Coca Invades Colombia's Coffee Fields Falling Prices Push Farmers
to Plant Illegal Crops, Threatening U.S. Drug War
By Scott Wilson Washington Post Foreign Service Tuesday, October
30, 2001; Page A17
PUERTO VENUS, Colombia -- Coffee shrubs the color of army fatigues
cover the hills above this village, which is set in a deep valley
cut by the River Samana. But near the peaks, the bright green stripes
of another crop can be seen between the coffee, spelling trouble
for Colombia's most renowned industry and the United States' drug
No one here will claim the brilliant fields of coca, the key ingredient
in cocaine. But farmers acknowledge that some among them have yanked
up coffee plants in the past year and replaced them with crops that
have a more profitable and reliable, if illegal, market. Along mountain
roads, pickup trucks with beds filled with coca seedlings now pass
buses stuffed with burlap sacks of coffee.
"Coffee has been fundamental to our economy," said a
storeowner in this village of 1,000, about 90 miles northwest of
the capital, Bogota. "We all rely on it. But right now a coffee
farmer can't even pay for the basics. Coca is new to us here, so
we don't know what it will bring. So far it has been only a grain
of salt for our economy."
What is squeezing the coffee farmers are the caprices of economic
globalization. Years of good growing weather worldwide and a rising
number of countries planting the beans have increased supplies and
sent world prices tumbling. As income flowing back to villages like
this falls, farmers find themselves pushed away from Colombia's
most renowned crop toward its most notorious.
The coffee crisis, as it is called here, has helped create a countrywide
recession. Unemployment is near 20 percent, and higher in the countryside
where war and scant public resources make poverty nearly inescapable.
That, in turn, has given the country's various armed groups -- Marxist
rebels on one side, a counter-guerrilla paramilitary force on the
other -- a larger pool of idle young men and women from which to
fill their ranks. Recruiting has never been easier.
It is all bad news for the United States' $1.3 billion contribution
to the anti-drug program known as Plan Colombia.
Part of that mostly military package pays coca farmers to uproot
their crops in favor of legal ones, an "alternative development"
strategy unfolding slowly far to the south where drug crops are
most bountiful. But here in rugged southeastern Antioquia and across
its river border in Caldas province, the switch is working in reverse.
It would be a reach to say that Juan Valdez, the iconic Colombian
coffee farmer of television advertising, has turned to drugs. Although
hard numbers are impossible to come by, evidence and informed estimates
suggest that only about 1,000 of the country's 560,000 coffee farms
have scrapped coffee plants in favor of coca or opium poppies. But
just about all coffee farmers wonder how they are going to survive
at the current prices.
Archangel Cifuentes, picking beans in the town of Chinchina one
recent morning, said his weekly salary had fallen from $50 to half
that within a year. "Even with a good crop, the prices are
so low we make nothing," he said, his hands darting from the
bright red beans to the yellow bucket around his waist. "You
Americans have to drink a lot more."
The switch is occurring mostly on the remote edges of the country's
coffee heartland, where there is little state presence. Most of
those who have changed over maintain tiny illegal plots alongside
larger coffee fields in hopes that prices will rise again.
But international counter-narcotics officials here warn that things
are likely to get worse. Klaus Nyholm, head of the U.N. Drug Control
program in Colombia, said opium poppies are appearing on what was
once traditional coffee land in the mountains of southwestern Tolima
and southern Huila provinces.
In the old days, Nyholm said, "Colombian hearts would beat
faster at the sight of a coffee bush. Now we are going to have to
start looking at alternatives within the coffee zone itself. But
people are going to have to accept that legal alternatives to coffee
may never yield as much money as coca, although they will not have
the violence that goes with the drug trade. There is no magic solution."
Coffee beans arrived here with proselytizing Jesuit priests almost
three centuries ago. Like oil in the Middle East, coffee was the
fuel for much of Colombia's economic and political development.
Roads and railroads were built to move coffee from the cool slopes
of Antioquia and its southern neighbors to the Pacific coast, where
ports were built to ship it out. Coffee proceeds financed the development
of such other exports as bananas, cotton and sugar, not to mention
rural schools and health clinics. Colombia's coffee belt became
one of the richest and most stable regions of the country.
Production was dominated by small farms, in contrast to other Latin
American and Caribbean countries where large plantations controlled
the growing of such commodities as sugar and pineapples. Today,
96 percent of the country's coffee farmers tend plots smaller than
seven acres. These farmers were the model for Juan Valdez.
The broad participation in the nation's chief industry helped foster
democratic participation in politics, as well. It was the driving
force behind Colombia's decentralized system of government, one
that was once widely admired but recently has shown weakness in
dealing with a civil conflict that thrives on proceeds from drug
The bonanza years of the 1960s and 1970s, when shrewdly marketed
Colombian coffee traded on commodities markets near $3 a pound,
have ended in a supply glut. Colombian coffee now sells for about
62 cents a pound on the New York commodities exchange, generating
just 10 percent of the country's legal export income. It once accounted
for more than half.
A big reason for the glut is Vietnam. With the soil and altitude
in which coffee shrubs thrive, it was a major exporter before the
Vietnam War and reentered the world market in about 1980. Today,
it is exporting more coffee than Colombia, and though its beans
are generally of a lower quality than Colombia's, they are helping
drag down prices. A pound of Vietnamese coffee sells for about 16
"Vietnam is dumping," said Jorge Cardenas, head of the
National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers, using a term that
meansselling on world markets at prices that are illegally low under
trade law. He said Colombia's labor regulations make it impossible
to produce coffee for less than 50 cents a pound. "We cannot
compete," he said.
To export Colombian coffee, a farmer or company must receive federation
approval. Only 30 companies have that stamp, and together they control
70 percent of all coffee exports. The remaining 30 percent is controlled
by the federation, which keeps a portion of its revenues for social
development and has channeled about $1 billion over the past decadeinto
building schools, clinics and roads in coffee-growing regions.
Cardenas said the rules ensure that Colombian coffee sells for
more than other types overseas, even during a crisis, but that allowing
any farmer to sell abroad would "confuse the markets and lessen
Maria Teresa Londono, who owns a small factory that husks and sorts
coffee beans in Chinchina, blames the federation for the current
crisis. "They are killing us with paperwork," said Londono,
whose father was the first coffee buyer in Chinchina. "If the
rules are not changed to allow us to sell directly to the buyer,
I don't know what is going to happen to this industry."
The federation and international development groups are trying
to encourage Colombian farmers to go "up market" and grow
gourmet beans that will fetch higher prices. But here on the distant
margins of coffee country, many farmers are simply getting out of
Moving northeast from Manizales, the capital of Caldas province
and one of the world's most fertile coffee regions, abandoned coffee
farms abound. Pasture covers hillsides that for decades had been
coffee land, and prime coffee farms are rented out for parties and
weekend getaways to help the owners make ends meet.
Rural banks, long the chief source of loans in farming areas, have
stopped lending to an industry in which it costs $15 to produce
a 27.5-pound bag of coffee that sells abroad for $12.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's
main rebel group, controls much of this region, although farmers
say the guerrillas are not profiting from the new crops as they
do in other areas. But local officials fear that the social unrest
that has traditionally accompanied falling standards of living will
sharply increase in the months ahead, fueling guerrilla recruitment
in the region.
In the town of Pensilvania, in eastern Caldas, Mayor Jose Oscar
Gonzales said coffee has been uprooted in favor of coca in the nearby
towns of El Verdal, Playa Rica, Pueblo Nuevo and La Ceba. In all,
he said, about 440 acres of coca have replaced coffee. The plots
are tiny -- 1,000 to 2,000 plants each, enough to cover only a fraction
of an acre.
But Gonzales predicted that the 100 or so farmers who have made
the change to coca, which can be harvested three times a year to
coffee's one, are just the vanguard. "This isn't pressure from
the guerrillas," he said. "This is poverty. Look, coca
brings in 10 times the amount as coffee right now. This is the heart
of the crisis."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
submitted November 1, 2001
Tool in the War Against Drugs: Fair Trade Coffee
Your recent article on Colombia (Oct 30) well describes how falling
prices in the coffee market create economic incentives for farmers
to switch to coca, an effort that spells trouble for the war against
It especially brings to light the need for the United States¹ $1.3
billion assistance package, Plan Colombia, to focus on economic
alternatives over military entrenchment. Without other ways to
make a living, coca is just too attractive an option for rural farmers
who need to make a living to feed their families. One more attractive
alternative that could help stave off the crisis and keep coffee
farmers out of poverty is Fair Trade.
Fair Trade is an international monitoring and certification system
that guarantees small farmers, like those in the Caldas region,
a minimum of $1.26 per pound instead of the world market price (currently
43 cents). For example, the coffee cooperative CRIDEC, the Regional
Indigenous Council of Caldas, serves nearly 80,000 people on four
reservations and provides technical support for farming, education,
and promotion of indigenous culture. Rather than uproot plants in
favor of coca or poppies, its members know it can count on CRIDEC
to gain a fair price for their coffee through the Fair Trade system,
as long as they continue to produce the high-quality coffee Colombia
is known for.
Since September 11, Americans have been learning that our national
security is imperiled by global inequality. The failed War on Drugs
is another example of why the increased wealth gap brought on by
globalization has increased domestic insecurity, and how the route
to true global security is through global justice.
Over 100 coffee roasters in the US are now offering coffee with
the Fair Trade Certified label in over 7000 retail locations. Americans
concerned about the impact of drugs in the US can help Colombians
gain security for their families - and ours - by purchasing Fair
Trade coffee from Colombia.
Deborah James is the Fair Trade Director of Global Exchange, a
Francisco-based human rights organization.
Colombian coffee growers start sowing poppies
By James Wilson - Oct 25 2001
Coffee income - boosted by advertisements featuring the mustachioed
Juan Valdez - brought a measure of social cohesion to regions wracked
by four decades of civil conflict in Colombia.
But the latest price drop has led to an upsurge in kidnappings,
violence and farming of drug crops.
UN drug and coffee officials note that some farmers are trying
to supplement declining incomes by sowing opium poppies, used to
produce heroin. "I have seen farms where there are poppies
and coffee," says Fernando Osorio, executive director of the
national federation of coffee-growers' committee in Tolima, a central
province that grows 12 per cent of Colombia's coffee.
Klaus Nyholm, the UN Drug Control Programme representative for
Colombia and Ecuador, says officials promoting alternative development
are also finding more coffee-growers in Tolima producing poppies.
"People are not cutting down their coffee, at least not yet
- though this may happen in a year or two when people feel that
coffee prices are going to stay low," says Mr Nyholm. "But
they don't tend the coffee as well as previously."
Mr Osorio says poppies are four times as profitable as coffee per
hectare. "The coffee grower does not want to get into illegal
businesses, with a lot of risk," says Mr Osorio. "But
he accepts that risk because there is nothing else to do."
The trend could confound international efforts to control heroin
trafficking. Colombia remains a small player, producing 2-3 per
cent of the world's total, but it already supplies most of the heroin
on the US east coast.
It is unclear how the US-led war in Afghanistan will affect that
country's heroin output, but Colombian officials already fear a
rise at home.
"We were already worried about a rise before September 11,"
says Mr Nyholm.
Colombia has small farms with high production costs: 90 per cent
of coffee farms are of 5 hectares or less. Vietnam has lower costs
and has overtaken Colombia as the world's second-largest coffee
exporter over the last decade. In Brazil, the world leader, farmers
have also increased productivity.
Coffee production in the year ending in September was at an all-time
high of more than 115m bags, according to the Association of Coffee
Producing Countries. The increase in global output outstripped the
slow rise in demand, driving down market prices. Many farmers are
not even covering their production costs despite the buoyant prices
in cafes and gourmet shops.
Efforts to persuade countries to restrict output, led by Colombia,
have failed. "Casualties are inevitable," says Karen St-Jean
Kafour, the ACPC's senior economist. Already many Colombian growers
are cutting back amid the crisis. Bernardo Londõo, manager of Agroinsumos
del Café, which supplies three-quarters of the fertiliser sold to
Colombia's coffee co-operatives, says sales this year are down 40
per cent. That indicates declining investment by growers, which
will cut output and quality, says Pedro Luis Ramírez, coffee director
at a 3,000-member co-operative in the important coffee-growing province
of Central Huila. "People can afford to fertilise or eat,"
John Naranjo, commercial manager of the national coffee-growers'
federation (Fedecafe) says unemployment in Colombia's traditional
coffee zones is among the country's highest, contributing to unrest.
Jorge Lozano, president of the coffee exporters' association, says:
"Our industry has been perhaps one of the last to be affected
directly by the insecurity that plagues the country. But for months
now extortion and robbery have been another negative factor."
The government last month promised the industry aid worth 350bn
pesos ($150m) over the next two years. But President Andrés Pastrana
joined the chorus of critics demanding that growers and their federation
abandon marginal production areas and modernise.
Some reformers point out that growth in the world coffee market
has overwhelmingly benefited companies at the consumer end of the
chain, not producer countries. Santiago Montenegro, an economist
and president of the National Association of Financial Institutions,
says Colombian coffee has a good reputation and the country should
do more to win consumers to its own processed brands.
There are also efforts to promote higher-value organic and speciality
Mr Osorio says fighting in Colombia's civil conflict has already
caused farmers to abandon some coffee land. Mr Pastrana himself
has recognised that former coffee-pickers have had to turn to drug
With world demand expected to slow, and low returns leading to
less investment and lower quality coffee, further deterring consumption,
finding a model that can revive the fortunes of Colombia's most
emblematic product will not be easy.