Coffee in Colombia
A text from the book Cafés de Colombia
Authors: Liliana Villegas, Alberto Quiroga
Photography: Carlos Pineda, Andrés Mauricio López
" It started as a penance and ended
become a very exclusive pleasure." The Italians consider the tomato as one of the most representative culinary symbols of their country; the Belgians and the French feel that the potato has always belonged to them; for the Colombians, coffee is its clearest representative. before the world. But the tomato and the potato are of American origin and the coffee comes from the Middle East. In short, plants are great travelers and they settle where it best suits them.
Coffee arrived for the first time in Colombia, according to Father José Gumilla, in his book El Orinoco Illustrated, to the town of Santa Teresa de Tabague, founded by the Jesuits, between the Meta River and the Orinoco River. As? It is not known. But it seems that it came from Venezuela, although others claim that it was from Central America, and the current inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta affirm that it was there where it was planted for the first time in Colombia given its proximity to the Caribbean islands where the first crops in America. What is truly important is that the plant found fertile soil in Colombia, helped, as we will see, by the Church; The first coffee plantations were made in the departments of Santander, bordering Venezuela.
Legend has it, and perhaps it is true, that the priest Francisco Romero confessed to his parishioners and as punishment for their sins he imposed on them the penance of planting a coffee plant. Other priests followed the example of priest Romero, and thus, from sin to sin, from confession to confession, from penance to penance, coffee became the most important crop in Colombia.
In 1835 the first 60 kilograms of Colombian coffee were exported from Santander, and in less than 40 years there was already so much coffee planted in other regions that, to give just one example, in 1874 the construction of the Antioquia railway began in order to transport the immense quantities of coffee that said department produced, which were destined for international markets.
The success of coffee cultivation was a blessing for Colombia. For many years, counted in centuries, the country had lived off mining exploitation, especially gold, and lacked large industries. Agricultural products were transported on mule back and the few that were exported, such as cinchona, tobacco, orchids, cocoa and sugar, were carried in champagnes along the Magdalena River to the Caribbean coast where they were shipped for other purposes. countries, but they never did so in sufficient quantities to vigorously boost the economy of the different regions.
There was not a single agricultural product that stimulated large-scale trade with other countries and spurred economic growth in the dispersed regions of the country. Colombia was made up of countless small regions and countries isolated from each other by the rugged geography and very few native and foreign travelers dared to travel on the steep dirt, mud and stone roads that linked some regions with the capital. Bogotá was hundreds of kilometers from the sea and a trip to Cartagena could take more than a month in times of good weather. Popayán, Medellín, Tunja, Ocaña, Neiva, Mompox and other small intermediate cities were as far away from each other as if they were other countries. Each region lived off pancoger, from small crops that were harvested for local consumption and rarely managed to transgress the limits of their small territories. But coffee was responsible for breaking these boundaries.
Very soon, a series of favorable circumstances would cause this situation to change completely. There were two in particular: the first, the great Antioquia migration that colonized the until then inhospitable lands of old Caldas, a vast forested area located between the great heights of the Central mountain range and the Cauca River; and the second, the continued demand for coffee from international markets.
Coffee crops, which had taken over large areas of land in Santander and southwest Antioquia, found fertile ground on the beautiful and steep slopes of old Caldas. It was like wildfire. The Antioquian colonizers who were in search of gold mines and a better life for their families, found a source of wealth very different from what they expected. Coffee soon became the main agricultural product of the region, which enormously increased the flow of Colombian exports of the grain.
In 1927, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia was created in order to design coffee policies, represent and defend the interests of the increasingly numerous coffee growers, plan and implement marketing and sales programs, promote the domestic market and exports. , modernize crops, create service infrastructure in areas of large crops, carry out educational work and improve the quality of life of coffee-growing families in general.
For several decades of the 20th century, until the end of the 1970s, coffee was the monoculture that supported the entire framework of the Colombian economy, as it had become the main source of wealth and rural employment in the country.
The Federation had more than 560,000 associated coffee producers and the tons of coffee exported increased year after year. In 1940 the State created the National Coffee Fund in which the mandatory contributions of all people, companies and industries associated with the sector were recorded, and from there they were redistributed among the beneficiaries and programs and projects that strengthened the various coffee activities were financed. , and other infrastructure works were promoted throughout the country.
In 1962, coffee-producing and consuming countries signed the first international agreement (ICA) in order to set export quotas for each country, regulate prices and stimulate consumption. This pact remained firm until 1989, and contributed to consolidating the coffee trade in the world. And although Colombia had its market share, the fact of depending on a single agricultural product to keep its economy in full force made its economic situation very vulnerable. A drop in international coffee prices could destabilize the country's internal economy and lead it to suffer serious problems, as Eduardo Galeano stated, with humor, in his book The Open Veins of Latin America: “Colombia depends on coffee and its price.” exterior to such an extent that in Antioquia the marriage curve responds nimbly to the coffee price curve. It is typical of a dependent structure: until the right moment for a declaration of love on an Antioquia hill is decided on the New York Stock Exchange.”
Galeano's statement put the finger on the sore spot. At the beginning of the fifties, the comparative economic indicators of the Latin American countries showed the notable backwardness of the Colombian economy and placed it in one of the last places in terms of development. The country lived practically isolated from its neighbors in terms of trade and cultural exchange; it did not have an internal road infrastructure that connected its different regions, with very few exceptions; To illustrate this point, it is enough to say that the trip by land between the capital, Bogotá, and Medellín, the second city in economic importance, lasted around 20 hours and was done on roads that were impassable in summer and impossible in winter.
Radio was the only means of communication that managed to reach the most remote corners of Colombia, and the majority of people lived isolated in their own regions without knowing very well what was happening in the rest of the country, much less in the world. The industry, with few exceptions, was incipient, and in general it was responsible for supplying the domestic market with products of medium quality given the little competition it had with other products, whether native or foreign.
Until then, Colombia was an agricultural country, whose flagship export product had been coffee, and the coffee-growing regions were undoubtedly those with the best quality of life in the country and those with the best infrastructure at that time. Bananas, rubber, cinchona, and flowers had once been interesting products for the international market, but they had never managed to boost the entire economy like coffee did for more than 100 years. But times change. At the end of the 1970s, Colombia managed to diversify its exports and depend to a lesser extent on coffee production, although this continued to be a basic pillar of its economy. Coal, ferronickel, oil, bananas, flowers, emeralds, and manufactured products gave a new boost to the Colombian economy. Rust also arrived in Colombia, a fungus that affected coffee trees and reduced their production, which produced the most important coffee crisis in the country.
The crisis was overcome, in large part, with the development of new species of coffee, more resistant to diseases, including rust, and to the undoubted coffee-growing vocation of Colombian farmers who found new strategies to face the challenges offered by a world that is increasingly globalized and more sophisticated in its consumption. Today, the coffee market has completely turned around. International consumers have become very selective in their tastes and many of them are willing to pay 14 dollars and more for a pound of good coffee while the price of a pound of normal coffee is today quoted at an average of one dollar with 50.
There are many factors that are taken into account when choosing a coffee: the quality, which comes from the origin, the growing conditions (that it is organic, that its cultivation is ecologically healthy, etc.) and the entire process that It is done until the green grain is obtained, and after roasting and grinding. Exclusivity, guaranteed by the small quantities produced on a certain farm or region of a country, etc.
Colombian coffee continues to be positioned as one of the softest and best in the world, but now it is offered with the country's distinctive symbol as a guarantee of quality. Coffees from certain regions of Colombia are already appreciated in international markets: Huila, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Cauca, Tolima, among others, and even more so, the prices of some are already negotiated on the international stock market. coffees produced by a specific farm, under very special conditions of climate, humidity, ecological care, grain handling, etc.
Learn more at Cafés de Colombia