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Grant Whittington headshot

Solar Farms and Sacred Mountains in Colombia: Indigenous Community and Developer Link Arms to Save ‘Irreplaceable’ Nature Reserve


A trailblazing environmental project launching in Colombia’s biodiverse Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains (shown above) promises to pair the construction of solar farms with newly built villages for the Indigenous Arhuaco people.

The project, dubbed Terra Initiative, is brought to life through a partnership between Greenwood Energy, a Latin American subsidiary of global conglomerate Libra Group, and the Confederación Indígena Tayrona (CIT), the organization representing the Arhuaco community. Greenwood Energy will sell clean energy generated from its six utility-scale solar farms to Colombia’s National Interconnected System while providing skills training and job opportunities to the Arhuacos.

The initiative also paves way for the development of three new towns for the Indigenous group, each to be furnished with schools, health facilities, tools needed for sustainable farming and solar energy systems. Crucially, for every kilowatt-hour generated by the farms, CIT will receive a commission to strengthen land preservation efforts.

Land preservation and land rights are a deeply personal matter to the Arhuaco people. Much aligned with other nations colonized by white settlers in the Americas, Colombia’s history of land rights among Indigenous peoples is fraught. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century, Indigenous groups including the Arhuaco fled to the highlands of the northern Colombian mountain range to seek safety and maintain their traditions. The very mountains they fled to 500 years ago have been under attack over the past several decades as land grabbers grapple for a slice of the biodiverse mecca ripe with gold, coal and other valuable minerals.

Despite recognizing Arhuaco land as protected in 1984, the government has granted hundreds of mining concessions — with hundreds more pending — without permission or consultation from the Arhuaco people. Opening up the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains to miners poses an onslaught of damages to not only the Arhuaco people, but also the ecosystem itself.

Colombian minister of Energy and Mining Diego Mesa Puyo, President of Colombia Iván Duque Márquez, and Arhuaco Leader Noel Torres signing to launch the Terra Initiative
Left to right: Colombian minister of Energy and Mining Diego Mesa Puyo, President of Colombia Iván Duque Márquez and Arhuaco Leader Noel Torres signing to launch the Terra Initiative. (Photo courtesy Greenwood Energy)

The UNESCO-recognized biosphere region was touted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2013 as “the most irreplaceable nature reserve in the world.” Land grabbing and a green light to miners from the government threatens the highly diverse yet highly susceptible ecosystem. The Terra Initiative, which was designed using key insights and engagement from the Arhuaco people, is projected to preserve land larger than the surface area of New York City while also creating a power generation offset equivalent to more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Land grabbing and new mining projects also lends itself to displacement for those previously abiding in those spaces. With nearly 5 million Colombians forced from their land, the South American nation has the third most internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world, according to data from the Norwegian Refugee Council. Instead of planting the flag and tearing down villages, the Terra Initiative will do the opposite: build communities.

“This initiative goes hand-in-hand with the Arhuaco people’s objectives of conservation, protection, and care for nature, while also providing a housing solution and helping facilitate education, preservation of culture, and allowing for coexistence between modern and Indigenous life,” Arhuaco Leader Noel Torres said in a press release. “For the Arhuaco people, development is that which guarantees life today and in the future.”

The Terra Initiative is redefining what it means to run a sustainable project, creating a blueprint for other companies and developers to gain inspiration. Beyond powering clean energy, preserving sacred land and putting the Arhuaco people at the center of the work, they are upping the ante to assure long-term success. Following 25 years of operation, the ownership of the solar farms will be transferred from Greenwood Energy to CIT.

The Arhuaco people believe that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the heart of the world, and it’s their duty (no, privilege) to safeguard it. They hope the Terra Initiative, through its sustainable approach, will make the heart beat stronger.

Image credit: Giselle Cucunubá Manes via Unsplash

Grant Whittington headshot

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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