Coffee in Colombia: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

We The Origin was founded on the principles of sustainability, transparency and equity. We are deeply concerned about the coffee price crisis and want to raise awareness by connecting the producers from the supply chain and the consumers of coffee. To tell the story from a farmer’s perspective, we are starting a new content series called The Origin Series: Behind the Beans. We begin the journey with a conversation with Daniel Cortés, representing Café Finca Los Andes in Huila, Colombia. 

“Give the voice to the producers, because we are often unheard.”

DANIEL CORTÉS

Coffee in Colombia: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

As soon as we were connected for the Zoom interview I couldn’t help but notice the eye-catching certification hanging on the wall behind Daniel. Something about the spotless white walls and the dark, wooden shelf filled with books tells me this is a highly educated household. My friendly suspicion was later confirmed when Daniel mentioned that he studied journalism in Colombia, and then joined his father’s coffee business about 2 years ago. Turns out, his father, Rodrigo Cortés, is a retired oil engineer who planted the first seeds in 2007 and has been growing coffee ever since. 

Coffee in Colombia: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Rodrigo Cortés, photo by Daniel Cortés

Daniel himself conceded that his family was lucky enough to produce coffee out of choice rather than necessity, unlike the vast majority. “(We are) the (top) 1% probably… 5% maybe”, Daniel said softly, almost apologetically. That being said, running a coffee business is not without its challenges. 

The Good: Coffee, Climate and Community

When Daniel’s father Rodrigo first started growing coffee, his peers were sceptical, and “people were calling him crazy”. 13 years later, Café Finca Los Andes is growing coffee varieties such as Catuai, Caturra, Castillo, Tabi, and pink Bourbon, at 1,900 masl (metres above sea level). Thanks to the high altitude and mild weather, Daniel and Rodrigo have developed strong and resistant trees that are not plagued by coffee leaf rust and other diseases.

It would be a gross understatement to say coffee producers are merely farmers. As I listened to Daniel talk about him and his father experimenting with different fermentation processes to increase the coffee’s sweetness, it felt as if I was speaking with an agricultural engineer who is relentless in the pursuit of quality. However, the Cortés are doing so with a respect to the wider community and the environment, which is still not the norm under the current “business-as-usual” scenario worldwide. 

“We have 40 hectares of forests but we don’t want to touch them. Not that we can’t, but because we want to preserve the land.”

DANIEL CORTÉS
Coffee in Colombia: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
The Andes mountains, photo by Daniel Cortés

Café Finca Los Andes does not use any chemical products, such as fungicides or pesticides, in their coffee production. Out of the 40 hectares of land they own, 28 hectares are left to Mother Nature’s own devices to preserve soil health and biodiversity. 

Situated in the town of Timaná, part of the Huila Department in southern Colombia and approximately a 10-hour drive from Colombia’s capital Bogotá, families and workers have been living on the farm for 3 years. As advocates for public education, Daniel and Rodrigo require the families that their children must go to school, demanding them to show proof of attendance. Additionally, Daniel told us that Covid-19 has an ironic silver lining to this community, where social distancing requirements and restrictions of movement have brought the people closer together. 

The Bad: “It’s just problems and problems all over the place.” 

One recurring theme in We The Origin’s content is the coffee price crisis, and with it the discussion about the inefficiencies and inadequacies of financial markets in pricing coffee at a fair and sustainable level. For one thing, markets such as the C market are not socially efficient, as prices do not reflect the full costs of coffee production, and thus farmers are not compensated enough for their time and effort.

Coffee in Colombia: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Hand-picking cherries, photo by Daniel Cortés

Daniel shared the same sentiment. “Commercial coffee is always going to depend on the New York Stock Exchange market and the difference between a dollar and a Colombian peso. For coffee producers, they wake up every morning and just pray their coffee is over a million pesos (around 350 USD). They are playing roller coasters and it’s really, really hard.” When talking about the recent slight increase in coffee prices in Colombia, he said it is “good in terms of bad; it’s the best possible outcome out of a terrible situation.”

On a micro level, running a coffee business is no easy matter. In addition to problems brought about by climate change, which has caused unpredictable weather patterns, Daniel spoke of the persistent labour shortage in Colombia’s coffee production industry, “I remember my father having to go in his car searching for people on the streets, screaming ‘who wants to pick coffee? Please, anyone who wants to make a little money today?’ It was really, really hard to get labour.” This is not to mention the ageing working population in coffee production. Daniel pointed to the younger generation’s lack of interest in coffee, saying, “I think teenagers don’t want to spend their lives on a farm where they sell their coffee for nothing”. As a son who has watched his father struggle with his coffee company, I can only imagine the hardships Daniel has witnessed throughout the years. 

“We are really playing catchup with innovation and people shift quickly from one thing to another, and then you have to start reading, and nobody is helping you.”

DANIEL CORTÉS
Coffee in Colombia: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Daniel Cortés

It’s not that producers do not recognize market trends – if anything, they are the first to know of them. “Specialty coffee is moving really, really fast. A year ago we were talking about honey and natural processes, but now it’s all about fermentation – carbonic maceration, yeast, and bacteria, etc.”. However, if producers are barely breaking even (and in many cases actually losing money), where is the source of funding to undergo such costly research and development (R&D)? It is, therefore, nothing but a huge misunderstanding to think producers are not growing exotic varieties simply due to a lack of knowledge.

Moreover, under precarious business conditions, it is understandable that a producer will be unwilling to divulge one’s “unique selling proposition” to competitors. As Daniel said, “I think everyone is afraid they can steal their ‘Coca-cola recipe’ and (think) ‘this is my fermentation and I’m not going to tell you how I do it and you’re gonna steal my clients’. We haven’t found a lot of people willing to work and share their knowledge – it’s a bummer.”

“90% of coffee producers in Colombia are living in poverty, 70% have barely finished primary school, 30% don’t even know how to read or write.”

DANIEL CORTÉS

On a macro level, illiteracy affects many in Colombia, and its effects are trickled-down to the farmworkers at the beginning of the coffee value chain. Without the ability to read or write, how can one expect to understand the rigorous standards of Specialty grade coffee, let alone gain the knowledge to understand, cup and evaluate the quality of the coffee? As Daniel said, “coffee producers don’t taste their coffee. You go to a coffee producer’s home, you can see the coffee trees from the living room, and they have instant coffee in their kitchen. This is really, really bad because, how are you going to improve your coffee quality if you don’t even taste it?”

Coffee in Colombia: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Coffee variety – Castillo, photo by Daniel Cortés

“Coffee producers like me, that have a college degree, that can speak another language, that can have a computer with internet access…(the likelihood) is less than 10%. The first step needs to be education. Children need to go to school, and the school needs to be near the village, and if it’s not near the village, (the) government should provide transportation for kids to go to school. It should be free education, because, I mean, you are living with $2.50 per day and school is going to cost money.” 

I agree with Daniel – lack of education perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty. As a member of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (Youth), I have been told that “if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty”. Although earning less than $1.90 is one definition of extreme poverty, we are talking not about numbers but actual livelihoods. Being above the poverty line does not automatically mean one will live comfortably and need not worry about food insecurity; many smallholder farmers still remain extremely vulnerable, especially in the face of external shocks – the pandemic being just one example. 

The Ugly: Consolidation of Market Power, Corruption, and Colonialism

Think coffee, one of the world’s favourite drinks, is isolated from politics and power? Think again. 

“It’s unbelievable how every producing country has the same problems: poverty, lack of education, low prices, people ditching their coffee fields, corruption, everything. It’s the same.”

DANIEL CORTÉS

Coffee crisis in Colombia – why are coffee producers ditching their coffee fields? Watch the video here.

Coffee and colonialism are not concepts that we immediately connect together. Indeed, a recent report by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) touched on the “lack of awareness of (or willingness to recognize complicity in) inherited colonial and extractive mindsets that underpin decision-making in the sector”. As Daniel observed, “third world poor countries produce a commodity at low prices, (which is) then being processed and valued in first world countries. It’s like a colonialist mentality that we have been struggling with since we are a nation. The thing about tasting your own coffee is also (related). Because in most countries, the slaves were not allowed to drink and taste what they were planting.”

Check out our blog post on the bitter side of coffee’s history here.

There is evidence of market power concentration and manipulation in the specialty coffee industry. Roasters are gaining and consolidating their market shares, with the biggest 10 roasters currently taking up 35% of global coffee supply. In 2015, the “estimated revenue of the retail coffee market was $200 billion, with the largest roasters achieving operating profits upward of 15%”. For more details, see our Instagram post on Coffee & Economic Inequality here.

“Roasters need to understand that, a sample, 100 grams of green sample, took a lot of work. A lot. And if I go to Europe and I am at your doorstep, and you are receiving me and the samples, please have the decency and the respect to cup them.”

DANIEL CORTÉS

What does Daniel Cortés, a Colombian coffee producer, want to say to roasters around the world? Watch the video here.

“ [The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC)] They are not poor;  they are living in Bogotá, in their fancy offices, fancy homes, with their fancy cars.”

DANIEL CORTÉS

If what Daniel said is true, then its juxtaposition with “coffee producers are getting poorer every day” and “ditching their coffee fields every year” is a problem. He went as far as saying “I don’t think the National Coffee Federation represents the coffee producers”, while the official website of the FNC states that it is an organization that seeks to “represent them nationally and internationally, work for their well-being and improve their quality of life”. Now, we tend to believe what we see – if we are unable to know the “truth” for sure, can we at least see coffee isn’t as innocent as it appears? 

…So What?

Coffee is nothing without the people working tirelessly behind it. We, as coffee drinkers, may never have the opportunity to visit a coffee farm, but can’t we at least stop, think, and acknowledge the hard work that was put in to produce the coffee that is in front of us? Shouldn’t we demand more transparency from the roasters and coffee shops we buy our coffee from? We shall never underestimate consumers’ collective purchasing power – let us start by asking questions and demanding answers and accountability from coffee corporations. 

Valerie Chiu
Valerie is studying Economics and Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto. Her coffee journey went straight from being a coffee hater to a specialty coffee lover, skipping the 1st and 2nd waves, and is currently taking classes to get her Coffee Skills Diploma, offered by the SCA. In her free time, she likes playing and listening to music, discovering coffee shops, pondering the meaning of life, and occasionally (if she's that bored), skydiving.

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