Coffee Industry: Social Impact and Community Change


By Sebastian Farias (Presented at Café Malaysia Technical Clinic on 25th, 27th January 2018)

The painting preceding this presentation was elaborated in 1912 by Colombian Artist Francisco Cano and was named “Horizontes/The Horizon”. This painting, clearly represents a couple of Colombian Farmers stopping by the side of a road, in what it seems to be a way or a path that will take them to a new place where to establish, and eventually call home. 

The man is pointing with his left hand towards The Horizon, where they can see emerald green lands in between those infinite mountains… hoping clearly, to a new life start. On the right-hand side is his woman, strong but caring, carrying that newborn whose little eyes are also focused on “that place” pointed by his father… Newborn babies will always mean hope and added to that hope the Horizon, showing new beginnings.

I have always found in this painting a beautiful metaphor. It serves as an example, not so much about the past of that country back in 1912 when the painting was done, but more likely the present of Colombian people as a nation, generally speaking and for coffee growing families in particular.

As we speak, we can see new Horizons. New horizons bringing peace and prosperity! After the end of almost 50 years of war, worst of all, internal war!

It is in this very moment where we have to take a moment and STOP, think and carefully design the type of society that we would like to be for the next few decades and most important, we need to figure out how to achieve it.

Within this scenario, coffee emerges as a fundamental element for the construction of that long lasting, stable, and promising PEACE!.

For those of you who are not aware, Coffee is Colombia’s number 1 agricultural product and it enjoys the most international recognition. This statement also reflects how much it contributes to the national GDP.

According to stats by the FNC, this agricultural product generates around 785.000 direct jobs which equals 26% of the total agricultural employment.

Not only that; If we compare this numbers with 2 other “Main” sectors, we see how:

  1. Coffee growing activities generate 4 times more direct employment than Mining/Energy = (183.000 occupied people).
  2. and more than half if compared with Construction = (1.4 millions).

This is with no doubt a clear proof, that the coffee sector is indeed a true motor for the development of rural economies; if only the value of the harvest, which is $5,2 billion could be redistributed as an income, between the 550.000 + families that inhabit in the 595 municipalities of the country. Despite the importance of the information quoted, I believe this number could be much higher, if we include, all the thousands of independent coffee growers who are emerging across the entire country plus the contributors of the 3 phases of coffee - Farming/Harvesting - Production - Commercialization.

These indicators, which highlight the social and economic importance of coffee crops are the evidence, of the great opportunities that could be materialised for the country, as well as allowing us to understand the cost involved for future generations to come if we do not focus in developing this type of activity properly. Not only because it generates income for an important part of the rural communities, but because it is transcendental if we want to sustain any sort of social improvements, which ultimately contribute in a decisive manner towards that peace we have dreamt about. Peace should also mean: more rural development, infrastructure and communication, reducing poverty, maximising production and altogether providing the right tools so the countryside is regarded as a place for big opportunities and not the contrary.

It seems clear that due to this reasons, the recent debates related to rural development involve in such a direct way coffee culture and the way How for more than 87 years, coffee has been promoting a model for development based in collective action for the provision of public goods, and mitigating the tensions, difficulties and friction generated by practices such as withholding the land, drug trafficking and mere violence, which in the Colombian case have been the fuel for an Internal Armed Conflict that goes over 5 decades approximately.

The structure of the coffee sector represents the dimensions of its own within the social aspects and consequently the impossibility of looking at it from a mere economic perspective. With no doubt, a huge part of the coffee production has got an immense potential to compete in international and domestic markets, but also it is no less correct to say that a big part of the coffee industry has to be regarded from the social point of view as it represents, for thousands of farmers in high vulnerability conditions, one of the only viable ways to sustain themselves.

As some of you may know, the armed conflict with the biggest guerrilla has come to an end and curiously we are ad-portas to achieve historical highs when it comes to production (close to 18’000.000 sacks); it is in this scenario where coffee emerges as a model to implement peace in some rural areas which were highly affected by this conflict. Some of the figures mentioned by the FNC Director of Trade Affairs, Carlos Armando Uribe, estimates that out of the 187 municipalities with a higher index of people affected by the conflict, 101 are coffee growers.

This recent window of opportunity offered by the end of the Armed Conflict, as mentioned by the FNC, will definitely enhance the growth of coffee crops; particularly in areas that were completely banned! As a direct cause from violence, coffee growing activities declined, the more the coffee growers were affected by the internal conflict. Keeping this in mind, it is worth to mention a case of success out of the multiple ones, across the country. As an example, in the region known as “La Secreta” in the Magdalena state, more than 60 families returned to their homeland and created eventually what we know as “Asociación de Agricultores Orgánicos de La Secreta” or “The Secreta Organic Farmers Association”, who have exported so far close to 1.000 Tons to countries like Japan, USA, Belgium and Australia in the last couple of years.

On a recent occasion, I flew to the state of Santander, where I had the opportunity to meet the families of farmers who were victims of these violence. These families have started to work together and somehow, they are producing coffees with cupping scores of 85+. Quite a remarkable thing if we take into consideration how they have achieved such qualities, based on their empiric knowledge added to a very austere infrastructure. Despite all that, those coffees are highlighted due to its unique quality.

From this perspective, the formula exposed to you in this presentation has got more weight. By being Colombia’s agricultural cornerstone through decades, coffee production will not only generate more income for the families involved in it in the near future; it will also accompany the strengthening of local governments by pushing towards more and better social, production and road infrastructure within the municipalities affected by war.

It is not in vain, based on data from the FNC and the “Victims Unit” that at a national level there have identified and registered 555.000 coffee growers, spread in 598 municipalities, out of which ⅕ have been taken as direct victims of the armed conflict.

Despite the achievements mentioned before and in addition to the interesting future approaching for the country, it is important to talk about the challenges we need to overcome in order to achieve more sustainability towards the coffee production in general. One of those main challenges is a result of the age from most coffee growers (45 - 65 years) as well as the lack of insertion from younger generations into the coffee fields. Reasons for it? It is simply unattractive.

The situation is pretty complex. In the Huila state, which is nowadays the number 1 producer of coffee, the average grower is reaching 55 years of age, this represents a huge contrast if we compare it to a different age group working in the same area which seems to be extremely low.

According to studies conducted by NGO’s and Academic research, this generational gap is being cause by:

  1. Migration to main cities, as they look for better opportunities.
  2. Hard work and very unattractive.
  3. Low remuneration.
  4. Educational offer that doesn't adjust to the demand in the fields.
  5. Demotivation towards the life in the country.

Why is this happening? When all conditions are set for our coffees to thrive, now the only thing missing is the people to grow it. How do we tackle that?

I wanted to finish this talk, with a little example of a company that believes in that future I have mention. I came across these guys in my last days in Colombia and I knew I had to meet them, so I did just before I left for the airport.

Urbania is a company that focuses in small producers who have an average of 2000 trees per farm, in locations that are particularly difficult to access due to the lack of infrastructure. They are also victims of the armed conflict, in precarious economic conditions, with lack of access to markets.

To be able to meet this type of criteria, they started working along non-profit organisation, “Tejipaz” which commercializes local grown product from this affected communities; their mission is to strengthen local economy and contribute to the sustainability of peace.

Since they started working together, Urbania has:

  1. Been Buying coffees 60% higher than the market prices.
  2. Sold over 5 Tons since 2017.
  3. Benefit 18 families from their purchase model.
  4. Benefit 75 families through consulting on better farming practices.

What got me interested was their focus in communities returning to their places of origin after forced migrations and the principle is very simple:

Once land was vacated and there are no one working/farming the soil and sometimes due to over-farming, Mother Nature is powerful and manage to change and regenerate the components of the ground to its max potential. Once that happen the soils become so rich that farmers can return and grow amazing quality goods, which ultimately adds extra value to them.

As you can see, coffee in this Colombian scenario, is a very powerful tool that not only helps build communities, but is also a tool to build something more important… PEACE!

Thank You.

This article is dedicated to my brother, Oscar Farias who tirelessly continues to work with the coffee farmers in Colombia to promote peace and hope.  

Sales Cottle