Replanting Food Forests In Sierra Nevada

After returning to his native Colombia from travelling in Guatemala, filmmaker Santiago Roa Duque journeyed to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region. There, he set about creating a film to share the stories and ancestral wisdom of Colombia’s native peoples who protect this unique biosphere. Upon realising that the ancient method of growing food forests – the traditional indigenous way to grow food in policultives that secures food and mimics nature – was being lost, he co-founded Jaguar Siembra – a non-profit foundation dedicated to preserving Nature & Ancient Wisdom. Here he shares the story behind this unique reforestation project, and how you can get involved:

 What inspired you to launch Jaguar Siembra?

It was a natural process followed by intuition and hearing my heart. I was creating a short film “Message from the Heart Of The World” and during that process, I started to realise an old desire to work with art to create a more positive impact and be more connected to nature. I am a filmmaker and I have always thought that art should be in some way transformative and this little piece of film transformed my life with a deeper purpose. 

I believe that we need to act now to reconnect ourselves with the forces of nature and fight for our future, touch our soils, grow food, regenerate ourselves, and nature! We are losing jungles, soils, water, communities, and ancient wisdom. In the Sierra, we have one of the most important pre-colonial indigenous communities alive and we have so much to learn from them. The idea was to build a bridge to tell the stories from the Heart of the World but then, the Mamos, the spiritual leaders, told me that I needed to expand that desire to do something more profound. I started to notice that the food forests in some communities are being lost, and that gave us the idea, along with some indigenous leaders, to start to reforest to help provide food security and sovereignty. We start planting trees at the same time as we were filming and to continue these efforts we created the foundation. Now we are a small community, still a seed but we keep growing like trees! It’s been a wonderful journey to self-healing.

What is the meaning and inspiration behind the name ‘Jaguar Siembra’?

The Jaguar is the sacred animal for the indigenous peoples in America. It is a special force of nature; they are the ones that regulate biodiversity and the harmony of the delicate balance of the ecosystems. It is an umbrella species – if they don’t exist, the jungle enters into disharmony for the overpopulation of other animals. They are the keepers of the wisdom –  like a spiritual force for humanity, a mystical being. 

I was living in the jungle of Guatemala, walking the jungle to the ancient pyramids of El Mirador – the biggest Mayan city that is buried in the forest.  I was walking for weeks with a mama jaguar – the paw prints were always where we were walking, and for some magical reason I was dreaming a lot about jaguars. One day I had this strong feeling, like a little voice telling me that I should return to Colombia, that there was a special place there where I was going to find the answers that I was looking for. I knew right away that was the Sierra.  I returned to Colombia, I went to the Sierra and I started with sowing this project. “Siembra” is the Spanish word for sowing. In the Sierra, I kept walking the path of the jaguar, and this animal is very important for the indigenous communities; if we protect the jaguar, we protect the forest, if we protect the forest, we protect the jaguar, and at the same time humanity. 

Can you tell us the story behind #CoffeeforBiodiversity and the Food Forests project?

We started with the food forests to create a circular economy and work towards a better trade chain with the benefits of the forest.

We have a huge problem with coffee around the world and the inequity of this business; the global south is being deforested and the soils are being damaged to supply demand of the global north with a coffee that mostly comes from monocultures where heavy pesticides are used. We have a problem worldwide with how we produce, trade, and distribute our food.  It all starts with colonialism and is still happening; in Colombia, around 40% of the coffee farmers live in poverty but at the same time our coffee is worldwide recognised and sold in expensive markets. 

The market is changing and now we have more organic and fair trade coffees, which is really good, but we could do better. A fair trade deal does not mean too much if the kilo of coffee is around $2 or $3 and you pay $1.50 more – that is the minimum fair trade amount. Until the roasters and traders pay a more fair amount, finance the farmers, and share the risk of the harvest, everything will continue to be more beneficial on the side of the buyer. It’s not so easy, it is a tough business and there are a lot of people doing great things with direct trade, and working with agroforestry farms where biodiversity is preserved, but the industry is controlled by the people that are doing the things not so well, which allows more people to justify these actions by simply saying that the market and business are like that and it is difficult to change things. 

We believe that if the coffee industry changed, it would be a big step for humanity to change. Coffee is the second most widely consumed beverage worldwide in a multi-billion dollar business, but we only have 30 more harvests to solve the problems in the global south, and that only can be achieved if we change the consumption in the global north. We really need to work as brothers with a fair share.  

In what ways does coffee agriculture encourage biodiversity? 

In the Sierra, the indigenous communities adopted coffee when they realised that it was a bridge that connects them with us, “the younger brother” as they call us. Coffee is only an excuse to connect us with this territory directly, when we consume food we are connecting with the codes of the land where this food is coming from, it is a sacred connection with nature and they realised that not only is coffee beneficial because it is an incredible plant, but at the same time coffee cultivation stops the deforestation that was destroying the Sierra for the coca monocultures, and at the same time that creates an income for the coffee farmers. In their own words: 

“The Arhuacos tell you that the Conservation of Nature and Biodiversity is much easier than you imagine. For thousands of years, we have developed special agriculture conceived to respect Nature and our organism, as proof of this today our territory is one of the richest in endemic biodiversity in the region. When we do agriculture, and in everything we do, we always do it in accordance with the way of being and developing life in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This is how we produce this coffee, in accordance with the cycles of Nature’s life.

“Food is a sacred ritual that connects us with Nature. There is a magical relationship between healthy territory — healthy body and healthy food — healthy ideas.
When you consume a food that comes from a healthy order and has respected Nature, it reprograms your body, including your thinking, making you more sensitive and aware of Nature. In other words, food is an encoding of the information of nature and creation, and when you consume it connects you with the planet as if it were a global “wireless network.”

“We invite you to try our special coffee to add ideas and thoughts that allow us to conserve nature and be a legacy.” – Ruperto Chaparro from Amas La Sierra.

How do you work with the local indigenous communities and farmers? 

We have two programs. One is the creation of the new food forests for the families and some communities that need help to restore and achieve food sovereignty. Most of the families sow cacao, which is one of the principal incomes for the communities. At the same time, they sow food for themselves; avocado, corn, pumpkins, beans, yuca, and fruit trees. We support them in the creation of this type of forest with trees, materials, and economic support for every tree planted.

Now we are working towards community-supported agriculture (CSA). We are building a community of changemakers, with our power of consuming we can change the world and have a positive impact through our food; we are one for all, all for one! It is a community-based organisation of growers and consumers. The consumer has a direct and deeper relationship with the farmer, we agree to provide direct, up-front support for the local growers who produce our food. The growers agree to provide quality food to meet the needs and expectations of the consumers. In this way, the farms and families form a network of mutual support. A profound bond between communities.

Community agriculture has been practiced for thousands of years. Now we need to create a change in times of industrialised mono-agriculture. Together we need to build success in food cultivation: we as consumers finance the farmers’ farm and share the harvest; in exchange, the yields, and crop risks are shared in solidarity. The farmer is independent of the market and its fluctuations and the consumer of freedom association. Together, as an initiative, movement, and subscription, we create a unique community of wonderful visionaries, organic farmers, and people who consciously enjoy themselves, our environments, and biodiversity. 

What is so special about the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta ecosystem?

It is called the ‘Heart of the World’ because the health of the Sierra and its complex ecosystems balance the health of the entire world. It is a natural pyramid of snow, a special mountain by the sea, over 5,600 meters high and millions of years old – the largest coastal mountain in the world. The Sierra has all the thermal floors represented, from tropical heat to perpetual snow.

A reserve of the biosphere and World Heritage Site. It is a network of ecosystems that balance the natural ecosystem of the world. The home of countless forms of life. It is a sacred site that protects four indigenous communities that are responsible for preserving the spiritual balance of Mother Earth. Their sacred task is to teach the divine laws to maintain harmony with nature. They are the guardians of the Earth, our older siblings, the ones preserving the ancestral knowledge that is invaluable for humanity.

​According to ancient belief, the territorial order is defined by what is called the Black Line – a ring of interconnected sacred sites. The Black Line surrounds the entire territory of the Sierra, weaving, connecting, wrapping, and securing the standards for human life on Earth and maintaining balance and harmony with the Earth. From the base where the rivers meet the sea, the savannahs, valleys, hills, ridges of mountains, gorges, springs, ponds, up into the snowy peaks and the Gonawindúa Mountain, to each one and the infinite universe. It is through these connections that the life of the Sierra and the world remains. Each sacred site has an environmental function, containing the rules for human life on earth and maintaining balance and harmony with nature.

“Along this stretch of coastline, you have a microcosm for what is happening in the Caribbean and also on the rest of the planet. Their view that all these sites are connected and the activities of destruction here are having an impact at large scale in the world are right.” – Alex Rogers, world leader in marine biology. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the indigenous communities in Colombia?

We launched this year, and it’s been a journey to start this in the middle of the pandemic, but the pandemic was the trigger for making this project a reality. The community had the harvest almost sold to a buyer in the USA, but suddenly the buyer was not able to afford to buy the coffee and the community was at a big risk of losing this harvest. The problem with our farmers is that they put a lot of time, energy, and money into creating our food and then they are struggling to sell their harvest. Coffee is regulated by the stock market, so one day could cost something and the next day almost nothing. This has created a fractured rural economy for years, where the farmers are always affected by the market, natural calamities, climate change, etc. It is so bad that the new generations don’t want to cultivate food because there is no future in it; they want to go to the cities. This is a problem that we are experiencing in every part of the world – our food system is broken. 

So, we took this challenge and worked towards a solution – starting an emergency fundraising campaign to buy part of this harvest and distributed in the community that supports the project, it was great! We were able to buy the coffee and now we are distributing the coffee to the yearly, monthly subscriptions and single buyers. If we are united and we pay more attention to where our food is coming from, how it is cultivated, and what we are financing with our vote, energy, money to consume, it would be a big step towards fighting all of these problems that we have right now with our farming.

At the same time, the communities isolate themselves and restrict entry to their reserves, after 6 months of strict lockdown the food was running short, some of the communities are used to buying some food in stores and carrying it to the reserves and with the lockdown, everything closed, so now is the time that they need more food resilience and to go back to the full food forests that they had before. 

They have had some Covid cases [in the communities], one of the governors died because of it, but the rest of the cases have been treated by traditional medicines. Something really incredible is that they have been warning us for more than two years that something in the air was going to come by sea, that the destruction of nature was going to generate new diseases, and that humanity it was going to experience a big shift and it’s happening. 
We need to hear them. We need to believe them. They are really connected to nature in deep ways that overcome our logic and understanding. Little by little, we are going to start to understand. 

What have been your biggest milestones and triumphs until now?

Planting seeds of change, little by little, one tree at a time! We are a seed, but we are growing every day with love. We’re not focused too much on the numbers, but more on still taking small steps – nature does not rush but everything is accomplished, so we are following this. At the moment we have just released our first short film of the series that is more a message than a short film, and we have planted more than 4,000 trees with the creation of two tree nurseries – we are working to achieve our first goal of 10,000 trees. And we released the coffee for biodiversity initiative, supporting more than 60 indigenous families – a lot of stuff! 

There are only two of us running the project and it feels like we are doing more than we can! For us, it is awesome to see what a simple heart’s desire can grow and with the support of friends, every donor, and allies, we are growing a community, we have hope and we are happy to do our part.

Personally, the biggest achievement for me is self-healing and reinforcing my personal connection with nature. We are growing roots to be able to grow in a good direction. We believe that we are like this bamboo seed that takes years to spread out, but when they do it grows really fast to the sky because the roots are strong. 


How can our readers support the food forests project and the work of Jaguar Siembra?

First of all, sharing our short film and visual material to spread the word about the importance of this place for the world and to visualise these important native communities.

Secondly, by becoming a weaver member in The Jungle -our monthly donor program.  You will take 8 direct climate actions for less than €0.16 daily, funding tree planting monthly, creating food forests, regenerating soils, uplifting farmers, and supporting culture & education programs. Funding 4 projects to reverse ecological degradation, mitigating our climate and consciousness crisis. 

The third way is subscribing to be part of the community-supported agriculture; receiving Indigenous Speciality Coffee. Try one of the best specialty coffees in the world and one of the first ones to be climate positive knowing that with every intake, you are contributing to creating a better world.

You can be part of this by joining us on:

Together we are The Jungle!