In the far north of Colombia, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range towers above the lowlands that surround it. Soaring to permanently snow-capped summits more than 5700m in height, the massif covers an area roughly the size of Hawke’s Bay and is large enough to serve as the source for 36 rivers. On its lusher lower flanks, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta is home to a number of distinct indigenous peoples as well as much more recent settlers who have Spanish ancestry.
The Spanish conquest of Colombia did not work out well for the original inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada, who have seen their way of life badly eroded as a result of contact with the outside world. Due to their remoteness, these indigenous groups (Arhuacos, Koguis, Wiwas and Kankuamos) managed to retain some degree of independence before they eventually felt the full impact of colonialism; by the 20th century, their traditional customs were being broken down and this process had been accelerated under the influence of locally-based Capuchin missionaries, who forbade the use of the native language by local children.
The Arhuaco people, in their mountainous homeland, had traditionally seen it as their role to protect the universe from their position living at it’s heart, deep in the Sierra Nevadas. But by the 1990’s, with their culture so badly eroded by outsiders, alcoholism was rife in their communities and the violence associated with this drunkenness was resulting in a high frequency of violence and killings. Child death by starvation had become a common occurrence among their communities.
Against this backdrop, and using coffee as the focal point for a social and economic opportunity, a group of Arhuaco established the ANEI co-operative in 1995 and embarked on a long term mission to turn this situation around, to regain a degree of autonomy for their people and to improve their lives through their own initiatives. Remarkably, their plan is already transforming their situation just two decades following the co-ops’s creation. Along the way, their original vision has also expanded to include both other local indigenous groups, and also other coffee producers living within the Sierra Nevada region.
ANEI is, like other well-managed co-operatives we partner with, doing a great job of improving coffee production and quality, as well as improving the lives of its producers.
Before ANEI was founded, its producers – like most Colombian coffee farmers – relied heavily on the FNC (the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation) as the sole buyer of their coffee, and for agronomy training they might receive. The FNC system did not offer these farmers enough value from coffee to improve their production or even, at times, to cover their costs.
Today, ANEI members sell their coffee directly to their co-op’s own collection warehouses at fair and more sustainable prices, and ANEI manages the export of its own coffee through contracts it signs directly with its overseas customers. Most of their coffee is now being sold at premium prices to the international fair trade market. The co-op has invested heavily in coffee quality improvements and its members now receive much more training in coffee production than they once did. ANEI has installed two cupping labs and is starting to export higher-scoring lots at better prices still. With an eye towards controlling all aspects of the processing of its coffee, and to export coffee on behalf of other organic producers, ANEI is quickly becoming a highly professional coffee exporter. Its members are improving the quality and the quantity of the coffee they produce, and through their technical support program have more than doubled their production per hectare.
Crucially, ANEI’s social programs are also developing rapidly. ANEI’s programs support health and education improvements within their communities, with a strong focus on supporting families to become more food secure, and on providing educational resources to local indigenous schools. Local indigenous cultural traditions have been revived.
Even well-run co-operatives need strong external support and this is where we come in, and the higher prices we pay for ANEI’s fair trade organic coffee are helping to fund all of this activity.
Through excellent management and with the help of a supportive network of direct clients including Trade Aid, the future is looking bright for ANEI, and the organisation has a strong focus on how to bring about many further improvements in the lives of its members. Through investing in the development of youth leaders within its membership, ANEI says that it is starting to look seven generations ahead. Their model is, says their manager Jorge Paez Izquierdo, a ‘dream come true. All of our systems and processes are focusing on long-term sustainability, preserving our values and our environment while guaranteeing our income’
Coffee has provided Trade Aid, and in turn our own customers, with the opportunity to partner with ANEI on their journey of transformation. We’re very proud to be using our relationship with ANEI to start rectifying some of the problems that history has brought to its people, and we thank all those that share our vision in supporting them to do so, now and into the future.