In southwestern Colombia, in the department Valle del Cauca, cultivation of coffee beans is more than merely a source of income that guarantees survival. It’s identity and pride, and the seeds of dreams and hope.
‘Without coffee, we’re nothing’, says Albaluz Vargas, a small-scale coffee farmer who runs a finca de café, La Esperanza (‘Hope’), outside Andinápolis, a small town with 2,000 inhabitants centred around coffee production. ‘Here, coffee is life, in every shape and form.’
Yet, it was death that led Albaluz here, to this very moment, overlooking an unpredictable landscape. Sprawling rows of coffee bushes and well-trekked paths that lead you down to the gravel road. Thick vegetation grows right up to the doorstep of the finca at the top of the ridge.
‘I was so afraid’, says Albaluz, and allow herself to take in the surroundings. ‘When my husband died in 2004, I was left alone to take care of the whole coffee business, the finca, and our two daughters. Hadn’t it been for my father, who persuaded me that I could do it, I would never have continued.’
Not only life found a way forward, Albaluz met Aicardo Antonio Rodriguez, who like her grew up in these valleys and shared her dream of living by the land. Together they have a six-year-old son. Mother and son wear rubber boots that dig deep into the copper-coloured soil. Yellow buckets are tied around their waists, containing picked coffee beans. Ants march along an eroded soil vein, each carrying fragments of leaves back to the anthill.
Coffee production took a deep cut during the COVID-19 pandemic. Its earthquake-like impact on local farmers in coffee producing countries such as Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia left many in utter despair, while distributors and resellers have enjoyed sky-high prices on the liquid gold. Despite the hopeful name of Albaluz’s finca, hope is caught in political clouds that hovers over southwestern Colombia.
‘The hope is that we’ll someday enjoy an honest and real support from politicians’, says Albaluz. ‘The pandemic affected us badly, yet not a single person from any department or leading position within either the national or regional government has ever sat his or her foot in these valleys. We’ve been totally abandoned to hang on to scraps.’
In 2016, the global community applauded the Colombian government, then led by President Juan Manuel Santos, and the revolutionary leftist guerrillas, the Farc, for the peace agreement which brought an end to the country’s half-century-long civil war. Far away from the political corridors in the capital Bogotá, however, violence continues to pester rural areas – among them Andinápolis.
Around here, Aicardo explains, the war between the guerrillas and the state was never the main problem, but the presence of paramilitary groups.
‘Come, I’ll show you something’, he says and leads the way to an overgrown path, swallowed by banana leaves and coffee bushes. ‘There’, Aicardo says and points to the highest peak of the valley, where green hills embrace the clear-blue sky. ‘That’s where the new paramilitary militias have settled down.’
Paramilitary groups have established themselves along with new industrial players around Andinápolis, introducing a parallel economic landscape based on other crops than coffee – mostly avocado, which is a booming export commodity in Colombia, but also banana, and tomatoes. In the outskirts of town, various mining projects have recently seen the light of day due to a sudden availability of lands previously owned or leased by coffee farmers, who in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic found themselves in financial freefall and opted for fast cash exits.
‘Look around you’, says Aicardo. ‘All these hills used to be covered by coffee bushes. Now, many farmers have sold their land, and many avocado plantations have replaced them.’
Land availability was an integral part of the Colombian conflict, deeply rooted in social injustice, land control, and a narrow-cut-access to power. The peace agreement included clauses that pledged upcoming agrarian reforms, but Colombia’s current President Iván Duque – himself a staunch critic of the peace agreement – has undermined any progress on the land front by heavily underfunding departments set out to deal with the nation’s deeply unequal land distribution.
At ‘La Esperanza’, Albaluz and her two daughters, both in their early twenties, serve newly roasted and grinded coffee from their own soil. It’s a pleasant afternoon, it might rain later. On the gas stove, coffee’s brewing.
The economic impact of COVID-19 and the political consequence of a systematic lack of support to local coffee farmers has seriously endangered the livelihood of a vast portion of the citizens of Andinápolis, and rural corners in Valle del Cauca in general. In the end, an entire culture and identity socially and financially built upon coffee production runs the risk of extinction.
‘We have no other place to go’, Albaluz laments. ‘Our children deserve a world to believe in, and a society in which they can trust. It all starts with us, with what we do and what choices we make today.’
Aicardo embraces her while their son grabs another banana out of a fruit basket and swings it as an imaginary revolver.
‘Our children’s future follows the same path as the coffee’, says Aicardo and pours coffee into a ceramic cup.
A century has passed since the first settlers arrived to what is now Caicedonia. A new frontier was built around the cultivation of coffee. Today Caicedonia is a town with 30,000 inhabitants and frequently dubbed as Colombia’s ‘Coffee Mecca’.
Among those to set out from northern Colombia to create a new life in Valle del Cauca’s lush mountains in the wake of the Global Depression in the 1930s were the grandparents of Rigoberto Herrera. He’s the third generation to run ‘La Granja’, a family company that owns a coffee plantation in the mountains and runs its own mill and factory in downtown Caicedonia.
‘The cabin that they built up in the mountains still stands’, he says. ‘And their memory is still very much alive today.’
As is the collective memory, although in Caicedonia it’s intertwined with political violence. In the late 1940s, ‘La Violencia’, a ten-year-spanning civil war, erupted between conservatives and liberals over political power in Bogotá and control over economic commodities, such as Valle del Cauca’s coffee plantations.
‘According to the elders of the town’, wrote Colombian journalist and writer Germán Castro Caycedo in his book ‘Colombia Amarga’, ‘there isn’t a single park, block or street corner where a murder didn’t occur during La Violencia’.
Every coffee farmer in Caicedonia had to pick side in the conflict, in order to obtain access to distribution routes and secure protection of the land. Desperate decisions made in desperate times, but decisions that later haunted a vast portion of coffee farmers, and the root to generation-spanning grudges between families as well as political parties that outlived the outbreak of the following conflict that ripped Colombia apart for a half century.
Today, coffee farmers of Caicedonia, and Valle del Cauca in general, find themselves cornered yet again. Now the former new settler’s frontier has evolved into a stand-off between coffee farmers and short-termism players, mainly embodied by fast-money-driven avocado producers.
‘Many coffee farmers choose to get the hell out and sell their lands’, Rigoberto explains. ‘But you also have to think of what’s replacing it, it’s our responsibility to think about the environment and the identity of the place. Now, when you look around you, many coffee plantations have been replaced by other commodities that harms the land and speed up the exodus of young people to larger cities.’
Besides a shifting way of life and a collective identity in Caicedonia, climate change has dug its pole into the very heart of Colombia’s coffee production, turning these valleys into a frontline where desperate coffee farmers seek for answers to a sustainable way of life in a region cast into unpredictable economic and social changes.
‘Land is the root of everything’, says Rigoberto. ‘Land is everything. The root of people’s health, our possibilities, our identity – it’s all down to the land, and how we take care of it.’
The drive up to the ‘La Granja’ family plantation, situated 1,800 metres above sea-level, crosses four different temperature zones. There’s a school for children of the plantation workers next to the coffee mill. The air is damp, the ambience is spiritual. Rigoberto can’t recall the first time he helped his parents with the business, either picking coffee beans higher up the slopes, or packing bags at the factory downtown. ‘I was no more than four or five when I realized this was gonna be my life’, he says.
Even though Rigoberto has had coffee in his system since birth, it has remained a passion that he wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. Albeit a solar body in rapid changes and, for good or worse, all the more unpredictable.
‘For me, cultivating coffee is all about prolonging the dream that brought my grandparents to these valleys’, he says. ‘A dream of living by the land, with the land and for the land. To prolong their dream and continue their work, by cultivating and harvesting organically produced coffee, is a true honour.’
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The article first appeared in SOLO Magazine.