Coffee growing in Colombia

by JulieCraves on July 24, 2008

Some background
The marketing of Juan Valdez and “fine Colombian coffee” has been so pervasive for so long, if you ask the average consumer where coffee come from, and they may well say “Colombia.” The country produces about 10% of the world’s arabica coffee, second only to Brazil, with the current output around 12 million 60-kg bags. Ninety percent is exported.

Despite this large volume, coffee growing in Colombia is not characterized by huge plantations. Instead, there are nearly 600,000 producers, of which nearly all (96%) grow coffee on small plots of less than 5 ha. Nearly all represented by the National Federation of Coffee Growers (Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, or FNC), the creator of Juan Valdez. This organization is extremely strong, and has managed to organize these tens of thousands of small producers, get their beans to mills and central processing points, and deliver fairly uniform, though often mediocre, coffee in large volumes. This is what has made Colombian coffee so popular and ubiquitous with the large corporate roasters.

Therefore, this profusion of many small farms mixing all their crops together has made it difficult to find sustainably-grown Colombian coffee, or coffee of very high quality. This is now changing. The FNC has entered the specialty coffee market. Small roasters are developing direct relationships with individual farmers or small cooperatives, seeking out exceptional lots. Since 2005, Colombia has participated in the Cup of Excellence. These efforts have made it easier for consumers to find great examples of the very pleasing coffees this country can produce.

Shade coffee in Colombia
Various sources [1,2,3] indicate that the proportion of coffee grown under traditional shade ranges from 16 to 40%. That means the bulk of it is grown under full sun, or sparse sun interspersed with other crops such as plantains and bananas. To be fair, there are some high-altitude areas in the country where clouds provide the shade, and planting coffee under a tree canopy would be counter-productive. Some of these farms preserve important forest fragments outside their coffee plots.

Rainforest Alliance now certifies nearly 200 5000 farms in Colombia covering 51,000 ha*. There are only three Bird-Friendly certified producers in Colombia; one is the widely available Mesa de los Santos (but check current producers, as they change when up for renewal). So it can still be a challenge to find eco-friendly, great-tasting Colombian coffee.

Birds and biodiversity in Colombia
A remarkable 1870 bird species are found in Colombia, a fifth of the world’s species in a country eight times smaller than the U.S. and more documented species than any other country on earth. While many species of North American migrants winter closer to home in Central America, a number of species make the long trip to South America. One of the most important is the Cerulean Warbler, which has been discussed in a number of other posts. Other species include American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler (shown top right), Canada Warbler, Mourning Warbler (bottom right) Swainson’s Thrush, Prothonotary Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, and Bay-breasted Warbler.

In fact, individuals of all those species have been found to return to the exact same wintering areas in Colombia on successive years — including a Mourning Warbler and Swainson’s Thrush to a shade coffee farm in Antioquia. I will add that a Swainson’s Thrush banded at my study site in southern Michigan was found two months later near Bucaramanga, another coffee-growing region. This is amazing!

Birds are just an example of the enormous biodiversity of Colombia. There are 55,000 plant species (a third endemic), 697 amphibians (2nd most in the world), and 517 reptiles. Yet Colombian forests and rich diversity they contain are under threat. One major driver is the illegal farming of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of coca.

Coca/cocaine and the coffee connection
Farmers grow coca because it provides more cash than any other crop. Since 2000, the U.S. has cooperated and helped fund a coca eradication program centered around aerial fumigation with the herbicide glysophate (RoundUp, made by Monsanto, the folks that gave us Agent Orange). This non-selective herbicide kills all plants, including native species and food crops. Not only does it destroy vegetation, but it has resulted in farmers moving into more remote areas to grow coca, clearing primary forest to do so. Many other adverse environmental and health effects result from this ineffective practice.

When coffee prices dropped in the 1990s, many farmers turned to coca. Encouraging specialty coffee, with its corresponding higher prices and good stewardship of the land, is one tool to help reduce coca production and the deforestation and loss of biodiversity that goes with it. In fact, a recent report noted,

“The head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is urging comprehensive, large-scale and ecologically-friendly agriculture and forestry schemes in coca growing areas, after a new survey shows a ‘marked increase’ in cultivation in the Andean region.”

There are projects in Cauca and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta regions focused on replacing coca with coffee that have met with success. In future posts, we’ll explore the development of specialty coffees in Colombia, and take a look at what’s available and the roasters bringing these coffees to you.

*Updated figures from the 2012 report “Protecting Our Planet“, which outlines Rainforest Alliance’s 25 years of impacts.

[1] COLOMBIA: Working Toward a Sustainable Ecosystem. 2000.- “Ask Juan,” Colombian Specialty Coffees, National Federation of Coffee Growers.

[2] Colombia Coffee Sector Study. 2002. Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Económico (CEDE) de la Universidad de los Andes. Daniele Giovannucci with José Leibovich, Diego Pizano, Gonzalo Paredes, Santiago Montenegro, Hector Arévalo and Panos Varangis.

[3] Millenium Ecosystem Assessment. 2004. Colombia sub-global assessment report. Ecological function assessment in the Colombian Andean coffee region.

Photo of a Blackburnian Warbler by Gavan Watson; photo of Mourning Warbler by yours truly.

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Revised on October 9, 2016

Posted in Coffee regions

John July 24, 2008 at 10:24 pm

Interesting post. I think the fact that so many coffee growers own small farms should make it easier for small roasters and conservationists to persuade farmers to use sustainable agriculture. If that would slow down the coca trade, so much the better.

I'm a little skeptical on the latter point, though, because coffee price isn't the only factor involved. There also seems to be a good deal of intimidation from paramilitary groups that are funded through the drug trade. It may be hard for small farmers to withstand that, even if they would prefer to grow coffee.

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