Creativity and Conservation Are Alive and Well In the World’s Most Incredible Coastal Mountain Range

The foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Colombia feature the world’s highest coastal range, a stunning geography where mountains drop off vertiginously into the sea with barely any warning. Its elevation, in fact, runs at an incredible average of a meter in height for every seven meters inland. Oceans and mountains co-existing in unique proximity – and consequently are home to an astonishingly diverse array of flora and fauna.

The area also is home to the groundbreaking La Sierra Artist Residency, an organization founded by Nina Arias which recognizes and brings into action the essential and deep-rooted links between nature, wellness (physical and mental) and creativity. It may seem obvious up until the creativity bit, but La Sierra is far from alone these days in understanding that creative and active citizens are the cornerstone of local projects – their roots; their bricks; their guiding lights. 

“Five years ago we realized that the region was lacking in environmental education and overall ecological consciousness,” says Arias. “So we decided to generate that educational link between art and nature, inspiring awareness and a sense of belonging in the local kids and young people of our community.”

In fact, this central tenet of creative response driven by La Sierra is perhaps the core component of Plastic Ocean International’s BlueCommunities family: work which is genuinely locally led and doesn’t just pretend to be; work that always looks slightly different place to place because it is always necessarily unique; work that has real people and not repeated processes at its beating heart. 

La Sierra Artist Residency

Young and talented artists, Edwin Martínez and Carlitos Ramos, doing nature proud!

No surprise then that La Sierra Artist Residency is one of the newest member of  BlueCommunities initiative.

Because without creativity how can we dream better versions of ourselves?

Without creativity, how can we imagine that we might just succeed against insurmountable odds. 

At La Sierra, a particular medium of artwork is not important; nor is a specified emphasis or methodology. Instead, local collaboration is at the heart of everything. In this way art becomes a humanizing medium and not a final statement. The inherent value is in the time given, the people sat with, the stories shared – and how we all grow when we give of ourselves, and others do the same.

How beautifully simple and yet still revolutionary to believe that this kind of creative engagement has the innate capacity to shatter boundaries and constructs, and remind us that we all have much more that unites us than separates us. 

La Sierra Artist Residency

Nina Arias presents the La Sierra coloring book to a young student.

“One of my favorite examples of how wonderful the La Sierra project is can be experienced in their beautiful childrens’ coloring book,” says Mark Minneboo, Plastic Oceans International’s Regional Director for Latin America. “Developed to educate young students about the rich biodiversity of the region, the point isn’t that it coldly teaches people what they ‘should’ know, but that it gives them space to creatively engage with the wonders around them.”

That creative focus also has deep roots in history and memory, because at the heart of La Sierra’s focus is indigenous culture and prioritizing the importance of ancestral arts. 

The region continues to be home to four indigenous communities, the Kogi, Arhuaco, Kankuamo and Wiwa – all of whom are descendants of the Tayrona people that preceded the Spanish. Central to these communities is a concept of generating reality through thought which they refer to as “aluna.” Far from being a theoretical concept, the notion is also credited with being one of the reasons that these communities have historically been resilient in the face of evolving challenges. 

As such, these communities – in association with La Sierra – are at the core of care, conservation and progressive custodianship of all ecosystems in the region, from alpine forest to coastal wetland, from mangrove to mountain top. 

“There are over 630 bird species just in the mountains of Santa Marta. And that’s only what’s been catalogued,” continues Minneboo. “Imagine what is out there that we don’t even know about yet. I’m so happy that La Sierra is our local partner in the #BlueCommunities project, so together we can embark on the work that needs to be done, as well as inspire people globally on what is possible.”

Creativity, and its innate power. Go figure.

Go act.

Jon Bonfiglio works in sustainability with Ninth Wave Global and covers news & environment for a variety of media outlets internationally.