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Using traditional, regenerative farming methods that protect biodiversity, Arhuaco tribespeople in Colombia cultivate rare sugar from ancient varieties.

By Lola Méndez
March 01, 2021
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Karina Mitchell was visiting her ancestral home of Colombia with her husband, Hustino, and their two young children when the country shut down due to COVID-19. The couple had first visited Colombia 12 years ago, sparking the Mitchells' interest in handmade, naturally derived Colombian cane sugar.

"I had a cup of coffee that caught me by surprise, served with a handmade cane sugar grown in the region," Hustino said. "This sugar wasn't your typical white, sharp sweetness. It brought out the coffee's natural fruit flavors, reducing the bitterness, while not overwhelming it with a sharp sweetness. This sugar had my attention; up to that point I've never tasted anything like it before." 

Heirloma Heritage Sugar
Credit: Hustino Mitchell

Because of the pandemic, the Mitchell family has been living in the world's tallest coastal mountain range, the remote Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains on Colombia's Caribbean coast. The UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, which is at risk of desertification due to global climate change, are Arhuaco lands. 

Using traditional farming methods, the Arhuaco tribespeople cultivate rare handcrafted sugar from ancient sugarcane varieties grown on steep slopes. Heritage varieties of panela sugarcane are planted during the full moon in small, wild-grown organic plots, in accordance with ancestral, regenerative farming methods. 

Karina had initially contacted the Arhuacos after learning about their rare sugarcane varieties. The Mitchells have been visiting the Arhuacos' ancestral land for about six years and purchasing heirloom varieties of sugarcane. The Mitchells, together with the Arhuaco people, launched Heirloma, a direct-trade agricultural purveyor that's FDA certified. "The word 'Heirloma' originates from the idea of heirloom strains and celebrating nature's biodiversity," Hustino said. 

Luis Guillermo Izquierdo Torres, known as Mamo, is the spiritual representative of the Arhuaco tribe. He's responsible for ensuring that Heriloma respects the tribe's ancestral vision of co-existing with nature.

"I decided to work with Heirloma to create conscience in our humanity, sharing our multicultural values to help create a better world in balance with natural ecosystems, together," he said. "We share a common mission to preserve the rich biodiversity of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta Mountains and all its native seeds, including sugarcane."

Unlike traditional sugar products, Heirloma sugar contains no additives or artificial blends and is pure unrefined non-GMO whole sugar. It's also packed with vitamins such as potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamins A, C, D, and E.

Before harvesting, farmers ask for permission from madre tierra, the Spanish term for mother nature. They harvest one plot at a time to avoid drastically disrupting the ecosystem. No modern agricultural machinery is used. Harvesters use a machete to cut down mature sugarcane, avoiding cutting down unripened ones.

The freshly cut sugarcane is then pressed in a mill. Spent material is upcycled for fertilizer and for heating the furnace that dehydrates the sugarcane juice. The sugarcane juice is then stirred constantly for 45 minutes to create clumps of sugar. Guaraperos break apart the sugar and sift it through a screen to create consistent granular cane sugar. 

Heirloma Heritage Sugar
Credit: Hustino Mitchell

The resulting premium ingredient isn't just any sugar. The heirloom varieties cultivated with traditional farming methods lend the cane sugar complex flavor notes that are unique to the area. "Sugar is like wine and coffee; it has notes, variations, and flavor profiles," Hustino said. The sugar flavors include notes of apricot, dried cherry, prune, caramel, and chocolate. 

Colombia is among the world's largest sugarcane producers. The industry is fueled primarily by rural small-plot farmers and Indigenous tribes. Like many agricultural industries, the traditional methods of cultivating sugar are at risk as international agro-industrial companies flood Colombia's organic territory with mono-crops, placing sugarcane varieties at risk of disappearing.

The Arhuaco tribe is fighting to save their ancestral lands, crops, and sugar-making process by exporting their mineral-rich sugar to the United States. Boosting the production of their 32 heritage varieties of panela sugarcane is critical to preserving their way of life.

The agricultural land trust partners work with the Arhuaco tribe to make their organic products available to a global market through direct wholesale and domestic distributors.

Heirloma also works with the Kogi, Wiwa, and Kankuamo Colombian tribes, serving as a sales representative for these Indigenous farmers so they can access the international market. The majority of profit is sent back to the farmers for the largest possible social impact.

Sugar has the power to save the Arhuaco's ancestral lands as the origin-to-kitchen sugar is helping to preserve the region's biodiversity. Heirloma is committed to soil regeneration and reforestation of Colombia's Sierra Nevadas. 

"We work directly with our Indigenous partners to replant native seeds in areas that have been victims of climate change. This helps the soil maintain its structure and nutrients," Hustino says. Heirloma pledges to plant 50 million native seedlings over the next 15 years to protect the ecological resources for generations to come.