By Jaime Ortega Carrascal
DOMINGUEKA, Colombia – In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, Colombia’s indigenous communities have won back land from plots of marijuana and coca by producing a smooth-tasting coffee with a process based on spirituality and respect for nature.
To do it their way, Kogi Indians control the entire production process, even managing exports to Germany and the United States.
The Kogis make it clear that this is not an organic coffee, but a product that is 100 percent natural, free of chemicals at all stages of growing and production, and which respects the laws of their spiritual forebears, such as their creator, “The Great Mother,” that have been passed down from one generation to the next.
“The difference between the two (the organic and the native) is the way we produce it, applying these four chief concepts: spirituality, conservation, traditional coffee beans and, from planting the crop to packaging the final product, management by the indigenous community,” said Arregoces Coronado, the community’s leader for a group of journalists visiting Domingueka.
Coffee was first grown on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada half a century ago, brought by settlers who forced the natives to retreat to the highest parts of mountains that stand majestically overlooking the Caribbean, crowned by the 5,775-meter (19,000-foot) high Colon peak.
In the world view of the Kogi, Kalache is the spiritual father of trees who sent coffee to their land for some reason, and so they must respect it.
That is why growing the crop does not follow the techniques used in the rest of the country, but is done at random, and since the beans are considered a gift of their spiritual father, the Indians have resisted any temptation to do things differently.
“We don’t change the beans because the traditional authorities say that they can’t be changed,” said Coronado, who serves as the contact between the community and the rest of the world, while combining Kogi tradition with his business administration studies at a university in the city of Santa Marta.
Growing coffee beans was the way Indians found, with the support of the Justice Ministry, to recover lands that through the years were seized from them by settlers and drug traffickers to grow marijuana and coca leaf.
With a plan launched in 2007, the government financed the purchase of lands that were in the hands of settlers, and the Indians set about eradicating the illegal plantations and replacing them with coffee and subsistence crops, said Jorge Mario Ramirez, adviser in the business development of the Kogi.
“The model was successful because it respected the traditions of the community. When you understand that sociocultural dynamic, it all begins to make sense,” he said.
The Indians’ harvest amounts to some 300 tons of coffee, of which 20 percent is in the form of toasted green pergamino coffee beans, and they market their products in 80 outlets in the country’s four leading department store chains under the brand names Kogi, Teyuna and Gonawindua.
The money obtained from this alternative development is used to buy more land at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, of which 30 percent is used for production and 70 percent for conservation.