Weak coffee market causing crisis in Colombia

Small farmers face ruin

insurgency, coca crop up

April 20, 2003|By Gary Marx | Gary Marx,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ANDES, Colombia - With coffee prices near historic lows, the economic crisis facing thousands of small farmers in this picturesque region also is feeding Colombia's civil war and could threaten an intensive U.S.-funded anti-narcotics program.

Perched high on lush mountain slopes and intersected by rivers, Andes and the surrounding area stand on the edge of Colombia's once-prosperous coffee region. The crop has provided a steady income to generations of small farmers and migrant laborers, while satisfying the needs of American, European and other coffee drinkers.

But a flood of cheap coffee from Vietnam and other countries, combined with weak worldwide demand for Colombia's high-grade arabica beans, has sent many farmers into bankruptcy and pushed unemployment above 20 percent, officials say.

The crisis has made it easier for Colombia's leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces to push into the coffee-growing region and recruit the growing number of unemployed youths, according to farmers and Andes officials.

It also has caused some farmers to abandon coffee and plant coca, the key ingredient for cocaine.

"A family that is going to lose their farm is going to grow illegal crops to save it," said Jaime Restrepo, the mayor of Andes, a northwestern town that is home to about 3,100 small coffee farms. "Without a good price for coffee, it's a survival economy, and one way to survive is coca."

The crisis has vast repercussions for the United States, which has poured $2 billion into the fight against drug trafficking and more recently into a war against armed insurgents.

Only a fraction of the nation's 500,000 coffee growers have switched to growing coca, which earns far more per acre than coffee, officials say.

But some experts warn that if the trend accelerates, it could undermine a U.S.-funded program that has eradicated more than 90,000 acres of coca and a smaller amount of opium poppies this year. Colombian officials support eradication because both leftists and right-wing groups use drug trafficking to fund their activities But the efforts have sparked protests from peasant groups who complain they have no other way to make a living.

The government has warned farmers not to grow illegal crops and is in discussions with the main coffee federation to begin an eradication campaign.

"Our policy is zero tolerance," Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said in an interview. "What we cannot allow is for more coca to grow in Colombia. It's a national security issue."

Gabriel Silva, head of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, said he supports fumigation as long as it affects only illegal crops. He said eradication in coffee areas would be done manually rather than through aerial fumigation, which is less accurate and sometimes destroys food and other crops.

"Anyone who makes a pact with the devil has to pay for the consequences," Silva said. "What we need to do is to avoid that the consequences fall on legitimate coffee growers."

Brought to Colombia by Jesuit priests in the 19th century, coffee for generations bankrolled Colombia's economic development. It also created a stable social and political structure because coffee production in Colombia - unlike in Central America - is dominated by small family farms.

The coffee industry once provided more than half of the country's export income.

Francisco Restrepo, a 43-year-old coffee farmer near Andes, recalled his father tearing up other crops and planting coffee during the boom years. He said farmers were able to purchase cars and other luxury items. Migrant pickers would end their week with enough cash to buy portable stereos, he said.

"There was a lot of money," said Restrepo, who is no relation to the mayor. "There was an abundance of coffee and high prices."

But the bonanza ended a decade ago when a worldwide agreement that had held coffee prices stable fell apart. Since then, global production has outstripped demand and sent prices tumbling, especially for the high-quality beans produced in Colombia.

The price for Colombian coffee has fallen from about $3 a pound to about 64 cents a pound. Colombian growers lose 15 percent to 20 percent on every pound of coffee sold, Silva said.

The federation, which buys and sells most Colombian coffee, has responded by slashing its work force, shedding ownership of a bank and cutting subsidies that built schools and paved roads in coffee-growing regions.

It also is encouraging farmers to grow more gourmet beans that will fetch higher prices, and it plans to open 200 retail coffee shops in the United States, Europe and Japan that will bear the logo of Juan Valdez, the icon of Colombian coffee.

In Andes, many coffee farmers are slashing their work force and diversifying by growing bananas, oranges and other crops. Some are tearing up their coffee plants and raising cattle. Others are picking up and leaving for the cities.

"I'm afraid I may lose my farm," said Diego Gallon, 31. "Coffee is what gave us food. It gave us clothes. It allowed us to live. I don't want to abandon it."

Officials here say crime is on the rise and fear the region will soon turn into a battlefield.

In recent months, the armed groups have attacked towns, threatened public officials and kidnapped local farmers. Coffee farmers around Andes say they are forced by paramilitary groups to pay protection money, known here as "vaccinations," or face certain retribution.

"You have to do what they say, or they will ..." one farmer said, his voice tailing off as he put a finger to his head like a gun.

The insurgents also are finding it easier to recruit.

"There is a lot of hunger," explained Victor Estrada, a coffee farmer and local priest. "Kids without work will take whatever is offered to them, including joining the armed groups."

Gary Marx is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

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