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Gourmet coffee fuels hopes for peace in long-suffering Colombia
Diplomatic Pouch / December 17, 2015

By Larry Luxner

Fictional Colombian coffee farmer Juan Valdéz, accompanied by his trusty mule Conchita, easily ranks as the most successful branding campaign in the history of coffee. And now, the entity that created Juan Valdéz could play a crucial economic role as the Colombian government prepares to end its 50-year struggle against leftist guerrillas.

Sometime within the next three months, President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC) are widely expected to sign a peace treaty in Bogotá, marking the end of Latin America’s longest-running war.

Coffee farmers have borne more than their share of the bloodshed, said Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Juan Carlos Pinzón.

“Colombia is an amazing and beautiful country, but unfortunately many people have been affected by violence, crime and terrorism,” he said. “They have suffered very hard times and can tell you how coffee has been a lifesaver, how coffee has, in a way, contributed to replacing violence with hope. Coffee allows people to have opportunities, to be engaged in formal activities that give them an income and a future.”

Pinzón, who was Colombia’s minister of defense for four years before coming to Washington as ambassador in August, spoke Dec. 8 during a reception at his residence. The occasion: Colombia Unfiltered, the first in a series of events featuring coffee tastings and conversations about the issues surrounding the U.S.-Colombia relationship.

Growers representing six of Colombia’s coffee regions — from Antoquía to Sierra Nevada to Caldas — handed out steaming little cups of java, while a band serenaded the 200 or guests with music, and hope filled the air.

“Colombia, once one of the world’s most violent countries and almost a failed nation, today has its lowest homicide rate in 35 years, and has cut poverty in half over the last 15 years,” he said. “Peace is going to happen because of the soldiers and police who sacrificed, and because of the will of the Colombian people. But now we need to make peace sustainable.”

To that end, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC in Spanish) is working to improve the lives of campesinos living in areas affected by the long-running guerrilla war, which has claimed some 200,000 lives since the mid-1960s.

Juan Esteban Orduz, president of the federation’s New York office, said the FNC speaks for 563,000 families throughout Colombia, and that nearly 2.5 million Colombians owe their livelihoods to coffee.

The average Colombian coffee farmer has four acres under cultivation, and the 2014-15 crop came to 13.6 million bags of 60 kilograms each, up 12 percent from the 12.2 million bags produced the year before. Coffee exports now generate $2.5 billion a year for Colombia — behind only petroleum and coal — with the U.S. market accounting for about a third of total purchases.

“Coffee used to be mostly grown in central and northern Colombia, but it’s been moving south to departments that used to have lots of violence. Interestingly enough, Antioquía is no longer the biggest producer; now it’s Huila [in southwestern Colombia],” said Urduz, adding that 600 out of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities now cultivate coffee.

“Some studies have shown that the intensity of the conflict has been lowered in places where coffee is grown,” said the official, who has represented FNC since 2003. “About 20 percent of Colombia’s farmers grow coffee. We already build hospitals, roads and schools, so we have the infrastructure to implement lots of the projects the government is proposing.”

In September, President Santos and top FARC rebel commander Rodrigo Londoño shook hands in Havana, pledging to end their half-century war within the next six months. Under the deal, the guerrillas will lay down their arms within 60 days of signing the accord, whose official deadline is March 23, 2016.

In addition, the Santos government and FARC have agreed to demine a region known as Briceño within the coffee-producing department of Antioquía. Coca farmers in three small municipalities — El Orejón, La Callera and Pueblo Nuevo — have said they’re willing to eradicate their illegal crops as long as officials assist in replacing coca with coffee that can generate real income.

The beans will be sold at the federation’s 330 or so Juan Valdéz coffee shops (220 of which are located in Colombia, and seven in the United States, and the rest in a dozen other countries stretching from Mexico to Malaysia).

“We put together a team that’s helping them improve the farms and identify some projects to invest in,” said Urduz. “But more importantly, we agreed that in the first phase, we’re going to start buying all the coffee they produce at a premium, and in that way, help the project succeed.”

Yet big challenges remain throughout Colombia — not just in former war zones.

Although coffee production hit a 22-year record in 2015, Colombia’s growers are struggling with increasing labor costs, the rising cost of fertilizer, and a higher proportion of lower-density beans as a result of the El Niño phenomenon.

“We are pleased with these results. They reflect the fact that Colombia has returned to his historic production levels and that it’s an important player in the international market,” said the federation’s CEO, Roberto Vélez, in a recent press release.

“However, we are very concerned by the fact that the income of coffee producers is decreasing because, in many cases, their costs exceed the returns they receive for their investments,” he added. “We must work together to restore the profitability of the coffee-growing business.”

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