Colombia’s Coffee Crusader: Governor Sergio Fajardo

In 1991, the city of Medellin was making headlines around the world – and they certainly weren’t the good kind. At the centre of Colombia’s cocaine wars, the Antioquian capital was one of the deadliest cities on the planet, with its homicide rate peaking at 381 per 100,000. To put that figure into perspective, the United States was also experiencing its highest homicide rate in recent history that year – at 9.8 per 100,000. Fast-forward 13 years, and Medellin is making headlines of a different nature. In 2013, the city was named the world capital of innovation by The Wall Street Journal and the Urban Life Institute. The city’s murder rate has fallen a remarkable 80 per cent, as education and other social programs have targeted the around 2.2 million underprivileged residents. The city’s poorest neighbourhoods are filled with cutting-edge architectural public spaces and libraries, with designs befitting the wealthiest quarters.  Sergio Fajardo has played a central role in this transformation. As mayor of Medellin from 2004 to 2007, and Governor of Antioquia from 2012 to today, Fajardo is considered a superstar of Colombian politics. He ran for Vice President alongside Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus in the 2010 election, and with a strong approval rating in his current position, international media have painted Fajardo as a potential future President of one of Latin America’s most important coffee producing countries.  “Medellin has had a profile association with narcotics traffic and destruction. The Colombian youths in our society were facing violence,” Fajardo tells GCR Magazine. “These were the characteristics associated with Medellin. When we came into power, we wanted to show how we could build hope.”   It’s been a long path for Fajardo to help oversee this change. Fifteen years ago, Fajardo was working as a Professor of Mathematics in Bogota, having completed his Doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. “From very early on, I realised that I came from a privileged background, and as a result, I had  different opportunities,” he says. “People without privilege have different opportunities. It’s unfair.” Fajardo’s background in academia has had a significant impact on his political activities, in which he places a high importance on the role of education in empowering change. “Education should be a right and not a privilege,” he says.  Fajardo first dipped his toe into the political sphere as a member of Colombia’s national science council. He began writing columns for newspapers, and commenting on radio programs. But after a few years working on the sidelines, he was eager to take a position where he would be better placed to enact change. “We got together as a group and realised that politicians make the most important decisions in society,” he says. “We were the outsiders. [Our choice was] to spend the rest of our lives saying what had to be done, or we could organise ourselves and start a political movement.” Fajardo ran as an independent, making education the central focus of his election, saying it would be the “engine of social transformation of the city”. In an election system, which Fajardo says is laden with corruption, he and his political team approached it the “traditional” way and took to the streets, handing out leaflets. He says he refused to resort to bribery to win the position, and instead proved the success of the democratic system. “We came into power without paying anyone,” he says. “We put our bets on education and promoting culture to our citizens.” The approach was a success, helping him become mayor in 2003. Once in power, he followed through on his plans to reform education. According to The New York Times, he increased the city’s annual budgetary spending on education to US$900 million, around 40 per cent of the city’s budget. He also invested heavily into erecting architecturally striking public structures in the city’spoorest neighbourhoods. The psychology of this, he says, was to make people feel safe in these neighbourhoods. “We built spectacular public spaces. In a society with violence, it controls the people with fear. We wanted to replace that fear with schools and cultural centres, a science and technology park and botanical gardens. Through urban transformation, we provided spaces where people could get together and feel safe,” says Fajardo. “Through architecture, we could empower the people with dignity… As Colombia advanced, we led the renaissance of Medellin.” Fajardo’s efforts were assisted by an escalation of the federation government’s crackdown on crime stemming from illegal drug trade, with ample support from the United States. Estimates say that from 2000, the United States spent around US$1.8 billion in financial and training support to the Colombian army, deployed domestically against drug cartels. Fajardo’s philosophy, he tells GCR Magazine, is that security efforts need to be supported by new opportunities for the underprivileged, who often have few options available outside of the drug trade. This is where his work in reinventing Antioquia’s coffee sector comes into play as a powerful agent of social change. Antioquia accounts for around 16 per cent of Colombia’s total coffee production. Coffee is grown in 94 out of 125 municipalities, with 92,000 families in the state working in coffee production. Although coffee was previously Colombia’s most traded commodity, Fajardo points out that it no longer plays the role it did in the past. Today, Colombia is a major exporter of oil and minerals.  In Fajardo’s strategy for the region, he says that coffee is not only a viable employment alternative, it also importantly a part of the state’s culture. In that sense, it plays a significant role in the Governor’s strategy of reviving the region’s culture. “We take another view of coffee as a product,” he says. “Coffee is not a just a business.” At the centre of Fajardo’s efforts as Governor is his Antioquia La Mas Educada (Antioquia The Most Educated) initiative. Under the scheme, he has launched the Origin of Specialty Coffees Project, a strategy of “intervention for the development of the coffee sector through education, science and technology, entrepreneurship, and culture to be more competitive and give a boost towards a rural business class,” according to an official government statement.  “There is a new generation of people moving into the 21st Century who are dealing with specialty coffee,” he says. “Our challenge now is moving our coffee culture into the 21st Century.” It’s in bringing the industry forward that Fajardo sees the role that technology and education can play, and the impact he can have as a politician in the coffee industry. “Coffee growers come from very humble origins,” he says. “We’re going to use technology to create the best coffee in the world – that’s our challenge.” Indeed, modernising the industry won’t just be about increasing its value, but ensuring the long-term sustainability of the sector. The average age of coffee farmers in Colombia is 55 years old, showing that the younger generation is struggling to see a future in the industry. Fajardo says that coffee farms are being split up as they are passed down to the next generation. To modernise the industry, Fajardo will use educational efforts to provide tools for young farmers to better commercialise their farms, with a focus on improving quality so that Antioquian coffee will lead the specialty field. He says education can play a powerful tool in encouraging farmers to learn English so they can work directly with roasters. He’s also hoping to tap into the region’s tourism potential by encouraging coffee farm visits. At the higher education level, the government has committed around US$10 million to invest in applied research in the coffee production process with recognised universities in the region. With the area still recovering from a history of poverty and corruption, Fajardo still has some work ahead. The Guardian reported this past April that “micro-corruption” is still rampant in some pockets of the city, with gangs demanding bribes from everyone from taxi drivers  through to shop owners. The same report said that more than 5000 Medellin residents were displaced in the first 10 months of last year from violence, threats and forced recruitment by gangs. By working to improve the quality of the region’s coffee as a way of leading future social transformation, Fajardo’s efforts may not only help improve the lives of his constituents, but coffee drinkers the world over. “Our coffee will be getting better,” he says. “Coffee is an example of the extraordinary things we can do with our people. That’s how we build hope.” 

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