A brief history of coffee production in Colombia
Gazing out across the farms nestled on and around the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains, it’s hard to marry what you’re seeing with the harsh reality of Colombia’s future. Over 50 years of conflict initiated by ‘La Violencia’ and descending into in-fighting between government forces, guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries has left the country reeling - and whilst there are good reasons to hope for continued progress and peace, it is by no means a certainty.
But could coffee, in its own way, have a part to play in creating a more secure, stable future for a country still struggling to raise itself back up from its recent troubles? After all, Colombian coffee is recognised as one of the most desirable and delicious coffee origins from around the world; so why are so many farmers still turning towards the black market?
Introduced in the 16th century by Jesuit priests arriving from Europe, coffee cultivation took a long time to take hold as a commercial crop, with the first batch of beans not leaving the country until the early 19th century.
After this slow start, coffee production remained relatively sporadic until the turn of the 20th Century, where the opening up of the global economy enabled Colombian farmers and landowners access to markets that were previously not available. The United States quickly became the most important consumer of coffee in the world, and with this coffee ‘boom’, Colombia was catapulted into the modern period, bringing with it innumerable benefits such as railroads, transportation, manufacturing and the establishment of a solid communications infrastructure1.
Export figures (coffee bags sent overseas)
- 1835 - 2,500
- 1875 - 170,000
- 1992 - 17,000,000
- 2015 - 11,000,000
The Rise of Coca
Whilst the positive impact that coffee has had on Colombia’s economy is there to see, an unfortunate side effect has been the rise in coca production - the key ingredient in cocaine. Coffee beans and coca leaves both require similar conditions in order to thrive, such as high altitudes, moderate temperatures, rainfall, humidity, and volcanic soil - all of which Colombia has in abundance.
Historically, the coca leaf had formed an important part of the daily life and customs of many of Colombia’s indigenous groups, but with the explosion in demand for cocaine on the black market (driven mostly by the US), the coca plant suddenly became a very lucrative crop.
For a country experiencing almost constant internal conflict, one product obviously became much more desirable than the other for groups looking for quick cash to fuel their armed operations. Even under intense crackdowns by government forces the coca economy grew and grew as coffee production fell - a trend that has continued right up until the modern day.
Alongside all of this, it’s important to note that there’s been another cause for the shift away from coffee production - and that’s the climate. Over the last couple of decades droughts have increased both in length and frequency, landslides and large-scale soil erosion have got worse, and over 9 out of 10 coffee farmers have reported big changes in the flowering and fruiting cycles of their plants2.
This is a serious crisis for Colombian farmers that is out of their control and extremely damaging as it is essential their fixed costs are covered by the harvest season. As a result of the changes in weather, the growth is hindered, the ability to flower reduced, and the fruit itself doesn’t develop.
So what’s the solution?
With decades of conflict, corruption and economic dependence on coca, eradicating it won’t be a simple process. However, with ideal growing conditions for coffee and one of the best reputations for both the quality and taste of the beans Colombia produces, coffee does seem like an obvious choice - along with cocoa (not coca).
Both crops are ideally suited to provide farmers and landowners with a cash-crop that could be a real alternative to coca, but urgent support and economic funding is needed to make sure people have the technology and expertise to increase production, yield and quality in the face of increased environmental and economic pressures.
It may not seem like much, but by buying Colombian coffee that is ethically sourced (especially FairTrade and Organic certified), you are helping this vision become a reality. And whilst there’s obviously still an awful long way to go, it is important to know that each step counts; no matter how small it might be.