The Indigenous Arhuaco of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

Posted by Chris O’Brien

In two weeks, I’ll join my fellow blogger-soon-to-be-authors Chris and Jody Treter for a visit to two coffee producing communities in Colombia. The first is the indigenous Arhuaco of the coastal Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains in northern Colombia. The Arhuaco are one of four indigenous groups believed to be descendants of the ancient Tayrona civilization which thrived around 900 CE and may go as far back as the beginning of the first millennium. We’ll be meeting Arhuaco representatives from the Tayrona Indigenous Federation.

In preparation for the trip I’ve been learning what I can about these people and their environs. I started by reading a chapter about them in Dean Cycon’s book Javatrekker and a few dribs and drabs floating around on the web.

Some themes emerge in what I read. First, as with many indigenous people around the world, coffee was used against them as a colonial weapon of oppression. But today they are tentatively embracing it as a potential tool of economic empowerment by seeking relationships with fair trade coffee partners.

Second, by all accounts they are distrustful of and unwelcoming to outsiders. I suppose they have their reasons.

And finally, they have a deeply held religious belief that their mountains are the heart (or, depending on what you read, the navel) of the world. As such, they feel that the health of the Sierra Nevada range is critical to the survival of the world. Apparently, for decades now they have been diagnosing local ecosystem changes as symptomatic of global warming.

According to our trip host, Cooperative Coffees, the Tayrona Federation have the following eight objectives in commercializing their coffee. Here they are as quoted verbatim from the Coop Coffees website.

  1. Give to the Confederación Indígena Tayrona, as legitimate representative of the insterests of the Arhuaco people, the economic capacity to commercialize their own coffee.
  2. To strengthen indigenous institutionality of the Arhuaco natives, represented by the Confederación Indígena Tayrona.
  3. To strengthen economic self/sustainability in the Arhuaco community as a strategy to prevent deplacement of the indigenous population of the zone.
  4. To control the entering to the zone of external agents to the community that produce internal disarticulation.
  5. To assure that the coffee producing Arhuaco community members receive the benefits to which an organic producer has right.
  6. To refrain from cultural dissolution or crackeling of the community.
  7. To create the mechanisms that permit the Arhuaco community to have better sales processes in their agricultural products.
  8. To acquire knowledge based on experience of commercialization of agricultural products.

I’m very eager to learn whether selling coffee through fair trade relationships is helping them realize these goals. The beer activist in me is also very keen to see if there are some unusual versions of chicha being brewed up in them there mountains.


8 Responses to The Indigenous Arhuaco of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta

  1. Adam King says:

    I’d be very interested to hear what the outcome and conclusions of your trip and its questions (whether selling coffee through fair trade relationships is helping them realize their goals). I’m heading to Nicaragua in a couple weeks on a similar expedition, albeit not as remote as yours. We’ll hopefully film a documentary short on trade injustice in their coffee industry for starting up a fair trade org here in Ontario, Canada.

  2. I’m researching an issue of the Magazine on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture, where we want to examine developments in fair trade in general, so I would also be very interested to hear the outcomes and impressions you get from your trip. We hope to publish an edited version of the Food First paper and other constructive looks at ‘fair trade’, local markets and all the issues surrounding this topic.

  3. beeractivist says:

    Adam King and Karen Hampson:

    Will gladly share what I learn. I’ll post here from the road if I can or will do a trip recap when I return.

    Chris O’Brien, BeanActivist

  4. Jim Lyon says:

    I have a sample that is supposedly from this region. The person who sent it is in Florida. Do you think it is the real thing?

  5. beeractivist says:


    I wouldn’t have any particular reason to doubt it. There is definitely plenty of coffee being exported from that region. There is even Fair Trade certified coffee coming from there but it is from a different coop than the one we visited. You can find out more about them if you go to the FLO website and search the producer registry.

    Happy roasting,

  6. Alex says:


    I’m doing an essay on sacred sites still in use and the way old cvilizations conected with nature. I think Ahruaco people, from what I can read ahve both. I was wondering if you could tell me how easy (or not) it is to get in contact with them.



  7. beeractivist says:


    I’ll email you offline, but the basic answer is that it isn’t easy at all I’m afraid.


  8. […] bad for the environment.  I remember sitting down to lunch with a Mamo (a religious man from the Arahauco indigenous group from the Sierra Nevada region in Colombia).  Catalina, my host, made a nice […]

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