Inherently Integrated: How the Indigenous Ethos of Colombia’s Sierra Nevada Models ILM

by | October 24, 2023 | 1000L News, Biodiversity and Landscapes, Landscape Partnerships, Landscape Restoration and Management

Amid the lush forests of northern Colombia’s Sierra Nevada landscape, four Indigenous communities reside in Santa Marta, a region rich in biodiversity bordering the sea. A unique spirit and energy connect the Arhuaco people with their landscape, known lovingly as the Sacred Sierra. Here, the land is more than owned territory—it is a living extension of the surrounding communities. 

For the Arhuaco people, living in harmony with the land is their cosmovisión—their law of origin. Known in the Western lexicon as a “worldview,” the cosmovisión that guides these Indigenous communities is rooted in the Arhuacos’ strong dedication to holistic living and responsibility for the health of their landscape.

This ethos inspired Aurora Izquierdo Torres to cocreate ANEI, a cooperative of coffee farmers in the region. Named after the word “delicious” in the Indigenous Ika language, the co-op has committed to ethically producing coffee in a way that both boosts livelihoods and protects the region’s rich biodiversity. 

Their focus is paying off–What began as a group of 20 families in 1995 is now a collective of over 700 producers from the four Indigenous communities and Colombia’s largest organic and fair-trade coffee producer. Torres, now the partnership’s coffee director, is committed to ensuring that this shared model of managing land and resources continues to grow in size and impact. 

“All of our practices are rooted in caring for our Mother Earth,” said Gunkuakun Paez Izquierdo, Torres’ son, who guides ANEI’s communications. The group’s main priority is to ensure that the land and communities living there can continue to thrive. While selling coffee and cacao is a business they take great pride in, their greatest joy and purpose comes from connecting and caring for the land through their farming methods and daily lives. 

A Long Tradition of Sustainable Agroforestry

The traditional ecological knowledge of the Sacred Sierra region guides ANEI’s organic coffee farming practices. They use agroforestry to sequester carbon in the soil, have a deep understanding of nursery management for succession planting, and are well-organized in distributing planting materials. These practices support community income and quality food sources. 

ANEI’s approach to stewarding the land is one form of integrated landscape management (ILM). Though its implementation can vary widely across landscapes, at its core, ILM is a framework for cultivating an interconnected and sustainable relationship between humans and nature. In 2022, ANEI connected with the 1000 Landscapes for 1 Billion People initiative (1000L) to help test and design innovative tools that will eventually help ILM take root throughout landscape partnerships worldwide. In collaboration with Saurin Nanavit, whose team from Ethos Agriculture specializes in designing sustainable supply chains and enhanced traceability for coffee co-ops, ANEI is working with 1000L to develop a process by which local leaders and community members can define a shared vision for their landscape.

“Our cosmovisión and the tools of 1000L go well together,” said Izquierdo. “We are conscious about how our human activities are not separate from nature. We live together with the land.” ILM’s long-term land management principles are not about removing residents from a landscape to save it; people and their environment are inextricably linked. In the case of ANEI, their work is inherently integrated, making the partnership and codesign between ANEI and 1000L a meaningful and well-suited exchange. 

Decades of friendship and learning have taught Nanavit how the practices of the Arhuaco people are innately interconnected. “For us, ‘integrated’ means how you connect and interact with nature,” said Nanavit. “We are nature. We breathe with trees; our veins are like the rivers that run through the mountains. 

“The Sacred Sierra is magical. The communities there worship the land. They are the land. They are there to serve Mother Earth, and this is the foundation for their sustainability. If you consider something sacred, that is the highest form of sustainability.” 

Nanavit’s Ethos Agriculture, 1000L partners like Tech Matters, and ANEI are working to develop tools and frameworks to help the co-op reimagine its role as a coffee-farmer collective and as a manager and caretaker of the broader landscape. A critical part of that is the capacity to attract funding, acquire grants, and play a larger role in its business management. 

An additional part of the codesign process involves mapping the Sacred Sierra landscape, which will integrate Indigenous knowledge with technological advances to help build a more inclusive, accurate representation of the landscape. Accurate data mapping and visual storytelling capabilities within Terraso’s StoryMaps tool will help amplify ANEI’s capacity to share its landscape vision with the world. Given the increasing pressure they receive from the Colombian government, vacationers, and enterprises to sell their land to the highest bidder, these tools invite outsiders to understand and accurately value this sacred landscape.

Joining Forces with Allies for Mother Earth

Another benefit 1000L, Ethos Agriculture, and ANEI will realize together is that by codesigning landscape management tools, they get to share in discovering and implementing innovations in landscape finance. Together with the 1000L finance transformation team members, ANEI conducted a landscape assessment, mapping agroforestry areas and places where reforestation efforts could contribute to building a portfolio of investable projects that would appeal to financiers. Expanding access to finance is one of the main goals of 1000L in partnering with landscapes. 

“When you are drinking a cup of ANEI’s coffee, you are already experiencing the unique story of the Sierra,” said Nanavit. “Their model taps into the consciousness of consumers, development organizations, and investors, inspiring them to rethink commodities as tools that carry some of the spirit of that place.”

Yet, in his lifetime, Izquierdo has felt more pressure from outsiders to buy Arhuaco land or use it for tourism for their own profit. The Arhuaco people and others who are a part of ANEI are working to avoid displacement and harm to their land. Strengthening the landscape partnership’s capacity and resources will help fortify their efforts for years to come. 

“We are doing this for future generations,” said Izquierdo. “We want to keep caring for the land, maintain our philosophies, and share our messages with more people to increase consciousness.”


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