When I told my friends that I was going to Colombia, they were terrified and asked how I dared to visit the scenery of the Narcos series – it sounds dangerous! I have to admit having also had same kind of thoughts myself but after getting to know the situation in the country and being on the premises we realized that our image of the country was totally wrong.
Colombia is one the fastest developing countries in South America. According to The Latin American Development Bank, Colombia might reach the level of industrialized countries in a couple of decades. The overall safety situation in the country has improved significantly since 2016 when the armed conflict that had lasted over 50 years was brought to an end. Determined work for peace was also rewarded: Juan Manuel Santos, the predecessor of the current president Ivan Duque received the Noble Peace Prize in 2016.
Our trip started from Bogota, the capital. While there is still a lot of inequality and large income disparities, Bogota was surprisingly Western – of course, armed guards and bomb dogs at the doors of shopping malls reminded us of the recent history of the country.
Colombia is the third largest coffee producer of the world. Coffee farming is an important industry for hundreds of thousands of people – there are about 500 000 coffee farms in the country. Coffee farming or processing of coffee is the main industry in countless villages and entire small towns. In addition to coffee, avocado and bananas are also cultivated.
Since the conclusion of the peace treaty, coffee farming and other livelyhoods have been able to expand, and the farming and training support for farmers provided by the National Coffee Federation (FNC) and several coffee exporting companies have been extended to new, previously unsafe areas. Despite the stable economic and democratic development, there are still areas in the country that are controlled by guerilla groups – it was not safe for us to visit certain areas inland.
The National Coffee Federation of Colombia (FNC) plays a significant role in the Colombian coffee sector. The FNC has announced its goal of achieving 100% sustainability certified farms by 2027. Although the FNC has done an outstanding job in its research, sustainability and reform work, the goal is still very ambitious as the majority of the half a million coffee farms in the country are small family farms of under two hectares. Implementing sustainability policies to family farms is slow and laborious because of the difficult terrain and also because many farms still operate without banking services or mobile and internet connections.
Sustainability is in the core of the strategy and mission of our partner Olam International: development of farming and food chains so that positive value is created in every part of the chain, focusing on the farming community. In Colombia, Olam aims to be the largest agent of certified coffees in the country. Olam has e.g. a comprehensive and versatile sustainability program called ”AtSource” covering the so-called zero tolerance themes (such as child labor) to local influencing possibilities (e.g. raising children´s school attendance). We were impressed with Olams activities and happy to share their desire to make coffee a profitable and sustainable business for the entire value chain that takes into account the wellbeing of the farmers, farming communities, workers in the coffee chain as well as our entire planet.
Arabica – hand picked coffee
After a few nights in Bogota, we headed to the coffee region of Armenia to get acquainted with the coffee processing plant and coffee farms.
The unique nature of Colombia is very diverse in terms of both flora and fauna. The country is located entirely in the tropics but large elevation differences make the climate variable; there are highlands, lowlands, savannas and Amazon rainforest in the country. Nature made a very indelible impression on us and our phones were full of attempts to capture the breathtaking landscapes in digital form.
Coffee farming in Colombia has a unique feature: good quality coffee is produced all year round, as it produces two crops. Coffee in Colombia is planted, picked, washed, peeled and dried mostly on small family farms. After that coffee is transported to a processing plant where the green beans are further cleaned, sorted and packed in export bags. At the processing plant, coffee is also always tested, sorted by quality and if necessary, the farmers are given feedback to e.g. improve the quality regarding the handling process.
As the coffee plantations are mainly located on steep mountain slopes, beans are picked by hand. Coffee pickers play a key role ensuring that coffee berries on each farm can be picked exactly at the right time. As in many other industrializing countries, young people in Colombia prefer working in the cities with easier jobs, and therefore there are few experienced coffee pickers today. They are often pickers for many generations, and skilled pickers are highly appreciated.
Colombian coffee is mostly arabica. The coffee species of different regions differ significantly from each other e.g. due to growing conditions and handling processes. The coffee that comes to Meira comes mainly from four different regions. The coffee species from Risaralda, Quindrio and Valle de Cauca have herbal and fruity notes, medium body and acidity. The coffee picked from Huila has winey and sweet notes and a little more acid than the three other species.
Coffee farms are managed with more determination respecting nature and people
We visited three different coffee farms that have undergone a lot of postive changes during recent years. Regulations regarding labor law and occupational safety are known and also followed. More attention is being paid to sustainability issues, because sustainability is also seen as a possibility to succeed and get a slightly better price for coffee.
Sustainability programs and certificates always involve better management of the farm, not only from an economic point of view but also in terms of taking care of people and protecting the environment. These policies were well known and appreciated on the farms – the principles for sustainable coffee cultivation were found e.g. on posters on the wall.
Good farming practices like using shade plants, taking care of biodiversity and planned pruning of the coffee bushes are all likely to improve the coffee yield. Wastewater generated mainly in the coffee handling process on farms is cleaned before being discharged to the ground. The waste is sorted and the municipality takes care of the waste management. All the farms we visited were very tidy, and taking care of the environment and people sustainably was important.
Especially on our last visit to the La Divisa organic farm, the words of our host Senor Largo stayed in our mind: ”God created nature perfect and we should not change it”.
A great piece of advice to anybody and anywhere.
The writer is the Strategy and Sustainability Director at Meira