Questions and Answers About the Recent Protest in Colombia
In recent weeks we have been hearing media reports and personal stories from our friends, farmer partners and coffee industry associates in Colombia. Those who are closely following international news already know that the situation in Colombia is grim. Rather than retelling the story from afar, we decided to ask some of our partners in Colombia how things got started and how the protests and government response is affecting the lives of people working with coffee. (Some of the responses have been translated and/or edited for clarity.) We spoke to our partners last week, and understand that the situation is ever changing.
We started by asking Olga Cuellar, founder of Promising Crops, a coffee-producer-focused social enterprise focused on expanding sustainable agriculture and increasing market access in rural communities.
Can you tell us how the recent protests and strikes in Colombia started?
“On April 28th of 2021, thousands of Colombians decided to unite and strike against a tax proposal from the Colombian government led by President Ivan Duque. These protests are not only because of the tax proposal, they are a continuation of a strike that started at the end of 2019 and was only stopped because of COVID. Colombians are protesting now as they were in 2019 for diverse reasons related to economic inequality, poverty, lack of education opportunities, not delivering on the commitments of the peace agreement, and many others. Now there is a list of over 30 demands. The pandemic has made these issues grow even more urgent.”
For context, here are some important facts provided by the National Administrative Department of Statistics in Colombia (DANE)
- In 2020, poverty was 42.5%, and extreme poverty was 15.1%
- The unemployment rate in Colombia reached 15.9% in 2020
- Out of 48 million inhabitants, more than 21 million people subsist on less than $331,688 Colombian Pesos (COP) per month (approximately $90.00 USD), an amount that, according to DANE, is the poverty line in Colombia
- Nearly 7.5 million Colombians live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $145,004 COP per month (about $40.00 USD)
How has the situation evolved in the last few weeks?
“Many strikes and protests have been peaceful and focused on cultural expression, but unfortunately that is not the case in cities like Cali (Valle del Cauca,) Pereira (Risaralda,) Popayan (Cauca,) among others, who have suffered some violent events from different actors. Most deaths, sexual assaults, and arbitrary arrests have been made by the police and the ESMAD (Mobile Police Anti-Riot Squad.) Some police also were injured and died, but the numbers of civilians affected, especially young Colombians, is extremely high. Some people took advantage of the protests to commit acts of vandalism, that is not proper as well. I do not agree with any violence.”
How is the current situation affecting the coffee industry?
Although local coffee prices are high, coffee farmers cannot access the marketplace. The FNC (Colombian Coffee Growers Federation) mentioned that coffee production increased by 9% this month compared to last year. Today the national prices are double that last year due to the price rise and the exchange rate of the US dollar, but unfortunately not all farmers can sell their coffee. In some areas the roads might be closed by the strike or truck drivers and others are blocking roads. Another reason is that farmers are afraid to go out, and that their coffee could be stolen or burned. The third reason is that there is no gasoline in some regions, or it is too expensive for farmers to afford.
We purchase many coffees with support from coffee importer Sustainable Harvest, they have producer connections across the world. We connected with Claudia Rocío Gómez, Sustainable Harvests’ coffee quality manager based in Colombia.
What do coffee drinkers need to know about Colombia and the current situation?
They should know that coffee producers are strong, driven, and committed. These producers are looking forward to selling their crop at good prices to move forward. These past few weeks have generated uncertainty in the market, and the hope is that in the coming weeks things can get back to normal so business can be conducted. There are some cities and regions that have been heavily impacted by the protests, like Huila and Cauca, in which the protests are still happening with intensity. Also, the plan is for the Buenaventura Port to reopen which will allow for coffee shipments to resume.
We reached out to William de Jusus Hoyos, the President of La Cristalina, an association of coffee growers based in the department of Risaralda. We’ve visited La Cristalina many times and have been buying their coffee since 2013. There has been significant violence and turmoil in Risaralda over the past few weeks.
How have the protests, strikes and extreme government response affected you, your family, and colleagues?
The situation in Colombia has personally affected me and my family, as there is currently a shortage of food and gasoline due to the road blockages. This has resulted in me not being able to leave the farm, as there is also a general feeling of fear and insecurity due to the current chaos.
What can we do to support you?
The best way to support us at the moment is by buying and/or making commitments to buy our coffee. This has a direct impact on our ability to be resilient and support the community.
We also connected with Camilo Hadad, Sales and Marketing Director for Café Granja La Esperanza. You’ll recognize Granja la Esperanza coffees from our menu year after year, such as Cerro Azul Enano and Tres Dragones Natural. This is a decade long relationship and we visit this group of farms often to ensure a beneficial partnership. Granja La Esperanza operates several farms located in Valle De Cauca and have been greatly affected by the recent events. Here’s what Camilo reports:
How have the protests, strikes and extreme government response impacted Granja La Esperanza?
Since protests started on April the 28th, our City (Cali) started to collapse and with it the whole department of Valle de Cauca, leaving us in a critical situation. We’ve been unable to move our coffee shipments to the port and airport. Our Community Program purchases are also frozen since our space in our warehouse is shortening and resources are more than limited.
This same situation is being experienced by other exporters, associations and cooperatives, and if this continues farmers will have the risk of losing their harvest. It’s a shame that with the actual value of the C Market (the commodities price) and the super high internal prices, farmers can not take advantage of making a bit of more profit for what they are picking right now.
What can we do to support you?
I think the best way to support us right now is making a call for help to the world so that Human Rights organizations can hear us and understand that the people blocking roads are violating the rights of those who want to build the right path of progress.
We heard recurring themes talking to our contacts in Colombia: Guarantee the purchase even though coffees might arrive later than expected, be communicative, pay a fair price understanding that Colombian coffee will cost more this year than last, share information and put pressure on international institutions. As a B-corp we believe that business can be a force for good and we are responsible to all stakeholders. We are committed to continuing these relationships, supporting our coffee suppliers and will be in regular communication with our partners in Colombia. Making informed purchasing decisions is important and we hope that by learning a little more from our farmer partners you understand the impact that mindful purchasing can have on communities across the globe.