Falling prices rock coffee-growers in Colombia - GulfToday

Falling prices rock coffee-growers in Colombia

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Detail of coffee in Santuario municipality, Risaralda department, Colombia. Raul Arboleda/AFP

High in the lush green mountains of western Colombia where they grow the soft beans from which the world's finest coffee is cultivated, growers are up in arms over the giveaway prices being fixed a world away on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Producers here say they are selling at a loss, blaming the crash devastating their industry on stock market speculators who have forced prices down to an all-time low.

"We are paid a pittance," says Gustavo Echeverry, 50, expressing the frustration of many of the 15,000 or so inhabitants of this coffee-growing center nestled in the mountains.

It's a far cry, they say, from the "Fair Trade" coffee globally certified to ensure it is grown under equitable conditions, so that farmers aren't exploited.

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Colombian coffee grower Gustavo Echeverry poses for a picture in a farm. AFP

Some growers around the village of Santuario have been forced to rip up their crops to grow something anything else.

Producing a 12.5-kilogram (27.5-pound) bag of coffee costs the equivalent of $22. But wholesalers pay Echeverry an average $21 a bag.

"It's an unfair trade," he quips bitterly.

Ramon Jimenez has spent his life growing coffee on his San Antonio plantation nearby, but says the industry is on its last legs here.

"We never stop thinking that soon we may no longer exist as coffee growers," says Jimenez.

"I dream of taking over the farm, of succeeding my father and my grandfather, but if the crisis continues like this... I will have to look elsewhere, maybe even leave for the United States."

Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil and Vietnam, and the number one producer of high-quality soft beans.

In Colombia, 540,000 families owe their livelihoods to the coffee sector. It's the country's top export, ahead of oil and minerals. 

Ready to leave

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced from these mountains over the tumultuous half century of Colombia's armed conflict. Santuario's mayor, Everardo Ochoa, says the exodus starts again every time coffee hits a crisis.

The international reference price for coffee has dropped from a high of $1.50 per pound in 2016 to less than a dollar a historic low.

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View of coffee in Santuario municipality, Risaralda department, Colombia. AFP

The only reason coffee production still exists to any extent in Santuario is because many producers have "coffee in their veins," and can't do anything else, says Echeverry. 

Ripping it up

Back in 1993, Diego Henao was forced into a life-changing decision in a bid to save his two plantations, totaling 400,000 trees.

He emigrated. 

Since then, in lean times like now, he spends four months a year in the US working as a house painter, and then injects his savings back into his coffee trees so as not to borrow from banks.

Now 53, he says: "I'm very close to being happy, if it weren't for the coffee prices."

The "coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia" is recognized on the UNESCO world heritage list, but there are fewer and fewer coffee trees.

Meanwhile, up in the hills of Santuario, the next harvest comes in October-November. If nothing changes by then, more farms will go on sale.

Agence France-Presse