Environmental leader Danilo Villafañe, an Arhuaco indigenous leader, has drowned in the Palomino river, in the department of Magdalena, northern Colombia. Villafañe lost his life when he jumped into the river to rescue other people, among them two minors, who were surprised by the sudden rise in water levels. The event occurred on Monday afternoon, December 25, and has saddened the Arhuaco indigenous community of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where the leader was known and appreciated for his struggle in favor of the preservation of the mountain range and the ethnic peoples.
The Mayor’s Office of Santa Marta shared a press release in which it expressed “its deepest condolences to the Arhuaco indigenous people” for the death of Villafañe. According to the police report, the young woman Villafañe was trying to rescue, named Erika Izquierdo Chaparro, 25 years old, also died “in events that occurred in the area of Perico Aguado, between the beach and the Palomino River“
Danilo Villafañe, 49, was a well-known nature advocate who worked all his life for the preservation of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. He was also known for his fight against climate change, even participating in the recent Dubai summit, COP28, where he shared his perspective and knowledge in search of sustainable solutions to address global environmental changes.
The now deceased leader became aware of his leadership role in 1996 when, at the age of 22, and while training to work as a Spanish language teacher, he lost his father. Villafañe senior was known for his commitment to the environment, and died while working for the eradication of illicit crops in his region, after participating in a meeting related to this work. It was then that Danilo Villafañe took up his father’s banner and started fighting for the environment.
Adalberto Villafañe, Danilo’s father, also opposed the colonizers who in the 1980s wanted to plant marijuana in the Sierra Nevada. To do this, these groups wanted to have various tracts of forest felled, causing collateral damage to the ecosystem and the territory.
“This provoked a massive invasion of peasants from the interior of the country in the north of the ecosystem, who with chainsaws cut down a lot of forest. My father decided to stop this environmental crime”, said Danilo Villafañe in an interview to Semana magazine in 2020.
Parallel to his environmental activity, Danilo Villafañe ventured into politics, through his candidacy for the senate for the Alianza Verde party in 2014, although he did not manage to be elected. Subsequently, he ran for Arhuaco indigenous governor, a position he held provisionally in 2019, becoming official the following year.
From that position of responsibility, he worked to improve the participation of his community in the management of the Tayrona Park, one of the places most visited by tourists and one that preserves the beauty of the territory on the Colombian Caribbean coast.
As a leader, he maintained a close relationship with the businessmen of his region, expressing his concern about the poor management of water, a reality that still today causes serious supply problems for many people, even in the capital Santa Marta, especially in the poorer social strata. “Entire families have had to leave their homes because the small tributaries have dried up,” Villafañe said.
Reactions to his death
Reactions to the death of the indigenous leader have come from all political positions in Colombia. The president, Gustavo Petro, has lamented his demise, recalling his commitment and collaboration at the recent summit in Dubai. “We met several times to discuss the ways of the climate crisis in the region, the installation of clean energies in the heart of the earth: the Sierra Nevada he loved and the concretization of the black line. We met in Dubai at COP 28, he defended life and the planet”, wrote the president.
Similarly, the former president and leader of the conservative opposition party Centro Democrático, Álvaro Uribe, has also referred to Villafañe, highlighting his role as a leader “This news hurts deeply. Danilo was a great leader, a great indigenous man, a great patriot. What a void his departure leaves”, the former president said in his social networks.
Another former president, Iván Duque (2018-2022), has also referred to Villafañe, whom he has described as a “great friend”, showing his regret for his demise. “I regret the passing of my great friend, the governor of the Arhuaco people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Danilo Villafañe. Colombia loses today a great leader and a fighter for the conservation and preservation of the environment of the Sierra and of our country”.