When you ask someone to describe Colombia, one of the first words that always comes to mind is ‘coffee’. Colombia is renowned for having some of the best coffee in the world but, for Colombians, coffee is more than just a crop, it is part of the nation’s identity.

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Colombia’s coffee region is made up of more than 300,000 hectares of beautiful mountains and countryside, which were listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2011 (Sarepa). The region covers large sections of the Andes Mountain Range, which Conservation International has called the, “richest and most diverse region on earth” (Equalexchange). The mountain range contains one sixth of the world’s plant species in one percent of its land area.

The coffee-growing region of Colombia can be split into two sections: Medellín, Armenia and Manizales (MAM),  and Bogota and Bucaramanga (Coffeeresearch). In these regions roughly 500,000 farmers produce an average of 11.5 million bags of coffee, the third total highest in the world after Brazil and Vietnam, and the highest average of the world’s Arabica coffee at 12%.

However, Colombia has not always been the ‘coffee empire’ that it is today. Here is a short history of coffee in Colombia and how it came to be a cornerstone of the nation’s heritage and economy:

The beginning of coffee in Colombia

It is most widely accepted that coffee came from Colombia with Jesuit priests arriving from Europe around the 17th century. However, the person who is best known for having popularised the growth of coffee in Colombia is a Jesuit priest named Francisco Romero. Leaders and priests such as Romero encouraged farmers to plant coffee, but when the farmers discovered that the first crop of coffee wouldn’t be ready to harvest for five years, they dismissed the suggestion. To sway the farmers, Romero had a unique idea. At his church he told the locals that instead of giving penance at confession, their penance would be to plant 3 or 4 coffee trees (Sarepa). The Archbishop of Colombia heard of Romero’s new form of penance and liked the idea. He encouraged everyone to plant coffee trees as penance and soon it became common practice. Thus, Colombia’s future as the 3rd largest coffee producer in the world began (CoffeeChemistry).

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The first coffee crops were planted predominately in the eastern region of Colombia. However, the export of coffee from Colombia didn’t begin until 1835, when a shipment of 2,500 pounds of beans left for the USA. Consolidation of coffee as Colombian export didn’t occur until the second half of 19th century when the expansion of world economy allowed Colombians greater access to international trade. By 1960 coffee was the country’s dominant export crop, and soon tariffs on coffee export were the main source of government revenue (Equalexchange). By 1875 Colombia was exporting an average of 170,000 bags to U.S. and Europe (CoffeeChemistry).

Until the end of the 19th century, most exported agriculture came from large scale estates controlled by the wealthy elite (Equalexchange). This changed around the turn of the century when a fall of international prices which affected the large estates badly. The Thousand Days War, which occurred during the first few years of the 20th century, furthered the decline of the plantations (Wikipedia). Many estates, such as Santander, North Santander and Cindinamarca descended into crisis. The fall of the large estates marked one of the most important changes in the Colombian coffee industry, as it encouraged the development of small-scale coffee production.

From 1875 onward the number of small coffee farms grew, predominately in the western regions of Colombia, such as Antioquia and Caldas. This internal migration was expedited by the peace following the Thousand Days War, which inspired many in the early 1900s to settle and found small coffee farms in the western mountainous areas (DonQuijote). As a result, in the first few decades of the 20th century, the western regions of Colombia became leaders in the development of the national coffee industry. Consequently, a new model of coffee export was generated around the rural coffee economy that had arisen.

Despite this growth, Colombia did not have a lot of prominence in the global market until the creation of the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia) in 1927.

The National Federation of Coffee Growers

From its humble beginnings in 1927 the FNC has grown to be one of the largest rural non-profit organisations in the world. The purpose of the NFC is to represent and defend coffee growers’ interests. The organisation believes that by improving the quality of Colombian coffee, farmers can improve their quality of life (knowledge@wharton). As a result, for decades NFC have funded a variety of programs designed to do just that.

Most famously, the FNC began a very successful international marketing campaign in 1959 to put Colombian coffee on the map. In this campaign they creating the charismatic, fictional spokesman of Juan Valdez, who became an icon for Colombian coffee (knowledge@wharton). The FNC also introduced the familiar triangular logo in 1982, to represent coffee of 100% Colombian origin. Because of these campaigns, consumers began to buy coffee based on its national origin in Colombia, rather than by brand.  As a result, Colombian coffee to this day is among the most well-known in the whole world. For example, 85% of Americans associate Juan Valdez with Colombian Coffee (CoffeeChemistry).

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Another transformative program is National Coffee Fund started by the FNC in the early 1940s. The distribution of profits among farmers to ensure that they have a minimum standard of living has continually been a challenge because the added value to Colombian coffee is only achieved at retail (knowledge@wharton). The fund offers farmers a minimum price for their crop based on a formula that takes into consideration current international market price and exchange rate, ensuring they get a fair minimum price for their coffee.  A small portion of money from every pound of exported coffee goes to the National Coffee Fund. With this fund and others, the FNC also provides “technical assistance to coffee producers, scientific research, quality-control programs, living condition improvements and international advertising for Colombian coffee” (knowledge@wharton). The FNC invests hundreds of millions into these initiatives.

Today, FNC exports roughly 30% of Colombian coffee, making it the largest exporter of coffee in the nation. The FNC guarantees the purchase of coffee beans, so the farmers have the option (but no obligation) to sell as much of their produce as they want, at any of the 500+ locations around the country (knowledge@wharton). 38 cooperatives in Colombia are not represented by the FNC, including nineteen companies that are certified fair trade (Equalexchange).

Key facts

Here are a few key facts about coffee production in Colombia, which reflect why Colombian beans are so renowned for their superior quality and flavour (courtesy of knowledge@wharton):

  • Coffee growing is the biggest source of rural employment in the country
  • Coffee production consists of 16% of the national agricultural GDP
  • According to the FNC, in the past five years, roughly 37% of Colombian coffee exports were shipped to the US, closely followed by 10% to Germany
  • Colombian coffee is known for its exceptional quality. Its full-bodied flavor and delicate acidity results from the rich volcanic soil and predominantly shade-grown cultivation
  • The alternating wet and dry seasons produce two harvests, one from September to December and the other from April to June
  • Colombian coffee can be planted at altitudes of up to 1951 metres, where the climate creates superior beans, in part due to increased acidity
  • Because of the mountainous terrain of Colombia’s coffee growing regions, the coffee is harvested by hand when it is ripe (this process differs from other major coffee-growing nations where coffee is grown at a lower altitude and harvested mechanically)
  • About 95% of coffee-growing families operate on small plots of land, averaging 2.5 hectares. Thus, Colombian coffee production is predominately a family run operation, where the harvesting and processing is carried out by the growers

 

Sources

Duncan, Sarah. “The Colombian Coffee Triangle and the History of Coffee in the Country.”Sarepa.com. N.p., 07 May 2017. Web. 05 July 2017.

“History of Coffee in Colombia.” Equal Exchange. Equal Exchange Coop, 2016. Web. 05 July 2017.

Flores, Gerard. “Colombian Coffee Beans.” Coffee Research. Coffee Research Institute, 2006. Web. 05 July 2017.

“History of Colombian Coffee.” Coffee Chemistry. Coffee Intelligence LLC, 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 05 July 2017.

“Coffee in Colombia.” DonQuijote. DonQuijote, 2016. Web. 05 July 2017.

Andrade, Rafaela Latin, Dawn Overby, Jessica Rice, and Samantha Weisz. “Coffee in Colombia: Waking Up to an Opportunity.” Knowledge@Wharton. Wharton School University of Pennsylvania, 2 Jan. 2013. Web. 05 July 2017.

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