Not so long ago, Colombia was very much a coffee country. The nation was regarded around the world (and by the Madison Avenue Ad Execs who promoted Café de Colombia) as the producer of the finest Arabica beans. A fictional representation of a typical cafetero, Juan Valdez could be seen from Times Square to Oxford Street hauling his grass-fed mule promoting a country and a vital sector of the economic engine.
Wherever you went in Colombia, someone sold you black tinto. From vendors on city streets to steamy aluminum drips working around the clock in small variety stores, coffee kept an entire nation on its toes. There really wasn’t much choice when it came to the way you wanted it served. You either drank it black or gave it back. Coffee as a prime export commodity went overseas. What we drank here were mostly the dregs: low-grade beans, which tasted great anyway.
Demanding tasteful and taste-full
Then we went fancy. As Bogotá grew beyond its expectations in the 1990s, so did the number of upscale coffee shops. Italian-made coffee machines were sprouting up everywhere. Despite finer filters and handheld grinders, the grade remained the same. We drank the same Arabica, now served in porcelain cups.
As Colombians became more demanding with the presentation of coffee, what remained of the non-coffee drinking world gradually converted, looking to consume more quantity than quality. Countries such as India and Vietnam, which until this decade were not considered coffee producing nations, started planting their own local varieties to meet growing internal demand. Even though billions of households across Asia continue to consume tea, a young generation of consumer is demanding specialty brands from high-end roasters. Hence big names such as Starbucks are now firmly established in the Asia Pacific market.
Colombia’s coffee farmers have had a tough time during the last several years. As competition from Asian upstarts continues to grow, the strong Colombian peso has eroded profit margins for many small farms. Severe weather and seasonal plagues have also dented Colombia’s coffee potential.
No longer the other ‘black gold’
Even though Colombian coffee is a major source of employment for half a million workers and continues to prop up the GDP, the country is clearly moving away from its cafetero culture to one in which mining and oil exploration are the cash cows of the moment.
As a registered trademark of the National Coffee Federation (FNC), Juan Valdez in the last several years established itself firmly in the capital through a chain of coffee shops, which are popular meeting spots with locals and foreigners alike. Yet the global expansion of the Juan Valdez name, from retail coffees to more locales, is at a standstill. This year, the FNC wants to bring Colombian farmers back from the brink by looking for greater government assistance in the day-to-day economics of a major industry, whose global ranking is now fourth.
Towards the end of 2012, some 50,000 coffee farmers marched on Bogotá to protest the national government’s indifference in helping out the sector. For many coffee farmers, the current situation is the worst they’ve seen in decades, even though production rose slightly in the final months of last year. But coffee numbers are weak across the board. In 2012, national exports totaled 7.21 million sacks, a seven percent decline over the numbers in 2011. Another big demonstration by cafeteros is planned this month.
Trading hillsides for high rises
Despite looking to increase the amount of land used in coffee production and offering large-scale growers some price stability, Colombia’s coffee crisis is rooted in demographics. Increasingly, young Colombians are abandoning their rural villages to look for jobs in cities, preferring to sell merchandise or cellphone minutes rather than pick beans.
“We are at risk of losing an entire generation of capable young workers in the coffee region as it’s not attractive to spend your day in the field,” claims Mario Jaramillo, a real estate broker from Pereira who has seen first hand how farms are turning themselves into “eco” hotels to help pull through tough economic times. “Farms must now pay an incentive to keep workers from moving elsewhere.”
Even though security has improved in the coffee triangle, the region is not immune to gangs extorting protection money from independent farmers and transport operators. The massacre of tomato famers in central Antioquia last November who refused to pay an extortion shows how exposed many communities still are to organized crime.
President Santos should make it a priority to help Colombia’s coffee industry regain some momentum. The industry not only creates vital jobs in the countryside and serves as a tourism attraction, but it also generates national pride. While gold may be the nation’s great natural resource, we should remember that what’s on the surface also counts.