Colombia | May 11th, 2023

Diego Aretz, a freelance journalist who writes for El Espectador, one of the main newspapers in Colombia, shared in his blog “Las Palabras y las Cosas” on May 1st, an article co-authored with Ati Gunnawi Viviam Villafaña, a young Arhuaco political scientist, about the global climate crisis and the pressing need to reimagine development. The authors elaborated on the current global climate crisis, highlighting the importance of projects such as TERRɅ INITIɅTIVE, in which indigenous communities play a leading role in its structuring and operation. Below, we share Diego and Ati’s article, which is also available at

The latest report on the evaluation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published in March 2023 warns of one of the biggest concerns of our time: The climate crisis. By establishing data that is overwhelming, and in order to better understand its implications, we must raise a fundamental question: Why does this represent a crisis? The global surface temperature has increased 1.09°C since pre-industrial times, reaching a higher mark between 2011 and 2020 than in the entire second half of the 19th century. Overall, the global temperature recorded on the Earth’s surface during the first two decades of the 21st century was 0.99°C. This becomes extremely alarming since, having as a frame of reference the provisions of the Paris Agreement, humanity must remain below 2°C not to surpass the point of no return.

Unmistakably, there is a direct responsibility of human activities, which have contributed significantly in this scenario, by releasing large emissions of Greenhouse Gases [GHG] – carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide – to the Earth’s atmosphere. However, these emissions occur unevenly on the planet, as energy matrices, land use, and consumption patterns are considerably different. Clearly, these results are a disadvantage for local and indigenous communities, who are highly vulnerable to climate change, and whose emissions have historically been minimal, or sometimes even negative. In general terms, these emissions come mainly from the use of fossil fuels, on which unquestionably a large part of humanity still depends.

“The results that characterize development pathways require reducing emissions, transitioning systems, transformations, low climate risk, fairness and justice, and compliance with the SDGs” [IPCC, 2023].

Given this reality, it is already urgent to start focusing on mitigation processes, among which clean energy generation stands out, such as that represented by photovoltaic solar technology, that has had a significant worldwide spreading during the last decade. Now, in a process of energy transition or incursion, it is essential to consider a dimension of justice. Fortunately, alternatives are already beginning to be glimpsed in this direction, as we have discovered in the TERRɅ INITIɅTIVE project, which is led by the Arhuaco indigenous community in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

It could be stated that one of the most sacred places in Colombia is without a doubt the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which has not only been identified by the IUCN as “the world’s most irreplaceable nature reserve”, but also has unprecedented potential in terms of solar energy. There, the Arhuaco indigenous community and the company Greenwood Energy have partnered in TERRɅ INITIɅTIVE project [one of the largest solar projects in the developed world in association with indigenous communities, and certainly the largest in Latin America. An integral aspect of the project is the contribution to the preservation and expansion of the biodiversity of one of the most vulnerable and unique regions of our planet].  With a total investment of USD135 million, distributed in three phases, this project seeks the economic and social development of the communities of the Sierra Nevada, with an unprecedented commitment on the acquisition of land for indigenous peoples, through their direct participation in the economic benefit of the project. A percentage of the revenues of TERRɅ INITIɅTIVE will be used to finance the environmental conservation carried out by the Arhuaco community in Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The project involves the construction of 3 new indigenous villages in the territory, with a population of about 350 people per village; this will be part of a strategy that will definitely strengthen the management and consolidation of indigenous communities in the territory.

During the project life, the Arhuaco community estimates adding 120,196 hectares of valuable ecosystems for its preservation, which represents about 6% of the world’s most irreplaceable nature reserve. To understand the magnitude of this project and its implications for the planet, it is essential to understand the ecosystem of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta [“SNSM”]: In the field of botanical meteorology, thermal floors refer to the division of different strips that are defined by the altitude of a mountain, where temperature variations and other elements of the climate occur; the determining climatic factor is the altitude above sea level, and the main meteorological variable that is affected by this altitude is temperature, so thermal floors are much more noticeable and significant in intertropical areas, as is the case of the SNSM, than in temperate zones, where these floors are not so marked and the range of biodiversity is less. The SNSM has been identified by studies in Science journal as “the world’s most irreplaceable nature reserve”, due to the unique diversity of threatened species that inhabit its different thermal floors, ranging from coral beaches to perpetual snow on its peaks. In a relatively small area, there are all the thermal floors existing in the world; a remarkable feature among the wide climatic range that Colombia has.

The first site of the project is located within indigenous sacred territory, in an area with one of the highest solar radiation in the country. The site has been selected by the Elder Mamus and Traditional Authorities of the Arhuaco People. And the surface to be protected is estimated to be greater than that of cities such as New York, Berlin or Seoul.

As a conclusion, TERRɅ invites us to commit ourselves and believe in a truly transformative energy transition, which must take place within the framework of sustainability and democratization. To a large extent, this democratic character must respond to the active involvement of local and indigenous communities, and be genuinely sustainable, as it respects and adapts to the limits that our planet has.

The role that the Mamus and the highest authorities of the Arhuaco people have acquired in this project is remarkable. In this sense, there are three relevant aspects: the first is the economic and social empowerment of one of the best organized ancestral peoples in the country, the Arhuaco community; the second is the vanguard energy and environment to which this project invites us, presenting solar energy as a door to reimagine economic development; and the third is the territorial benefit for the communities with the acquisition of 120 thousand hectares that today are threatened by deforestation and extractive tourism. From what we have been able to see, this project has no worldwide precedent, and stands out as empirical evidence of how it is possible that indigenous communities have the capacity to transform and unite a country, with a look from ethnic development, self-managed, and sustainable, with a propositional commitment towards a new type of world development.

About the Authors

Diego Aretz is a Colombian journalist and activist, master candidate in reconciliation and peace studies at the University of Winchester; he has been a media columnist in Revista Semana, Nodal, El Universal, a contributor to El Espectador. Director of Por la Frontiere NGO.

Ati Gunnawi Viviam Villafaña is a young woman from the Arhuaco community; political scientist, environmental activist and advocacy coordinator of the Climalab NGO.