Colombia’s organic cotton industry: small but perfectly formed

Colombia is little known for it’s organic cotton industry, however it’s biodiversity and agricultural legacy could make it one to watch.

Being one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, with a year-round temperate climate, Colombia is blessed with the ideal conditions for producing cotton. According to Colombian fashion expert Rocio Arias Hofman, until the 1980’s there were 600,000 hectares of organic cotton cultivation in the country, however due to a combination of national and international setbacks there are now just 16,000 hectares. The mainstream fashion industry in Colombia today is focussed on technical fabrics and conventional cotton, however there is a silver lining of forward-thinking designers and producers throwing their energy into bringing Colombia into a new age of sustainable fashion.

Having just returned from touring the country, I have been filled with encouragement and optimism to find a dedicated network of like-minded businesses and individuals working hard to develop production and use of organic cotton. Currently the demand for Colombian organic cotton greatly exceeds the supply, however some inspirational initiatives are making the initial steps to turn this around.

I had the fortune of visiting one such project in the Sierra Nevada, on the northern Caribbean coast of Colombia. The project is funded by the Santo Domingo Foundation, with the goal of both enriching the natural habitat and providing additional income to the local communities. The project’s research station is located a two hour drive from Santa Marta up a very crude dirt track, amongst the exquisite jungle covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada, a region famed for it’s coffee, bananas, trekking, and historic cotton production. The community is scattered across the region, as each family owns a sizeable plot of land to cultivate for both commercial and personal use. The research station is at the heart of the community and in the past was used as a community hub with meeting spaces and a health centre, until Guerilla groups took over in the conflict years. The land was acquired by the foundation with the coming of political stability to the region, and is now maintained by the very capable hands of Luis who has been working with the foundation for more than thirty years.

After the bumpy two hour drive through jungle and mountains we arrived at the roadside closest to the research station. My guide Memo, who works for the foundation, then led me down a winding path through the jungle until we reached the plot. The trees opened out to reveal an oasis of thousands of varieties of plants and trees with a panoramic backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. He showed me to the grass-roofed hut where they meet and carry out the research, and we began looking at samples of the raw cotton fibre.

There are two species native to the region; the first a tightly packed pure white variety that is of such a clear tone it barely even needs cleaning. The second variety has a much looser formation with a natural beige colour, and is extremely soft to touch. The cotton plants are native to the region and thrive without any need for pesticides thanks to the 800m altitude that is uninhabitable for pests. The cotton plants even contribute to the richness of the soil by being inter-planted with other species such as Flor de Jamaica, Mandarina, and Chilli, going a step beyond traditional organic cotton production.

The project has been running eight months and the first harvest will take place in December. To date both the quality of the fibre and the yields have been very successful, which bodes well for December. Each cotton bud provides a further eight to twelve seeds and so there are plans for extensive growth to meet the rising demand for this unique and pure cotton variety. Adjacent to the research station is a plot of five hectares ready to be planted, and there are also plans to share the seeds amongst the community to create a cotton-growing cooperative.

The benefits of this particular organic cotton production are both environmental and social. It is a naturally occurring crop in the region and inter-planting with a variety of other plants helps maintain biodiversity and soil-health. For the community it provides a secondary income throughout the year so they can alternate comfortably between sales of cotton, cacao, and other crops.

After an inspiring day at the research station I returned to my hostel in Santa Marta full of excitement for the potential of the project, with it’s product quality combined with potential for rapid scalability. The following day, I spoke with the project director Santiago who only added to my enthusiasm by sharing their plans for collaborating with a GOTS certified spinner in Medellin to process the fibre into an industrial standard yarn. With the whole value chain in place, all that’s left is to wait for the first harvest in December. This means that brands can begin incorporating Sierra Nevada cotton in their collections in early 2020; invoking a powerful formula of premium quality product with an outstanding environmental story that is so valuable to today’s conscious consumers.

Despite the current dip in production, Colombia has a history of smallholder cotton farming, which given the right direction could be revived to make the country a leader in premium organic cotton production. The Sierra Nevada project can be used as a blueprint in its successful use of Colombia’s natural habitat and agricultural system. Its directors have experienced a huge demand locally and internationally even before the first harvest, which goes to show the appetite for quality organic cotton with an exceptional environmental story. Only eight months into the project there are already other small holders beginning to adopt the same techniques, with the support of Colombia’s exceptionally united organic cotton network.

The future of organic cotton in Colombia is developing rapidly and I feel particularly excited and honoured to be part of it and to watch it unfold. I invite you to follow me on the journey, and in particular for brands to consider incorporating these astonishing materials into their collections.

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