Specialty coffee from Colombia with a green taste
Colombia, very often referred to as “the land of coffee”, keeps among its mountains a hidden treasure: the Parque Nacional del Nevado del Huila. This national park is in the mountainous area known as the Macizo colombiano (Colombian Massif), more specifically at the tripoint of the provinces of Cauca, Tolima and Huila.
The Huila province is the largest coffee producing area and first coffee exporter of Colombia. In November 2018, during her visit to the country, the Dutch Minister for Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, Carola Schouten, had the opportunity to visit the municipality of Santa Maria in that province. It is from Santa Maria where the Dutch company The Coffee Quest supplies specialty coffees directly to roasters in Europe and the US, while paying fair and fixed prices to farmers. At the same time supporting and training them to maintain and increase the coffee’s quality. In this region The Coffee Quest works with La Victoria; an association of small coffee producers.
In the heart of the ‘Macizo’
But before continuing, let me take you a few years back. La Victoria was set up in the year 2001, in Santa Maria, which until the start of the peace process with the FARC guerrilla was a “hot zone”. This region was a strategic corridor for the FARC and the people suffered much under the constant fighting between the guerrillas and government troops. For many years the conflict and its remote geographical location deep into the mountains practically isolated this village from the rest of the world. But because of this the coffee production in this region hasn’t changed much over the past 20 years, which made it one of the few regions in Colombia that still predominantly grows traditional coffee varieties. Varieties that have been practically wiped out in other parts of the country.
The producers’ association La Victoria was born with the purpose of looking for new markets for the specialty coffees from the Santa Maria region. By winning one of the editions of the “cup of excellence in Colombia” contest, organised by Illycaffè and the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, La Victoria definitely earned a place on the map of specialty coffees. The next step for the association was to improve environmental and social conditions under which their coffee was produced.
Driven by the new generations, in 2011 the Fundación Samaria de Desarrollo Social Agroambiental y de Fomento a la Economía Campesina – Fusamdes (Santa Maria’s foundation for the social, agro-environmental development and promotion of the peasant economy) was founded also in Santa Maria, with the purpose of working on conservation of natural vegetation and wildlife. Only in 2018 was formalised as foundation but since its creation Fusamdes has been presided by 35-year-old Andrés Perdomo. Andrés, besides being a coffee grower is also the legal representative of La Victoria. Being a leader both in La Victoria and Fusamdes allowed him to enhance the relationship with the coffee growers of Santa Maria and to position environmental awareness on top of La Victoria’s agenda.
Last 12th of April, when I visited the premises of La Victoria and Fusamdes, Andrés recalled that one of the first actions after the creation of the environmental committee was supporting the community to stop mining and electricity projects like the construction of two hydroelectric plants in the Baché river. This was perceived by the community as a privatization of the river, because it would grant a concession for 50 years for the electricity companies to make use of the river. Furthermore, the risk of increasing the pollution of the river and its surroundings was very high. In the end, this project was stopped, and this was one of the first victories of the environmental committee, today legally established as Fusamdes, with which it gained credibility among the people.
Recently, in 2016 through Isabel Millán, daughter of peasants of Santa Maria, 32 coffee samples of the Caturra variety from 32 different producers of La Victoria association were sent to the United States. Andrés reminded us how, accidentally, he got in contact with a Dutch entrepreneur, Ronald de Hommel. Ronald, who has been living in Medellin for many years now, is one of the founders of The Coffee Quest. With self funding and additional financing from the DGGF fund of the Dutch government, a Coffee Dry Mill (processing plant) was opened in Medellin and various buying stations to source specialty coffee beans will be set up countrywide, according to Ronald.
Ronald heard about these samples of Caturra coffee (instead of Castillo, the most common variety in the country) sent by La Victoria to the US. After getting in contact with Andrés and establishing a commercial relationship with La Victoria, he noticed the commitment of the growers to the high quality he ran into (from 80 up to 85 points based on an international quality system of the Specialty Coffee Association – SCA) which is high.
That was one of the reasons why, together with his partners, he decided to open the first coffee buying station in Santa Maria in April 2018. This buying station, operated in cooperation with La Victoria, consists of a small warehouse and a “cupping lab” where the samples of the coffee which are received are roasted and tasted to assess the quality. The lab has become a local hot spot for farmers and young people who want to learn more about coffee. In this way, The Coffee Quest was able to get closer to the community and to generate more local impact by hiring young tasters to rate the coffee samples, while increasing the supply of high-quality coffee with a new sourcing station.
The park and the coffee
Upon request from the governmental organisation Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia (National Parks of Colombia) in 2018 Fusamdes , with funding from the FAO and WWF, started a project aimed at a better involvement of peasants including the coffee growers of La Victoria in the protection of the national park Parque Nacional del Nevado De Huila, which surrounds the Huila Volcano.
After the definition of the boundaries of this national park, it turned out to be that many peasants and coffee growers were using land for agricultural activities situated within the natural reserve, which in Colombia is forbidden by law. So there was an urgent need for an intervention with a participatory and collaborative approach to reach mutual intention agreements between the authorities, the civil society and the accompanying organisations.
Therefore, Fusamdes started the process of re-defining these boundaries together with peasants and the coffee growers, to characterize and to set a zonation of productive areas and natural reserves within the natural park. But in order to empower the campesinos, trainings on environmental awareness were conducted. Yet another important topic of these trainings were on the figures of Natural Reserves of the Civil Society, defined by law as part or the total area of a property that conserves a natural ecosystem and is managed under the principles of sustainability in the use of natural resources, whose productive activities and uses will be defined according to regulations, with the participation of non-profit environmental organizations.
In this project, Fusamdes is also cooperating with La Victoria, The Coffee Quest, FAO, WWF, KFW (German development bank) and the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation on topics like land tenure, nature conservancy, ecotourism, and organic coffee production and certification.
One of the main challenges to become more sustainable in coffee production is to reduce the high levels of water used to wash the plucked coffee berries on the farm which pollutes the water (with mucilage). Andrés explained how La Victoria plans to take the next steps towards a more circular agriculture. La Victoria would like to pollute less and re-use the residual water in compost processes and irrigation to produce flowers (mainly orchids). In order to achieve this, they are in the process of buying an “Ecomill” which makes the use of water more efficient and reduces the contamination of the consumed water by using microorganisms while guaranteeing the same quality standards of the coffee.
Over the hills and far away…
Colombian geography couldn’t be tougher. It took about an hour from Santa Maria to get to Paulino Quintero’s farm. At his farm, Paulino recalled that back in the day his main focus was the sale of coffee green beans and now he has shifted into a more environment friendly production using more efficiently water resources.
Thanks to Fusamdes, Paulino now has the judicial decree to start a Natural Reserve of the Civil Society, which in practise means he will receive incentives for conserving nature in part of his parcel. This will be the first pilot project in Santa Maria. In this municipality, with support from the local government, Fusamdes plays an important role in coordinating the Natural Reserves of the Civil Society.
Growing specialty coffee varieties entails additional and different production processes. Thanks to the support of La Victoria Paulino was able to switch from growing traditional coffee varieties to specialty coffees. Nowadays, Paulino has around 5.000 coffee trees in production from which he gets 35 loads (a load is equal to 125 kg). When switching to specialty coffees and with technical assistance from the association he was able to increase his productivity.
Currently, coffee prices on the international market are dropping, but because he is now growing specialty coffees, Paulino is getting a price premium for the quality of his coffee. Actually, his coffee has reached up to 86 points in the SCA system, making it one of the best coffees of the region (and the country) in the recent years.
During the visit to Paulino’s farm, Andrés also explained the whole process from coffee tree to the handling on the farm to the activities of the buying station, while giving special attention to the impact oriented approach of La Victoria’s operation, focusing on improving livelihoods by paying better and fairer prices and sooner to farmers, in a system where quality means everything.
Author: Andrés Santana Bonilla