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Regenerate and Celebrate: Protecting the Heart of the World

Align local, national and international stakeholders towards protecting sacred lands through Regenerative Agriculture

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

Asoanei: Asociación de Productores Agroecológicos indígenas y campesinos de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta y la Serranía del Perijá

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Farmer Co-op or Farmer Business Organization

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

• UN (UNESCO World Heritage, UNCTAD SDGs): Large NGO • Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development: Government (National) • Ministry of Interior: Government (National) • IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative: Large NGO • Root Capital: Investment Based Organization • Rabo Rural Fund-Rabobank: Investment Based Organization • Ethos Agriculture: Small Company (Sustainability Advisers) • Sustainable Harvest: Small Company (Coffee Importer) • Fair Trade International: Large NGO (Certification) • Rain Forest Alliance: Large NGO (Certification) • Eco-Agriculture Partners: Small NGO (Research) • Conservation International: Large NGO • CIAT: Research Institution

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 3-10 years

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

Northern Colombia: Mainly, Valledupar, Pueblo Bello, Agustín Codazzi and Aguas Blancas

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


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

The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta encompasses 17,000 km2 (6,600 sq mi) and serves as the source of 36 rivers

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

For the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada, the landscapes, ecosystems, and biodiversity that sustain our lives and cultures are seen as sacred—no less worthy of veneration than a temple, church, mosque, or other house of worship.

In this territory we have maintained our beliefs for over 10,000 years.   From birth a direct contact with our land is formed through planting the placenta to be a physical connection with our sacred soil.   We learn through listening and observing “Seynekun” or Mother Earth - our conscious is connected with our surroundings.   Protecting the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta’s natural resources is our focus - from our ancestors we receive a legacy that we treasure and for future generations we safeguard this legacy.  

Sustaining the balance of the spiritual and ecological world is our sacred task. Although the four indigenous groups (Arhuaco, Kogi, Wiwa, and Kankuamo) of this region speak different languages, they have nevertheless retained a common spiritual tradition. Within the indigenous communities, every action and behavior is informed by what we call the “Law of Origin,” an ecological philosophy that governs their relationship to nature, animals, weather, bodies of water and the cycles of the planets and stars. Our cultural practices revolve around the concept of “aluna”, which is the belief that every object or being has both a physical and spiritual reality.  We believe the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the beating heart of the world: what happens here happens everywhere, and when its rivers run dry, its ice caps melt and its endemic species disappear, so do the rest of the world’s. 

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.

Located in the north of Colombia, in the departments of Magdalena, La Guajira and Cesar lies the mountain range of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta and its snow-capped peaks, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. The Sierra is home to the Teyuna Archaeological Park (the Ciudad Perdida, or Lost City), birthplace of the Tayrona Indians, the largest indigenous civilization in the country. When the first Spaniards set foot in Colombia in the 16th century, they found the Tayrona civilization that practiced sustainable farming through crop rotation and vertical ecology, built terraced drainage systems that minimized erosion, and produced exceptional gold and pottery work. 

Today, more than 50.000 descendants of the Tayrona (four indigenous groups: Arhuaco, Kogi, Wiwa, and Kankuamo) live in 52 settlements. We have formed our own government and received status as an indigenous reserve in 1974 and as a protected area in 1984. This was partly due to a strong organizational process started by the Arhuaco peoples based on ethnic demands and recognition from the State.

UNESCO declared the Sierra Nevada a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site in 1979. The Tropical Andes (which includes the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) are a biodiversity hotspot named the "global epicentre of biodiversity" according to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is a singular ecosystem that contains a number of ecoregions, which vary with elevation.  This multi-peaked volcanic massif, located just 25 miles inland from Colombia’s northeastern Caribbean coast rises to a height of nearly 19,000 feet. Shaped like a pyramid—each side approximately 90 miles long—the mountain climbs through multiple ecological zones, from the wetlands and mangroves along the coast, through tropical rain forests, deserts and alpine tundra, until finally reaching the snow-capped peaks. Thousands of plant and hundreds of animal species, dozens of which are endemic, have been found here, including 628 bird species—about equal to what has been identified in the United States and Canada combined. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is the drained by 36 rivers, which makes it an invaluable water source for the 1.5 million people who live in the cities and towns that circle the base of the mountain. It is this rich water resource that is now threatened by the multiple dam and irrigation projects currently under way.

In the highlands the main economic activity is subsistence agriculture.  We cultivate potatoes, onions, cabbages, lettuce, blueberries, tamarilloes, pumpkins, garlic and wheat. In the midlands we cultivate corn, beans, yuca, arracacha, malanga, coca, cotton, pineapple, papaya, guava, passion fruit, sweet granadilla, oranges and limes. We also raise chickens, cattle, sheep and goats.

The cultivation of coffee and cocoa is also very present in our region.  The local communities are also well known for our handmade handbags (Arhuaca mochilas), hats, wood work and other arts and crafts.  

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.

In a way, the Sierra Nevada is a microcosm of the planet:  coral reefs, sandy beaches, deserts, rainforests, tropical dry forests, savannas, paramos, tundra, alpine lakes, glaciers—all connected in a seamless gradient of life-forms.  Here are more endemic plants and animals—species unique to this place—than almost anywhere else on Earth.

But this contained landscape faces trouble. As the planet heats up, the glaciers are disappearing. During the past 150 years, the massif has lost more than 92 percent of its ice, and scientists predict that the rest will be gone within the next 30 years. If that happens, the 36 life-sustaining rivers that flow from its peaks will begin to run dry, imperiling the animals and plants in the varied ecosystems and jeopardizing the lives of not only the 4 indigenous communities, but also 1.5 million people in the region below.

Due to its geographical and climatic characteristics, and the settlement of indigenous peoples, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta represents an important attraction for investors interested in tourism and the development of megaprojects. Unfortunately, these activities, in addition to having environmental repercussions, ignore the existence of sacred sites and  traditions, affecting the social processes of indigenous peoples, undermining the possibilities of the permanence of their culture and transmission of traditional knowledge. In addition, it this type of "development" violates our territorial rights and autonomy, and of the ancestral relationship that our indigenous communities have with our territories.

The mountains are also rich in precious minerals, and extractive industries have for several decades pushed for a license to operate in the area. Some have already succeeded in getting access by the government and, currently, 261 mining concessions have already been given and 244 concessions are pending the government’s final decision. However, we have not been included in these decisions and processes. This has led to massive protests against the mining projects and their destructive impact on our territories.

In this way, the development of these projects by the non-indigenous population not only constitutes a violation of our sacred places but also our government system.

The non-indigenous population lacks awareness of the importance of these territories, since they are only seen as a resource to obtain money without understanding or respecting the view we have regarding our territory.  Furthermore, global climate change effects are already affecting our lives where the wind and rain patterns have changed, affecting the harvest from small-scale crops that form our main source of survival and income.

By 2050, if we do not organize both within our communities, but also nationally and internationally, the Heart of the World will cease to beat and the foundation of our culture will be lost.

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

Recent studies have shown that areas managed by local communities and indigenous people hold as much as 80 percent of the Earth’s biodiversity, and sacred natural landscapes such as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are considered to be the world’s oldest conservation areas.

ANEI was founded in 1995 by Aurora Izquierdo, the first Arhuaca native woman from the community of Yewrwa to earn a degree in agronomy with the objective of organizing farmer communities to protect the Sierra Nevada. She’s a leader who used coffee as a platform to promote the cultural presence of the communities, through projects that reclaim social, economic and cultural rights and promote the food security of the communities. ANEI’s has now become the largest supplier of Organic Certified Coffee in Colombia. 

Beyond certifying a single farm or a single commodity, we can go much further to credible verify that an entire region is supporting a continuous regenerative landscape. ANEI would like to demonstrate how through coffee, a regenerative landscape approach for the entire Sierra Nevada ecosystem can be established.  Under this new area-based model, the objective is to work towards a situation where indigenous communities get recognized and rewarded for improving sustainability in an area beyond individual farms or mills. Landscape Management refers to long-term collaboration among different groups of land managers and stakeholders to achieve ecological, economic and socio-cultural objectives required from a delineated geographical area.  Landscape Management provides a unique context to design and target resources so that they can efficiently yield public goods. 

ANEI will operationalize a set of protocols and provide the supporting infrastructure to coordinate work among partners

1. Facilitate strategic coherence and a common agenda between stakeholders (producers organizations, local governments, private sector, research and civil society) to build effective long term partnerships dedicated to protecting the Sierra Nevada through regenerative landscape management

2. Support community engagement to ensure the rights of the indigenous communities are recognized and enforced 

3. Manage data collection, analysis and online/public reporting of key metrics to transparently present activities and monitor performance within targeted territories

4. Develop effective communications and advocacy agendas that create public awareness and opportunities for engagement with research, policymakers, funders, and the public.

5. Maintain a full-time team with functional skills in leadership, data, facilitation, and stakeholder engagement

Through this coalition a joint responsibility between indigenous communities, public and private sector can be developed to ensure the ecological security of the region. 

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.

The Sierra Nevada is not "a piece of land" but is "our mother" that gave us life and enables us to survive as an indigenous group.  Sierra Nevada should be celebrated as a spiritual eco-center of Colombia, where people can come and reconnect with Mother Nature.

We would like to use coffee as a blueprint, to demonstrate a model to unite the Sierra Nevada ecosystem and communities.  Establishing Sierra Nevada as an center for excellence that celebrates Mother Nature and promotes the Sustainable Development Goals through regenerative landscape management,   This approach can also provide a unique opportunity for workforce development and research to spur local innovation.

Our knowledge of the ecosystem comes from 10000 years of experience. Our communities have generated traditional knowledge related to the thousands of indigenous crop and plant varieties, animal breeds, and wild species that we use as food, medicine and other products to ensure livelihood security.  Sharing this knowledge and learning new regenerative agriculture techniques is an opportunity for collaboration and innovation. 

Growing coffee within diverse, community-led landscape system is a viable solution for small-scale farmers to both tackle poverty through responsible agriculture practices. Once installed, well-maintained systems require less inputs and are naturally resistant to pests and diseases, thereby cutting costs and labor for farmers. Equally as important, dynamic agroforestry systems can provide employment, multiple income streams and premiums paid for products that are sustainable produced.

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

As guardians of the Earth, we believe it is our duty to demonstrate a direct relationship with nature that shows our fates are inseparable and provides an alternative to Industrialized Societies whose practices are destroying the planet. This is the path that represents the union of all living beings.  We do not think of us as separated from nature, we are nature, it is our Mother, we are her children and it is our responsibility to protect her, love her and educate others to do the same.

Regenerative Coffee offers a concrete opportunity to create a unified sustainability plan for the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta that aligns with the six interconnected themes: Environment, Diets, Economics, Culture, Technology, and Policy. 

1. Environment:  The key to regenerative agriculture is that it not only “does no harm” to the land but actually improves it.  Regenerative agriculture leads to healthy soil, capable of producing high quality, nutrient dense food while simultaneously improving, rather than degrading land, and ultimately leading to productive farms and healthy communities and economies. It is a dynamic and holistic, incorporating permaculture and organic farming practices, including conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters and pasture cropping, to increase food production, farmers’ income and especially, topsoil.

2. Diets:  Processed foods are finding ways into our communities. All coffee grown by farmers is within an integrated farming system.  This offers the capacity to leverage agronomic support to offer biofertilizers and technical assistance to support farmers in healthy food production in response to changing conditions and to promote their food sovereignty.

3. Economics:  Growing coffee within diverse, community-led agricultural system is a viable solution for small-scale farmers to both tackle poverty and protect the landscape. The is a dynamic, ecologically-based approach to natural resource management that promotes the integration of diverse food, fodder, timber, and shade trees in agricultural landscapes. Once installed, well-maintained systems require less inputs and are naturally resistant to pests and diseases, thereby cutting costs and labor for farmers. Equally as important, dynamic agroforestry systems can provide employment and multiple income streams while fostering biodiversity and sequestering carbon.

4. Culture:  The application of traditional knowledge in such areas as ecosystem and landscape management, water management, soil conservation, biological control of pests and diseases, ecological agriculture and livestock practices, and plant and animal breeding will reveal important insights for the development of new types of regenerative  agricultural systems. Traditional knowledge is currently held, owned and developed both collectively and individually; and it is transmitted through written, oral and non-verbal means among and within cultures, generations, communities, households and individuals. ANEI is taking urgent action to prevent the loss of these valuable systems and practices.

5. Technology: The goal of Landscape Management is to promote greater coordination of stakeholders in a designated geography towards targeted economic, social and environmental objectives. In support of this goal, ANEI systems integrate big data (i.e. weather, commodity prices, GIS) and small data (i.e. household characteristics, farm level production) to be presented through a standard set of metrics, and hosted on an online platform.

6. Policy:  The goal is a greater shared understanding of key risks in a region to better target services to farmers, channel financial resources, and shape policy to safeguard the rights of indigenous families and the Sierra Nevada ecosystem.  Anei model brings together the producers within a region, supply chain actors, civil society, government, and researchers through a systems based turning sustainability into a joint responsibility. 

The Anei model builds on landscape approaches that are now being piloted widely.This model goes a step further and includes both the producing landscapes and supply chain actors, buyers, consumers, civil society, tourism. Regenerative Landscape Management deals with the cultural, environmental and economic complexities in an integrated and multidisciplinary manner, combining natural resource management with livelihood considerations. The landscape approach also factors in human activities and their institutions, viewing them as an integral part of the system rather than as external agents. This approach recognizes that the root causes of problems may not be site-specific and that a Sierre Nevada protection agenda requires multi-stakeholder interventions to implement actions that will have long term positive impacts.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Conference/event


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