Moving on from Coca in Images, Part II: Coffee

21 December 2020

Alex Diamond

Haz cliq aquí para leer la versión en español

Other installments: Part I: Subsistence Agriculture

For nearly two decades, the economy of Briceño, an isolated rural village in northern Colombia, was based on the cultivation of coca. While the vast majority of profits went to the drug traffickers who satisfy the demands of cocaine users around the world, coca also provided clear advantages for Briceño’s rural farmers: a harvest every two to three months, guaranteed and nearby buyers in the armed groups who controlled the territory, and prices that were high enough to support their families and offer the possibility for upward mobility. However, coca also turned the area into a war zone, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) battled with rightwing paramilitaries (themselves often supported by the Colombian military) for control of the region and its coca economy. In 2017, a coca substitution program, negotiated as part of the state’s landmark peace agreement with the FARC, came to Briceño. Overnight, the coca economy disappeared as farmers pulled out their illicit crops based on government promises of productive projects designed to help them shift to legal agriculture. In this multi-installment photo essay, I use images to explore what this transition has meant for local families.

A farmer works in his coffee fields above the Cauca river.

With the possible exception of coca, coffee is the crop most associated with rural Colombia. The image of the self-sufficient smallholding farmer who produces the best coffee in the world is a source of great pride in Colombia, and indeed a constitutive element of the national identity. However, while coffee cultivation is often invoked as an alternative to coca, it brings significant economic uncertainty. Most of Briceño’s coffee is sold at prices set by the global market—prices that are subject to huge and rapid variance. This is in fact part of the reason most Colombian coffee is produced by smallholders. Large coffee haciendas, which were common until the 1930s, proved unable to sustain themselves in the face of prices that dropped below production costs.[i] Smallholders, on the other hand, could wait out pricing busts, feeding their families with the food crops they grew alongside their coffee. From 1961 to 1989, the International Coffee Agreement (ICA) set a quota system that protected prices and allowed rural coffee farmers a measure of prosperity. In this time coffee was the driving force behind Briceño’s economy. When the ICA collapsed, however, coffee farmers were exposed to market forces, and by 2001, coffee growers’ income was only 40% of 1990 levels.

It is no coincidence that the context of the precipitous drop in coffee prices in the late 90s-early 2000s was precisely when Briceño’s farmers turned from coffee to coca. Even coffee farmers uninterested in cultivating coca say they were left with little choice—the day laborers they depended on to help pick their crops during the few month coffee harvest at the end of the year were all making more money picking coca. One ex-coffee farmer told me that his ripe coffee beans had rotted on the bushes—none of his neighbors even took him up on his offer to pick and sell the beans themselves. After harvesting what he could, he pulled up his coffee bushes and planted coca. Now that coca has essentially disappeared, many farmers seek an economic alternative in coffee. However, little has changed; coffee farmers, unless they seek alternative ways to commercialize their crops, are still dependent on the whims of the global market.

Framed by coffee bushes, Adrian picks coffee beans.

Sebastian, shown here unloading coffee beans, has been helping his father in their fields since he was five or six; he would pick the lowest-hanging fruit while his father gathered the higher coffee beans.

Suso, Adrian and Sebastian’s father, is considering abandoning the 10,000 coffee plants he has maintained for the last 27 years. At the moment, due largely to the relative weakness of the Colombian peso against the US dollar, coffee is selling at the relatively high price of 8,000 pesos a kilo (for those doing the math, Suso will receive about $1 for a pound of green coffee—a pound which, after being roasted and packaged for sale overseas, will likely sell for upwards of $10). But he remembers many years where he’s been forced to sell his crop at below the cost of production. After figuring in the costs of herbicides, fertilizers, the labor to pick and prepare the coffee, food for laborers, and transportation to market, a year’s worth of hard work has led to a net loss. “The future here is for you to kill yourself working day and night,” he says. “I don’t want my children to have the same future.”

Angélica poses with a bag of the organic coffee she and her husband grow, pick, dry, pay to get roasted and ground, and sell themselves in farmers’ markets. They receive roughly five times what farmers like Suso get for each pound of coffee. But their commercialization model requires developing a customer base, brings considerable expenses, and leaves them exhausted from travelling back and forth from their isolated farm. The bag, decorated by Angélica’s granddaughter, reads “Briceño, Territory of Peace”. For more information or to buy their coffee in Colombia, contact Angélica by phone or WhatsApp at +57 312 744 9962.

Mauricio picks coca leaves (which he gifted to the author for tea) from one of the few coca plants that remains on his farm, surrounded by coffee. Mauricio, tired of the violence of the coca economy, first planted coffee on his farm in 2011, after military eradicators destroyed all the coca in the area and when global coffee prices reached a high of $3 a pound. “I persuaded the community to cultivate coffee, that it was worth it,” he says. “We planted a million (coffee) trees.” Two years later, for the 2013 harvest, the price dropped to slightly more than $1 a pound, below production costs. “They blamed me, and those millions of coffee trees disappeared, replaced by coca. If (other agricultural goods) had justifiable prices, there wouldn’t be coca.”

Mauricio unloads pulped coffee beans (pulping is the process of removing the skins from the beans, usually with a special machine) into his marquesina, a structure covered with a plastic tarp that is used to dry the beans. Mauricio has adopted a different model of commercialization, working with an exporter to try to find international clients. He’s still working to establish a consistent market, but he’s sent coffee to the US, Chile, Spain, and India. “Coffee can work,” he says. “But you have to think differently.

The beans at this end of Mauricio’s marquesina are pasilla, either unripe, overly ripe, or otherwise of low quality. Mauricio takes great care to separate these beans (which he sells for a pittance) from the rest of his harvest to ensure that his coffee retains its high quality. Sadly, most of the coffee drunk in Colombia is pasilla; the good stuff gets shipped around the world.

Mauricio pours coffee from his farm at a meeting of a new association he has recently formed, CaféPazBri: Coffee Peace Briceño. Through the association, dozens of local growers hope to ensure higher (and stable) prices by exporting their coffee themselves. For many of these farmers, who’ve always sold their coffee unroasted at market prices, this was the first time they’ve tried coffee from the region. This tasting is part of a new model of commercialization that means new processes of growing and harvesting their beans to assure their coffee achieves the highest quality possible. Of course, it’s only economically justifiable if they succeed in breaking into international markets. For more information, including national or international sales, contact info@anewsunrisecolombia.co or visit https://www.instagram.com/anewsunrisecolombia/

Coming Next: Moving on from Coca in Images, Part III: Livestock


[i] My discussion of the history of the coffee economy draws heavily on the forthcoming book, At the Margins of the Global Market: Making Commodities, Workers, and Crisis in Rural Colombia by Phillip Hough, under contract with Cambridge University Press.

Alex is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His ethnographic research follows the implementation of Colombia’s landmark peace deal, analyzing how the rural village of Briceño has experienced a broader regional transition driven by related processes of state formation, the development of mining and energy megaprojects, and a coca substitution program.

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