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Teyruna: Returning to Indigenous Food Systems

Teyruna paves the way for the recovery of indigenous food systems in the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta through indigenous entrepreneurship.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Future Food Institute

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Teyruna is an indigenous business led by Francisco Villafaña. As he does not speak English, he will be advised by a team including Sybelle VanAntwerp, Charles Michel, and Chiara Cecchini from the Future Food Institute.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

N/A. Teyruna can be found on Instagram at the moment at @teyrunacacao.

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Perico Aguao (sector of Guachaca)

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Teyruna develops a vision for the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta National Natural Park, which covers an area of 3830 km².

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

The Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta, which is called niwi umu̶ke in the indigenous Arhuaco language, is considered to be the heart and lungs of the world by the four ethnic groups settled there, including the Arhuaco people. Our lead team member, Francisco Villafaña, is a member of the Arhuaco community and grew up on a remote farm in the Sierra Nevada, isolated from Western society. About this Place, he writes:

"The Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta territory is the living integrity that sustains our actions. For us, it is the unity of life, a written book of knowledge. Our spiritual forefathers left us a mandate to protect the balance of nature and its biodiversity in the Sierra Nevada."

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The Sierra Nevada is one of the highest coastal mountain ranges in the world, famous for its snowy peaks, lush jungle environment, rivers, and beaches.

Teyruna is a name inspired by the indigenous Arhuaco community, stewards of the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the Caribbean coast of northern Colombia. It is pronounced “tay-ROO-nuh”. 

The Arhuacos are the descendants of the Teyruna people. Despite colonization, systemic racism and oppression, the Colombian civil war, and fumigation of their lands, they have largely maintained their traditional language, dress, and religion. Today, there are approximately 60,000 Arhuacos in the Sierra Nevada, according to local sources.

They are a deeply spiritual people, focused on the conservation of their territory above all else. Over the years they have received international attention for their strong condemnation of Western capitalism and its related activities, from mining to deforestation.

Before colonization, the indigenous people in the region, including the Arhuacos, lived in the rich lands in the lower part of the Sierra Nevada on the slopes of the coast, amidst diverse agricultural systems. Their crops included cotton, sugarcane, corn, beans, and cacao. With the arrival of the Spaniards, they were forced to move to the higher altitude regions of mountains, where the land was no longer suitable for this type of agriculture. 

In time, they lost their traditions with cacao and other crops.

Their spiritual leaders say that Arhuaco ancestors cultivated cacao and used it for important ceremonies. In the past several decades, the community has begun to reclaim its territory in the coastal regions—and have placed a special focus on the recovery of their cacao traditions. 

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Environment: Climate change has affected the diverse ecosystems within the Sierra Nevada, and many Arhuaco producers have struggled to adapt due to lack of water and irrigation systems. In addition, as many Arhuacos have begun to shift away from traditional subsistence farming, certain traditional crops have become less popular. Ancestral seeds are at risk.

Diets: As attention has shifted away from subsistence farming and traditional diets, fewer Arhuacos eat what they produce. More and more community members are eating processed foods, such as crackers, soda, pasta, and store-bought meat. This is especially true for young people; children are also afflicted by high rates of malnutrition and water-borne illnesses, including parasites. Low incomes, the influence of Western culture, and the loss of ancestral knowledge that began with the displacement caused by colonization are all factors contributing to these issues.

Economics: Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the indigenous peoples used local rivers as a way to exchange and commercialize the food products of the Sierra from the higher to the lower altitude regions. The commercial system consisted of holding special meetings that served as food exchanges—a type of ancestral farmers’ market—where the participants brought potatoes, yams, panela, coca leaves, cacao, corn, and many other crops. It was not unusual for families to bring so many items that there were surpluses. Over time, this system ceased to function. Today, people live more independently and have to find ways to pay for the food that they cannot produce themselves. Low access to income and market information has left many on the margins of society; in remote areas, there is also a lack of access to higher education, exacerbating this gap.

Culture: Western culture has had a huge influence on the culture, especially with the rise of cell phones and other remote technology. Fewer Arhuacos are living the traditional mountainous lifestyle, selling the crops they cultivate instead of consuming the food themselves.

Technology: While the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta is incredibly diverse, there is a need for an ancestral seed bank in order to prevent the loss of biodiversity.

Policy: There is a need for the promotion of ancestral foods within the community, both internally and externally. At the moment, there have only been small pushes to change local diets to mimic what the ancestors ate, including cacao, cotton, beans, and certain medicinal plants.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our Vision is to support Francisco Villafaña, who recently started his own chocolate brand, Teyruna Chocolate. It is a rare example of indigenous social entrepreneurship that represents a tipping point for Arhuaco culture.

As a company, Teyruna will create opportunities for direct employment, training, cultural exchange, and educational scholarships. Teyruna's focus will also be on the recovery of a rare, ancient variety of cacao in the Arhuaco community, which will set up a model to preserve ancient foods.

“Munzuwa bunsi” in the Arhuaco language, or white cacao, is said to be native to the Sierra Nevada. Its beans have unique properties, with tasting notes of fruits such as grape and apple. Despite having received international attention in recent years, the community has been unable to source funding to retrieve samples, create tree nurseries, and graft this cacao on a wide scale.

Francisco has said, "Cacao bunsi is fundamental to our identity as the Arhuaco people in the same way as our white traditional dress, our beloved snowy peaks, and the crystalline rivers that circulate through the veins of our Mother Earth, which we consider to be our own body. Each bean of this plant is charged with energy from the elements that surround us. This connects us to our environment and harmonizes the mind, heart, and spirit."

Cacao grows in agroforestry systems—food forests—and needs shade. It is a plant that is good for the environment as it promotes biodiversity and carbon sequestration. It promotes other income generating activities, such as the planting of fruit trees and native wood species.

Over time, Teyruna will use the model it creates while recovering white cacao in order to support the recovery of medicinal plants from the region that could then be combined with chocolate. It could also support the recovery of special varieties of other ancestral seeds such as cotton, beans, and/or sugarcane.

Ultimately, finding value in external markets for products such as white cacao, through making chocolate or the cacao selling it directly, will also provide higher incomes to community members. 

Teyruna will connect to the local tourism market in the region, creating spaces for intercultural exchange where non-indigenous people can learn about indigenous food systems, with chocolate as an introduction.

Teyruna's multi-faceted approach will slowly address the challenges facing the Arhuaco community across the six Themes.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Until recently, the word for cacao had been completely lost in the Arhuaco language, Iku̶n. Through arduous investigation with the community's spiritual leader, the word was recovered: mu̶nzu̶wa.

While mu̶nzu̶wa means cacao, the word holds meanings beyond cacao. Mu̶nzu̶wa is about the first appearance of plants, purity, fertility, and resistance. It represents both a lost tradition and something that has persisted despite war and violence – a hope for the future.

In part, this hope is to teach future Arhuaco generations the remarkable story of this indigenous community and what it means to care for the environment through cacao. It is also to share a message of peace, harmony, and conservation with the non-indigenous world.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In order to create a regenerative and nourishing food future, we need to return to indigenous food systems.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Instagram


Join the conversation:

Photo of Leonardo Duque

You said that "It was not unusual for families to bring so many items that there were surpluses. Over time, this system ceased to function." As part of the team "Empowering rural youth by learning the methods of science in the context of the immense potential of biodiversity to generate employment," I will like to invite you to examine the viability to establish in every village a Storehouse to lower the vulnerability of the surpluses and benefit the farmers and the population. Please read about it in our vision proposal. Please contact me for any support Leonardo

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