Photo by Larry Luxner
Colombia on the Cusp of Peace
Juan Esteban Orduz, president of the Colombian Coffee Federation Inc., explains what distinguishes his country’s regional coffees during a reception at the Colombian ambassador’s residence in Washington.
Colombia is anxiously looking forward to peace that will restore prosperity to vast tracts of its coffee lands.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to sign a bilateral ceasefire with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC) to end Latin America’s longest-running war. A March agreement will lead to a referendum by the Colombia people. Should it be rejected there will be no peace with rebels, announced Santos.
But hopes are high that 50 years of conflict which has taken the lives of 220,000 people will soon end. FARC agreed to a United Nations mission that will provide unarmed observers for 12 months to help prevent the incursion of right-wing paramilitary forces.
Growers in the combat zones are beginning to see light at the end of a very long tunnel. 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.
Meanwhile the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) has adopted measures to reduce El Niño's impact on the income of producers. Growers are battling the effects of the worst El Niño in memory which brings conditions that result in a higher proportion of low-quality beans. 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. 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.”
“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.”
Colombia produced 1.136 million 60-kg bags in January continuing its recovery following last year’s record crop of 14.2 million 60-kg bags after years of setbacks due to coffee leaf rust.