We woke early to take my mum to a coffee finca. Our driver, a bald man in black sunglasses called Giraldo, picked us up at the hotel and drove us up into the mountains. He had lived in Miami for 15 years, rubbing shoulders with other latino immigrants, so his English wasn’t as strong as it could have been. He’d also lived in Pennsylvania for a little while (“now those people are poor!“).
The road we needed to take was blocked, which was a massive headache; it’s not like the steep slopes of the Andes are riddled with multiple ways of getting somewhere. There was a long alternative route, which would turn our 2 hour drive into a 3 ½ hour drive. So, we asked to be taken somewhere closer. We decided on the Estacion Experimental El Rosario.
Now, I’ve geeked-out over coffee production in Colombia before, so I won’t get too deep into it here. But I should just note that Colombia is the 3rd-biggest producer of coffee in the world, and every one of the red fruits they produce on these steep mountainsides is picked by hand:
By hand. Remember that. Then try to picture (and it’s impossible to picture) that 852 million kilograms of coffee beans were picked by hand in Colombia in 2015. At roughly 8,800 beans per kilo, this means Colombian coffee pickers scrambling over the Andes picked roughly 3.7 trillion fruits. Again, that’s by hand. If every single one of Colombia’s 48 million inhabitants, including all their babies and grannies, were out picking coffee last year, they’d each have picked 76,500 fruits. That’s 528 fruits for every person on the planet.
Estacion Experimental El Rosario is a cross between a coffee farm and a coffee lab. There, the Colombian Coffee Federation is trying to stave off the effects of a warmer climate, spray-resistant parasites and drought by breeding different strains of coffee. This task is made more difficult by the fact that the newly-bred plants also have to produce a coffee that’s both flavourful and productive.
It’s important work; only that morning, dozens of articles had come out about how a drought in Brazil had destroyed their crops. This year had also seen a crop-killing drought in Vietnam, which was good (if worrying) news for Colombian producers, as arabica beans, the country’s main coffee export, were up 18% on the New York stock exchange, after a fifth straight monthly increase.
My favourite heartless quote from reading about it was from an asset manager at Cohen and Steers in New York; “at some point prices are going to hurt demand. The upside is limited.” That’s investor speak for “farmers in Brazil and Vietnam are fucked thanks to global warming, but at least we will get richer until the price of coffee gets so high people will stop buying it and the industry is ruined.”
For now, though, the Colombian Coffee Foundation would be getting 18% more money this year; a welcome boost for a country facing political uncertainty. It’s just possible that news like this would help with the peace process. Disarmed guerrillas will need well-paid legitimate jobs, if they are going to avoid coca farming.
Coffee plantations have a precarious life. The coffee must be grown at a high altitude, so that the red fruit created is dense and packed with flavour. It must be grown with lots of sun, but not be too warm, as the plant’s main predator, a fungus that produces “coffee rust”, prefers warm weather. The plants also need a lot of water – a standard cup of coffee requires 140 litres of water to produce. But, too much water creates an environment that parasites like the coffee borer beetle love. The balance of irrigation and warmth must be just right.
Altitude isn’t a problem in Colombia; the Andes mountain range branches into three separate ranges in Colombia, so the country is full of mountains. High grown coffee on the equator means that there’s lots of sun, without it being too warm. And thanks to the rain they get in the Andes, plus the method local farmers use of turning the coffee bean’s juicy pulp into fertiliser for the plants, these beans require less irrigation.
Still, when the worst drought in recorded history hit Colombia in September 2015, coffee growers lost ⅓ of their crops. Workers refused to work in the heat. Damaged plants later failed to produce flowers (and therefore beans). Plus, with systemic problems attributable to climate change – a one degree average temperature rise over the last 30 years – the heat could bring a plague of fungus and parasites with it.
When we turned up at the laboratory, it looked much like any other coffee finca, with rows of lush mountainside coffee crops wrapped around the abrupt topology of the Andes. The faint smell of damp coffee hung in the air. Large, official-looking signs outside identified the farm as a laboratory, emblazoned with the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia’s logo.
We were greeted by the stereotypical farmer in a straw hat. He had broad shoulders, and after 51 years in the fields he had a strong, lumbering gait and fat blunt fingers tipped with flat, earthy nails. He had a large, sagging mole sitting just under a drooping right eye. A rugged man.
He took us on a botanical tour, showing us the plants’ life-cycle and how they grow uniform, productive crops. Lily translated for us when she could. But you can read our in-depth detail of Colombian coffee production here.
The farm wasn’t huge. The Federation gets these 10 1/2 hectares at a low rate from the government under the condition that they protect the soil and water. Each year they use sustainable farming methods to produce 350 arrobas (125 kilo sacks), sold for 825,000 each, at roughly 200,000 pesos (£50) profit per bag. That’s just £6,250 profit a year. An 18% increase in sale price would boost that to £10,500.
Tour over, we were led back to the house, and our guide wandered off. In an office next to where we stood a lean 30-year-old in a worn blue baseball cap (and with the distinct look of a man who’d be more at home as a summer camp councillor) sat at a computer, scrolling through a spreadsheet. He was the coffee nerd, an employee of the Federation, more likely to have gone woofing through Europe than to have gotten his fingers dirty in Colombian fields. He was a researcher, administrator and conservationist – a careful bureaucrat wearing a colourful friendship bracelet.
I started interviewing him about the Federation, warming him up before asking him how he’d be voting in the peace referendum the following week. He told us that the Federation has several different roles to play. I’d heard negative stuff about the Federation from other coffee growers: that one of its roles is to tightly control coffee production like a cartel, forcing poor farmers to adhere to their strict rules, valuing production over quality, paying absurdly low rates for the beans, then selling them at a lucrative mark up in “Juan Valdez”, the Federation-owned chain and Starbucks rip-off.
Listening to this Federation employee, though, and it sounded altruistic in nature. He said the Federation’s main job is to spread ideas. 980,000 families produce coffee in Colombia. It’s an industry that has been known to employ children and treat workers badly. So, the Federation isn’t there just to ensure good coffee, but also fair practices. They let coffee growers know how to irrigate their crops, how to use multi-cropping to lower the need for pesticides, how to increase production and profitability of the land and so on.
But the laboratory’s main job was to future-proof coffee from global warming. The experiments they do, splicing different breeds of coffee together to find rot and parasite resistant strains, take 25 years to see if they’ve succeeded. The methods and results are published in the Federation’s scientific magazine.
They also have a weather station at the farm, like dozens of other farms in the region. Together, they make a record of temperature and rain, looking at past trends to see how current conditions might affect this year’s production.
He showed us how hot it was last year, the monthly rainfall charts, that this May was drier than last May, eagerly skipping through the data. He said that for coffee growers in this region, droughts brought on by El Niño are not that bad, but others in Colombia fared less well.
Part of their warning system is a set of early alerts that notify the Federation when rain, heat or radiation in an area look like they’ll create problems, perhaps a plague of bugs or rot. He explained that if radiation is strong and the soil isn’t good, you have to plant fast growing trees which you can cut for mulch and put back into the soil. But this year, the Andean farmers are doing well. The region’s coffee is of a good quality, there’s good production and they’re getting very good prices.
I asked him whether global warming was going to destroy the Colombian coffee industry. He paused. I realised that he had paused a lot while talking about the climate, perhaps being careful not to spread panic. Or, maybe he wasn’t a believer in climate change. Either way, he seemed cautious.
He told us that La Niña doesn’t do too much harm, but El Niño can break farmers to the point that they have to sell their land. “But it feels all the time that we have dry and wet seasons,” he said. “I think global warming affects the cities more. Global warming is manageable here.”
Before we left him to his spreadsheets, I finally asked him whether he’d be voting Yes or No. Again he paused, before talking about land tax reform and needing a system for legitimate farming to grow to provide work for demilitarised soldiers. The language he was using was boring and formulaic enough that I imagined it was quoted from a memo the Federation had sent out earlier that week. “Peace would mean more work for Federation,” he said. “We can teach families how to grow coffee. The problem is that people don’t trust the government or the guerrillas. But it’s a good opportunity.”
According to the author and professor Hamid Dabashi, the most important factors in drawing a map for future conflicts, “are environmental: deforestation, desertification, and the colossal environmental horrors that are already underway in much of the world.” Could a fragile peace here survive if Colombia’s coffee industry was wiped out? Or will these bioengineers splicing Arabica plants create temperature resistant strains in time?
On our way back to Medellin, I asked Giraldo, our taxi driver, to let us know whether he’d be voting Yes or No. His answers were soundbites pulled directly from the No campaign and pro-Uribe radio hosts, starting with the lie that demilitarised FARC soldiers would be paid stipends equivalent to the salaries of Colombian lawmakers. “How come people who kill little kids are going to get the same payment as people in congress?” In reality, they’d be paid a monthly stipend of $600 USD – roughly 1/20 of the $12,600 paid to Colombia’s congressmen.
Giraldo went on. “Everybody wants to live in peace but this is not the way,” (an almost word-for-word quote from the No campaign), “because FARC will simply become legal drug traffickers”. But the government believes that the cessation of fighting FARC in Colombia’s most remote regions will mean they can focus on eradicating coca crops instead. Also FARC soldiers won’t need to grow cocaine once they’re no longer funding a war, especially if they’re getting a monthly stipend.
I asked Giraldo – who was really pissing Lily off by now – if he’d read the terms of the agreement to make his decision. He said no, but didn’t need to; he knew what was in it. I asked him what he would change in the agreement, or if he had any other proposals – what would make him vote Yes? He shrugged. I asked him what he would do if everything works out well, if FARC doesn’t continue to operate as a narcoterrorist organisation and if the peace holds. “I would vote for Uribe again”, he said.
“These fucking paisas!” I’m assuming that was the dark thought I saw flash across Lily’s face. Paisas is a nickname for people from this region, known for being hospitable with warm, homely tendencies, kinda like Texans; they’re cowboys, traditional, super conservative, Christian first, homophobic, with not an original thought between them; they’d gladly welcome Uribe back as dictator (I’m just paraphrasing what I believe Lily was thinking). I stopped asking Giraldo questions.
For Mum’s sake, I asked him to switch the radio from reggaeton to salsa. Vale Mas un Empanada (which roughly translates into “worth more than a Cornish pasty”) lightened the mood, and I went back to gazing out the window. We passed outcrops of cement block houses surrounded by litter, trucks laden with shipping containers, factories belching out steam and stretches of road stained jet black with coal transported from roadside mines. We’d found ourselves in a bleak, bleak place, where humans were raping the land.
These winding hillside roads also took us past tin roofed shanty houses. Each house was a little project – a cement block cube that has transformed into a family home through adding a little bit here, a little bit there, as their residents had kids or got bored. A herd of meat cows strolled through a field, while a flock of white birds pecked the ground in their wake. We also saw the steepest coffee farm I’ve ever seen. Inhumanely steep; you’d be in danger of falling off the mountainside if you slipped while picking beans there.
Then we hit traffic that barely moved for an hour. Eventually it stopped moving at all. 20 minutes later we found out why. A cargo truck had crashed into a bridge a long way up ahead. We didn’t know when, or how far, or whether they’d fix it soon, but we were told we could take a gravel road up into the mountains, cut across and we’d end up in Medellin eventually. So, we turned back and swung left onto a dirt track.
The detour was amazingly picturesque. But, our car struggled to make it up the steep inclines, and our skidding tires kicked up sprays of gravel that must have been shredding the underside of Giraldo’s otherwise spotless car. Some of the houses we passed were shacks, but others were exquisite, large houses with well-maintained, blossoming gardens overlooking the valley. If you’re interested, you could buy a mansion here with all the land you could want for just $200k USD.
At one point the road was so steep it took us three attempts to get up it, with the engine straining and our tyres skidding underneath us. Our sense of achievement at the top was short-lived, as a clunky metal sound let us know we had a flat tyre. We were five hours into a three hour drive home, nowhere near Medellin, our car had been twanged by pebbles for at least an hour and now this. Giraldo almost lost his casual demeanour.
Tyre fixed, we got back underway and rejoined the long fleet of cars heading back to Medellin. Eventually we made it back onto a main road, and immediately stopped off at El Rancherito, where Giraldo raced off to pee. We ate chicharron, soup, and stuffed arepas. By the time we were back at the hotel we’d spent 7 hours on the road.