Colombian workers fight for the future of our morning joe

Cafeteros and indigenous marchers cross a bridge over the Cacua River on February 25. (Twitter/Jorge Gómez Diputado)

Cafeteros and indigenous marchers cross a bridge over the Cacua River on February 25. (Twitter/Jorge Gómez Diputado)

Colombian farmers are poised to significantly change the way coffee is produced in their country. As coffee growers across Central and South America are in the midst of one of the greatest production crises they’ve faced in decades — due to rising costs and a devastating disease called coffee rust — they are organizing collective action to demand alternatives.

With a strike that lasted from February 24 to March 8, tens of thousands of Colombian coffee growers took to the streets in towns and cities across the country to demand better protections from the bleak economic outlook for the hundreds of thousands of families whose livelihoods are connected to the coffee trade in Colombia. The cafeteros — as Colombia’s coffee workers are called — blocked traffic, refused to pick beans and prevented beans from being loaded at port terminals.

The striking workers — numbering as many as 70,000 by organizer counts — declared an open-ended strike to demand that the Colombian government, led by President Juan Manuel Santos, provide more subsidies to the struggling coffee trade, address the massive debt farmers face and end all coffee imports. Indicating their resolve, one grower from the Valle del Cauca province said that they had brought enough food and tents to last them for many days.

The government initially refused to negotiate with the coffee growers. Instead, the Ministry of Agriculture has alleged that the strike is part of a campaign by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. While FARC has expressed solidarity and support for the workers’ strike, it is clear that the Colombian government is using this to dismiss the cafeteros’ cause altogether, as evidenced by heavy-handed repression.

On March 2, after a week of blockades and strikes forced authorities to respond, Colombian finance minister Mauricio Cardenas announced that the government would nearly double the subsidies that the cafeteros receive. Organizers said that was not yet enough. Demanding that a minimum price be set for their coffee beans that is not tied to international coffee prices, the growers elected to continue the strike. Then, on March 8, after the government promised almost $450 million in subsidies to farmers, the Colombia Coffee Growers Federation announced that it had called off the historic strike.

Latin American media outlets reported clashes between police and protesters trying to set up roadblocks, which National Police Commander General Jose Roberto Leon had declared will not be allowed. Oscar Gutiérrez Reyes, a spokesperson for the Movement for the Dignity and Defense of Coffee Workers, told Prensa Libre that as many as 75 have been wounded, including children, across the country from excessive government force — including rubber bullets and tear gas. Other reports say that more than 200 workers have been injured by police.

But the workers continued to resist. “We are going to march all day in a peaceful manner until they listen to us,” said Gutiérrez. Images and tweets from the strike were collected by Al Jazeera.

Crises of production

Depending on the year, Colombia is either the world’s third or fourth largest producer of coffee beans. Coffee is a major part of the economy and represents a powerful confluence of interests — the government, growers’ associations and the export industry — which are all vying for more economic security. Colombia is also the world’s leading producer of the prized Arabica bean, although the farmers themselves rarely see higher premiums for producing specialty beans. Matters are further complicated by Colombia’s strong peso, which makes it hard to compete in a world coffee market tied to the U.S. dollar.

In a recent interview with strike organizer Victor Correa in Colombia Reports, Correa argued that the government subsidies to growers are not sufficient.

“[Farmers] are paid $282 for a sack of coffee, but the cost of producing it is $366,” said Correa. “These are small farmers. They are poor. The culture of coffee growing is important to Colombia but we cannot continue like this. We are facing an economic crisis, a social crisis, an institutional crisis and a crisis of production.”

Add to that an agricultural crisis. Many coffee growers are now battling a fungal disease called coffee rust — or roya, as its known in Spanish — that threatens the harvests their livelihoods depend on.

The damage can be so severe that farmers have to tear out their coffee trees and plant new disease-resistant varieties. Coffee rust first destroyed Brazil’s crop in 1970. In 2011, as many as 10 percent of Colombia’s coffee groves — 300,000 acres — were re-planted because of infestation.

The blight, which causes trees to lose their foliage, has also spread to other Central American countries, causing national emergencies to be declared in Honduras and Costa Rica. Millions of dollars in emergency aid has been released across the region for pesticides to combat the devastating disease, which is becoming more common due to changes in climate and the rise of industrial farming methods.

Replanting can be very expensive, and it takes three or four years before a new tree will produce coffee beans. That is a cost many farmers can’t bear, which is a large part of why Colombia’s cafeteros are in the streets demanding help from the government and better wages. They’re also seeking the means to a more sustainable future for their industry.

Michael Sheridan of Catholic Relief Services and its Coffeelands project has been tracking Colombia’s coffee rust eradication efforts. Catholic Relief Services is partnering with local banks to make funds available to farmers who want to plant Colombia’s more traditional varieties of coffee, as opposed to the new Castillo variety that farmers are being urged to plant; currently, it is the only variety the government subsidizes.

“We hope our modest renovation fund can fill this gap,” explained Sheridan. He said he hopes to “help farmers seize opportunities in the marketplace, and contribute to a better understanding of the returns to small-holder families of investments in coffee quality.”

Crises of consumption

The International Coffee Organization has insisted that vast stockpiles from Brazil — where most of the farmers live and work in poverty — and increased yields in Colombia will make up for the coffee losses in Central America. But that is a questionable claim considering the current crisis of Colombian workers. And the fact remains that the production of high-quality beans is continuing to diminish. Stockpiles eventually run out.

Can consumers help? Consider Just Coffee, a worker-owned cooperative in Madison, Wis., that prefers direct relationships with farmers and coffee cooperatives to procure their beans. It works with small-scale coffee growers and sends its customers on delegations to visit them.

“We need to build a movement,” said co-founder Matt Earley. “Trade — if it is done responsibly — can help with that, but it cannot be our only response. We need to connect with movements for local, regional, national, and international social and economic justice.” Earley, an outspoken critic of the limitations of the commodity market and “fair trade” labels, sees cooperative partnerships as a model of economic democracy that can lift farmers out of poverty.

On a recent visit to many of their Central American coffee producers, Earley observed the consequences of coffee rust and the impact it will have on Just Coffee and the farmers with whom he works. While visiting a Nicaraguan women’s cooperative, La Fundacion Entre Mujeres — La FEM — he found that between 60 and 70 percent of La FEM’s harvest has been decimated by coffee rust, leaving Just Coffee in need of a supplier and the farmers in need of time and money to recover. Earley wrote a passionate appeal to his North American customers about Just Coffee’s commitment not to walk away from La FEM.

“We are going to help them get the resources that they need to get to where they want to be,” he wrote. “It is heartbreaking for all of us to see them take a step backwards when they have done so much hard work to get to where they were. But we cannot be crippled by that feeling. We can do this and we are going to need your help.”

The gains the Colombian cafeteros won are significant but are still tenuously dependent on subsidies. In the long term, being tied too much to government support and international commodity pricing is unsustainable for coffee production. In the age of austerity, the future of coffee as an economically viable livelihood for growers may rest in the fortunes of the cooperative movement.

The more consumers choose to directly support small-holder farms and cooperative ventures — such as the ones that partner with Just Coffee and Catholic Relief Services — the more economic security farmers seem to enjoy. And not only does the cooperative movement promise to keep thousands out of poverty, but it also builds relationships across borders that transform a morning cup of coffee into an act of global solidarity.

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