope. Especially lítamo (Draba lítamo) stands out because of its healing effect of fever and ‘gripa’ (Uribe 1948). Other species such as Senecio (S. formosus, S. adglacialis, S. leucanthemoides), Pentacalea vaccinioides, Niphogeton josei (‘anamú’), N. dissectum (‘apio’) and ‘granizo’ (Hedyosmum) are recognized by the local communites. Even Espeletia lopezii seems to have healing effects. Still, very little is known about traditional plant uses among campesino population in the Cocuy and Güican municipalities, and a systematic study of the medical plant species is in high need, before traditional knowledge disappears. In the nearby Guacamayas municipality one study showed that locals mostly use plants for medicinal purposes (229 species), with most uses centred in the families Asteraceae, Lamiaceae and Solanaceae (Beltran-Cuartas 2010). Whether this holds true for campesinos in the municipalities of Cocuy and Güican remains to be studied. 

Before the 18th century besides farming, common activities across the region of Boyacá included pottery, weaving and metal-smithing. Increasing populations and strengthening of landowner systems during the XIX century placed agriculture as the primal activity. Currently campesino communities in the Department of Boyacá are of paramount importance for the country´s subsistence and economy. Their agricultural activities provide the largest amounts of legumes and potatoes for the national market (Castellanos-Camacho 2011). Given the environmental differences between the east and west flank of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, subsistence activities differ between campesino communities.

Historically, agriculture has been the main activity in the west, where soils are rich. In the east, soils are poor, but precipitation is higher, therefore fishing and cattle raising have been common activities among the eastern inhabitants (Langebaek-Rueda 1987). Both in the eastern and the western flanks of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy, the largest populations of campesino people locate in the flat areas. The two main municipalities are Güican (2963 m) with approximately 7,896 inhabitants (DANE 2005), and El Cocuy (2437 m) with about 5,582 inhabitants (DANE 2005).