Perched in a valley about halfway up a coastal mountain range that boasts Colombia’s highest peaks is the indigenous Arhuaco community of Sogrome, a proudly self-sufficient village of 45 families that are growing some of the world’s most extraordinary artisanal coffee.
Cultivated through a combination of ancient indigenous farming techniques and modern agricultural knowledge that they call “more than organic,” the coffee of Sogrome is both a specialty brew and a symbol of the ecological harmony within which it is produced. For the Arhuacos — one of Colombia’s 102 indigenous peoples — this coffee is a vehicle for the relationship they wish to establish with the world beyond the sierra mountain range.
The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a geological feature older than the Andes, rises from Colombia’s Caribbean beaches up through dense tropical forests. At higher altitudes, these give way to moorlands and frigid lakes that feed the rivers and brooks that skirt the mountains. The sierra is home to an array of animal life and tropical plants, many of which are unique to the massif, a handful of which are uncharted by science.
Coffee was introduced to the sierra in the late 19th century. In Sogrome, rather than plant the shrub in high-density monocultures as is the standard practice, Typica and Caturra varieties were added to the forest gardens and fields that produce the village’s sustenance. Amid potatoes and beans, mango and orange trees, each family keeps anywhere from two to 50 coffee bushes, which grow and mature as part of a community of plants. The intercropping of species and the overall vitality of the agricultural system makes the coffee plants less vulnerable to disease, while clippings from the orchards and byproducts from coffee processing are composted to return nutrients to the land, avoiding the need for synthetic fertiliser.
The unique conditions of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and the artisanal processing that the Arhuacos have perfected conspire to make Sogrome coffee rich and smooth, with cup ratings in the middle to high 80s. But in this context, quality goes beyond the flavour in the cup. It speaks to the impact that the coffee has on the land that the Arhuacos tend, to the quality of the sierra’s water and wildlife that their agricultural system preserves.
Coffee is Sogrome’s only commercial crop. The majority of what is grown by the village of 310 people is for their own consumption. The sale of their specialty coffee establishes a link between their community and the flows of global commerce, generating the currency that allows the Arhuacos to buy the handful goods they do not produce themselves. Under the brand name Amas la Sierra, the Arhuacos hand-deliver two types of coffee to customers in Colombia in compostable packaging.
Amas la Sierra is a balance between the indigenous knowledge of nature preservation and the advanced sophistication of specialty coffee production, resulting in two kinds of high-altitude coffee produced in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The honey coffee holds a Tastify score of 85 points, and the washed coffee 86 points. Its flavour includes highlights notes of citrus fruits, a delicate body, and the sweetness of sugar cane. The farms that give origin to this coffee are 100 per cent organic polycultures and the entire process from tree to cup is largely artisanal.
But the main motivation for this endeavour is not economic.
“Instead of isolating ourselves, we can establish a dialogue,” says Gunjarimaku, a spokesman for Sogrome.
“By adding what each culture knows to the knowledge of the other, we can better manage our potential and improve our odds of creating sustainable societies.”
The Arhuacos of Sogrome believe in shortening supply chains by connecting directly with customers in urban centres. Selling coffee in this way — community to community — is just the first step, a hook for building relationships.
“Coffee is a means for talking about the preservation of culture, a way to weave bonds across this nation and with the rest of the world,” Gunjarimaku says.
By Aurora Solá and Valentina Amaral
For more information, visit www.amaslasierra.com.