Forced into the highlands for centuries by conquistadors, settlers and the coca wars, the Arhuaco have recently returned to their ancestral lands and sacred sites at the Caribbean shores of La Lengüete. These are the shores where the endangered green turtle lays its eggs. Cocooned by the pristine rainforest, the Arhuacos’ ancient and rare cacao, the Businchari, has survived the passing of times on their ancestral land. Hidden in the shade of the forest for centuries, the Businchari has preserved his warm depths and gentle flavours of sweet spices, lemongrass, licorice and sesame. The tribe has recently begun to cultivate and harvest the Bunsinchari with pride, regarding it as a gift of their ancestors. Businchari means sunrise and new beginning – and that’s how the Arhuaco views the revival of their cacao culture and heritage.
On this lush piece of homeland, where the slopes of the mountains rise from the alluring coastline, the Arhuaco intends to stay and flourish. The Arhuaco have lately planted young cacao seedlings on the land, propagated from their favoured and most vigorous of the old cacao trees. Our local partner, Cacao de Colombia, has put a tremendous effort into identifying and propagating the most flavorful and high-yielding of the native cacaos, while making sure that they are tolerant to pests and diseases. They have been planted in cacao demonstration fields that function as fine cacao libraries, while showing the Arhuaco how to grow cacao sustainably under shade. On the same land where coca and marijuana fueled the violence of the drug war not long ago, cacao is now the symbol of peace for the Arhuaco and their neighbours. In 2007, the Arhuaco build their first village at the coast, Katansama, a village of neat and healthy traditional houses, where the Arhuaco can respect their ancestral customs and protect the land in accordance with their beliefs.
Among the Businchari cacao group there is a native and acutely rare cacao, the white Bunsi. Previous settlers mistakenly thought that the Bunsi, with its unusual white beans and highly furrowed cacao pods – resembling a drooping nose from ancient times – was infested with a disease and they therefore cut the old cacao trees. The Bunsi survived nonetheless, hidden in the forests’ shade. We do not know the exact genetic origin of the Bunsi, but some scientists believe that the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta could have been the birthplace of the ancient criollo blanco, from where it dispersed south into the Amazon and further north to the Maya forests. Nowadays, the Bunsi and the other native Bunschari cacaos are threatened by the boom in modern hybrid cocoa in the region, where a homogenous selection of non-Colombian cocoa hybrids has been selected to replace the great diversity of native cacaos. Regarding the ancient cacaos as a gift of their ancestors, the Arhuaco, however, are determined to preserve the Bunsi and Businchari cacao on their land. These delicate native cacaos, grown organically, integrate themselves perfectly into the Arhuacos traditional philosophy and lifestyle based on sustainable farming.
“It´s important to us to respect our traditions while growing cacao. We are not interested in modern cocoa hybrids – it just does not fit in our vision of sustainable agriculture.”
We are interested in quality, not necessarily quantity, so we are looking for partners that support what we want. Our agricultural practices have to be in line with the spiritual guidance of the Mamo, our spiritual leader. All that we are growing is organic and we do not force nature to produce more than she would produce on her own. We also take care of water springs and streams, since our Mamos teach us that protecting the waterways is one of the main responsibilities of protecting the heart of the world”.
Of the little cacao that grows on their land, the harvest volumes are very modest and we are honored to purchase their entire cacao harvest in collaboration with our local partner, Cacao de Colombia. Their cacao grows from the coastal forest and into the lower highlands, up to an altitude of 800 meter. At times it takes up to 10 hours on horseback for the Arhuaco to bring their cacao from the depths of the forest to the nearest road. The wet cacao beans – in their sweet fruity pulp – are bought in the villages by our local partner, Cacao de Colombia, from where they are brought to a state of the art fermentation and drying facility. Here the cacao gently ferments, emitting sweet sour aromas for 5 to 7 days in wooden boxes, depending on the season. Cacao de Colombia’s experts make an art of fermenting these beans gently to keep the volatile spicy notes intact, which they do by monitoring the ph, brix and temperatures of the fermenting beans.
While living in the highlands, the Arhuaco grew cacao under challenging conditions in the roughest of terroirs. It took them days to bring their cacao to towns in the lowlands, where they sold their cacao below world market prices to the local middlemen, called ‘coyotes’ for good reasons. With the recent support of our partner, Cacao de Colombia, the Arhuaco now produce some of the best beans in the world on their ancestral land, distinguished for their delicate aromas and flavours. By trading directly with the Arhuaco through Cacao de Colombia, we have increased the local cacao price and income substantially – which the Arhuaco can use to establish schools and send their kids to the doctor. Moreover, the Arhuaco used to dry the cacao beans themselves, but now they sell the beans wet for a better price to Cacao de Colombia, whereby they no longer face the risks and work involved in drying their cacao.