Coffee and Coca. Politics and Peace.

With the Colombian presidential elections upon us, I set out to write an article on how politics affects our cup of coffee in one of our favourite coffee producing countries. It was supposed to highlight great stories of success and prosperity, of hope, of a new chapter where peace is the protagonist and violence is  just a memory…

The “comprehensive programme for illicit crop substitution” (PNIS) began around eighteen months ago, marking an important step in the materialisation of the historic peace agreement signed in November 2016. President Santos’ peace deal saw the world’s longest continuous war between the Colombian Government and the leftist armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) come to end (with the FARC demobilising and becoming a political party).

The crop substitution plan aims to provide farmers who grow illicit crops such as coca, which supply armed groups like FARC with cocaine, an incentive to switch to different produce including maize, corn, cacao, sugar, bananas and coffee. Those who eradicate illicit crops within 60 days and meet the requirements of the plan receive a government subsidy. This douceur aims to close the gap on higher earnings often achieved from growing coca, providing the opportunity for farmers to earn a good wage through legal crops. They should in theory be given everything they need to settle into a new way of life, free from coca and the dangerous armed rebels controlling the growing regions.

It was and still is hoped that farmers across the country will volunteer to sign up to the scheme, though recently forced eradication methods have been prevalent. Such measures were initially reserved for larger scale coca growing areas, farms controlled by active drug gangs, or where farmers refused to cooperate with the plan. Forced eradication sees anti narcotics and army officers removing coca plants by hand, along with aerial fumigation; destroying the coca plant heavy-handedly by releasing glyphosate across the landscape and causing widespread environmental damage. Conflicts in these regions have erupted, as disillusioned farmers who claim to have volunteered for the scheme are also being targeted in a gung-ho approach which seems to have cast aside initial promises.

Those promoting the substitution plan will point to the small handful of success stories, which although wonderful, are real outliers and by no means paint an accurate depiction of a largely flawed plan.

And this is where my article started to crumble before me. I sensitively reached out to coffee farmers in Colombia and I spoke to Colombians in London to ask what they thought of the crop substitution plan, to gain some accurate accounts of how such a scheme works on the ground. The response was unanimous and frankly, grim.

I was told that at best, the plan was an well-wished performance for the global stage and at worst, was an impossible scheme doomed for failure. Without receiving any of the promised support, the farmers who volunteered to make the switch struggled (and are still struggling) to reap the rewards promised. With subsidy amounts touted to be around $11000 over the course of two years, the stark reality is that farmers can still earn a lot more growing coca, with half of the work required of other crops. And for those who fell under the forced eradication measures, It’s estimated that 80% have since reverted to coca farming, either out of financial motives or due to drug cartels and other armed guerrilla groups such as the ELN opportunistically claiming the recently vacated areas previously controlled by the FARC.

I asked a coffee farmer just outside the city of Cali about the plan, and idealistically wondered if speciality coffee was a viable option within the crop substitution scheme.

“My opinion is that the Colombian government only care about their image, to keep receiving money from the international community, whilst pretending that the substitution plan is a great idea when in fact it isn’t. They do not give the farmers the necessary tools in many aspects such as logistics, farming, knowledge, commercialisation prospects and so on, to effectively be able to substitute their coca crops in a way that would benefit their families and communities in the long term. Here in Colombia, the main problem is that the government (past, present and foreseeable future) only care for the small percentage of wealthy people in the country. The rest are left behind with extremely poor education, terrible health services, no opportunities and no money flow; so they will only keep falling behind or become targets for those that can offer them more money, no matter the cost. In fact, they have no capability to evaluate the risk they’re taking due to this lack of education.”

It’s also true that the Colombian government rely on a high amount of commodity grade coffee for global trade, so speciality coffee would be a seemingly impossible venture taking all things above into account. It’s not easy to produce outstanding coffee. Let alone when those in power who are offering a new way of life won’t even build a road to connect one town to the next, notwithstanding the education and resources required to thrive as a coffee farmer.

Coffee farming in Antioquia. Credit- Chasing Plazas.

Personally, I also wonder about the peace deal’s role in the crop substitution plan. I can’t see how the FARC would’ve agreed to such a deal in the first place if they were anywhere near convinced that the scheme would truly work. The cynic in me suggests the idea was never to take off fully, and that suited the FARC just fine. The initial referendum in October 2016 (before a revised deal was produced and pushed through by Juan Manuel Santos without a second referendum) showed that 50.2% of voters opposed the peace deal and voted against it, with many criticising the government of rolling over and agreeing to a deal which was more appealing and accommodating to the FARC than anyone else.

Sadly then, it appears the next great wave of Colombian coffee won’t be surfacing from the crop substitution plan in it’s current form, though that was never really the aim. It will be fascinating to see how the presidential elections play out, and while many Colombians feel disenchanted with the political system and the candidates who’s fate will be decided shortly, possibilities of a new program could develop in the aftermath. Yet, there’s also every possibility the scheme will be repackaged and renamed, while still tainted with the unmistakable whiff of bureaucratic fruitlessness. We will have to wait and see what the future holds for the people of Colombia and how the election to decide who leads the country forward, affects those on the ground.

It’s really quite remarkable that still, within such uncertain and tumultuous times, 2018 looks like a stellar year for coffee production in Colombia. So many wonderful varietals (such as the outstanding Wush Wush and Geisha) are emerging in fincas across the country from hard working farmers who deserve the accolades. Despite not being able to provide an abundance of success stories for the substitution plan, farms in Colombia can supply wonderful coffee that will always be more than just beans to the enamoured consumer reading this. It appears that while speciality coffee supplies to the world will continue with great momentum, it’s certainly worth sparing a thought for the thousands upon thousands of families that live in such uncertain and difficult times.

I feel grateful for every bag of coffee I receive that has made its way from Colombia to my kitchen and I’m glad that for the most part, politics hasn’t had a negative effect on Colombian speciality coffee. But my real hope, is that with dreams of a new and improved substitution plan for farmers and hope for lasting change, perhaps Colombian coffee can have a positive effect on politics. Perhaps.


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