Mongabay Features

Danilo Villafañe (1974-2023): A Guardian’s Farewell

In the emerald shadows of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a profound loss echoes through the mountains. Danilo Villafañe, an Arhuaco Indigenous leader of unwavering conviction, passed away on Christmas Day, aged 49, in a selfless act of heroism. Villafañe drowned while trying to rescue two young women from the waters where the Palomino River meets the Caribbean Sea. The 15-year-old Erika Izquierdo Chaparro also died in the incident.

Villafañe, embodying the Arhuaco spirit, held the revered position of governor among his people. He rose to prominence as a vigilant protector of the Sierra Nevada, known to its inhabitants as the ‘Heart of the World.’ His relentless efforts to shield this sacred land from deforestation and colonization mirrored the endeavors of his late father, Adalberto, who was assassinated in 1996 while working to reclaim Indigenous territories from coca barons.

A voice for Indigenous rights, Villafañe’s legacy transcends borders, evidenced by his participation in international gatherings, including this month’s climate summit in Dubai. His activism at times pitted him against formidable adversaries, including paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Yet, his resolve never wavered, underscoring a profound connection to his land and people.

The news of Villafañe’s death has sparked a wave of mourning, reaching the highest echelons of Colombian politics. President Gustavo Petro, alongside former presidents Álvaro Uribe and Iván Duque, extended heartfelt condolences, reflecting his influence across political divides.

Villafañe’s personal life was as rich as his public persona, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. His leadership in integrating his community into the management of Tayrona Park, a jewel of the Colombian Caribbean coast, marked just one of many achievements in his journey.

The Arhuaco, descendants of the Tayrona civilization, are custodians of an ancient wisdom that reveres the Sierra Nevada as a spiritual epicenter. Their Mamos and Mamas, through rituals and meditations, strive to maintain the planet’s equilibrium, countering the disruptive forces of modern exploitation. The Sierra, a unique ecological marvel, stands as a testament to their enduring stewardship.

In Villafañe’s passing, we are reminded not only of life’s fragility but also of the enduring beacon of hope he represents. His life’s work, deeply interwoven with the fate of the Sierra Nevada, continues to inspire a global call for environmental and cultural preservation. In the heart of the Sierra, the spirit of Danilo Villafañe lingers, a guardian whose legacy will guide future stewards of our shared Earth.

By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.