Producer Profile: Colombia

Written by Cafe Campesino on Jul 1, 2002 in NEWSLETTER, Producer Profile |

The only country on the continent of South America that borders both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Colombia is a land of spectacular beauty, abundant natural resources and amazing biodiversity. Its cities, like the vibrantly diverse capital Bogata, the lively “party city” of Cali, Medellin, the “City of Eternal Spring,” and the Spanish Colonial port of Cartegena, are both homages to a past civilization and gateways to a brave, new future. Colombia is a place of geographic contrasts, from lush tropical forests and colorful coral reefs to the wind-swept desert of La Guajira and the peaks of the Serranía de la Macarena. It is a cultural tableau, where the roots and traditions of the Indians, Spanish and Africans have produced an invigorating fusion in music, literature (the “magic realism” of Gabriel García Márquez), folklore and art. It is a land rich in emeralds, petroleum, gold (the legend of El Dorado originated in Colombia) and, of course, coffee.

With its intriguing culture, the variety of its ecosystems and the warmth of its welcoming people, no other country in the world offers so much to foreign travelers. Yet Colombia remains largely undiscovered by tourists. Why?

Decades of guerrilla warfare, kidnappings and drug-related violence have taken their toll on the country, making travel in many areas unadvisable. The press (as they so often do) has made things worse, exploiting the country’s troubles and dubbing it ‘Locombia’ (the mad country). Today, when most Americans hear the name Colombia, they can only conjure up negative images.

How did a beautiful, democratic nation turn into a place of such conflict? The answer lies in the country’s socio-political history.

The country we now know as Colombia had its beginnings in 1499, when a compatriot of Christopher Columbus named Alonso de Ojeda landed on the Guajira Peninsula. Though the indigenous population originally tolerated these Spanish colonists, they rebelled when the Spaniards tried to enslave them and confiscate their lands. Eventually, however, a large part of the land that became Colombia was conquered by the Spanish. In 1544, the country became part of the vice royalty of Peru, and in 1739 it was joined with the territories of Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama to become New Granada.

By the end of the 18th century, the Spanish hold on commerce and industry, along with the issues of slavery and taxes, had given rise to increasing protest. On July 20, 1810, the people of New Granada defied Spanish authority by creating the first representative council. Total independence was proclaimed in 1813, but secured with the arrival of Venezuelan liberator Simon Bolívar and his army. On an August day in 1819, the Colombian people, led by Bolívar, fought the bloody battle of Boyaca’s Bridge, and won, leading to independence for New Granada.

Though the Colombians were overjoyed to achieve their independence, the struggle to achieve it spawned political strife. In 1849, two parties were established — the Conservatives and the Liberals. The country fell into partisan bickering, which eventually brought on insurrection, chaos and war. There were, in fact, some 50 insurrections and eight civils wars throughout the 19th century. The beginning of the 20th century saw a period of relative peace. But old rivalries flared up between 1948 and 1953 with the intensely bloody period called La Violencia. The conflict ended when the military staged a coup d’etat (but not before 300,000 lives were lost). For the four years that followed, the military held power, surrendering control to the government when the Liberals and Conservatives signed a power sharing agreement known as the National Front. This ended the terrible bloodshed, but also led to total control of the country by the economic elite. While the two ruling parties siphoned off state resources, pressing issues of the inequity of wealth and the distribution of land were largely ignored. By the early 1960s, the military was being used as a tool of repression, and armed groups in opposition to these exclusionary politics took refuge in remote parts of the country, setting the stage for the creation of various insurgent groups such as the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia).

The armed conflict intensified, and the armed forces grew (in part through U.S. funding and training). Negotiations in the 1980s resulted in some demobilization, but also led to the rise of the autodefensas, paramilitary groups created by the Colombian army that focused on arming and training civilians in the name of counter-insurgency.

The legacy of decades of armed conflict in Colombia has been displacement of the population, the growth of drug trafficking, increased poverty, social cleansing and an alarming rise in human rights violations (the majority of which are committed by government forces and the autodefensas).

Since February 2002, the political situation in Colombia has gone from bad to worse. After three years of peace talks with the Marxist rebel group FARC, President Andres Pastrana cut off negotiations after FARC rebels kidnapped a government official. More kidnappings and violent struggles have followed, and, as usual, civilians are caught in the crossfire. In May, a church bombing killed 117 people who had taken refuge in the building to escape a pitched battle between FARC and a paramilitary group. In one of its latest tactics, FARC is threatening to kill all of the country’s mayors.

While the country has been coping with political upheaval, its people have also been feeling the increasing effects of economic globalization. The current world coffee glut (Colombian coffee is selling for less than 60 cents a pound on the New York commodities exhange) has helped to create a countrywide recession. With unemployment near 20 percent, it’s become much easier for both the rebels and paramilitary to fill their ranks. And some farmers have switched from coffee to coca in order to survive.

With its multi-billion dollar financial contribution to the Colombian government’s Plan Colombia (part of our “war on drugs”), the U.S. government hoped to reduce drug abuse in the states by eliminating coca production in Colombia. But the strategy has failed and many believe has led instead to an increase in violence and human rights abuses. Part of this mostly military package pays coca farmers to uproot their crops in favor of legal ones. But it doesn’t address the root problems of social, political and economic injustice. Until the Colombian people can vastly improve their standard of living, coca is just too attractive a crop.

But it’s in this scenario where the power of Fair Trade can be truly felt. Neither coca nor conventional coffee delivers a living wage to most small farmers. Fair Trade and organic coffee are the best alternatives, as they provide a fair price and greater stability for families and communities. And purchasing Fair Trade Colombian coffee is a tangible, effective way for Americans concerned about the impact of drugs in both countries to help gain security and freedom for the Colombian people.

The source for Café Campesino’s Colombian origin coffee is Cosurca, a campesino cooperative made up of 14 grassroots associations and cooperatives throughout four municipalities. Its 615 families work coffee farms, using organic techniques, in the Macizo region and the Cordillera Occidental of the Andes. One of the most innovative projects Cosurca has initiated is large-scale composting. Cosurca members are collecting compostable materials in eight communities, generating more organic fertilizer for their farms and reducing solid waste. Their practices result in a superior product with superb flavor.

Until now, Café Campesino only sold its Colombia origin coffee to our wholesale accounts. For the first time, we’re making it available to coffee lovers everywhere through our Yahoo store. And we’re offering it at a special discount to our Fair Grounds readers. Click here to try it for yourself!

On July 20th, Colombia celebrates Independence Day, a joyous occasion marking 183 years of independence from Spanish oppression. But the people of Colombia will never be truly free until the current cycle of violence is ended. It won’t happen overnight, and it will take extraordinary efforts, but Colombians are hopeful that peace will come to their land someday soon. And when it does, these proud people will welcome the world with open arms.

— While traveling in many parts of Colombia can be dangerous (especially for Americans), it is still possible to experience the magic and mystique of this remarkable country. Check out the travel links at the end of this newsletter for some helpful touring information.

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