Market Reports

Growing peace

Around the pool at a hostel in Cartagena, Colombia, an argument is developing on the legitimacy of Netflix crime drama Narcos. Narcos tells the story of the Medellin drug cartel and the United States-led manhunt to bring down its leader, Pablo Escobar. For backpackers in Colombia, Narcos is a popular topic to bridge international borders while sitting in buses and bars. “I binge-watched the entire season the week before I came over,” says one American backpacker. “It’s basically all I knew about Colombia before I got on the plane.” Narcos is not a history lesson. While Colombia’s past is certainly marred by violence, the glorification of its drug trade is something its people are eager to avoid. The recent release of Narcos and the nearing of a peace agreement between the government and the leftist guerilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) have thrust Colombia’s illegal export back into the international spotlight. The Farc began peace negotiations with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos in Havana in 2012. Now hoping to finally end the world’s longest running war, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The “violencia” began in 1948 between military wings of the Liberal and Conservative parties. At the time the issues were land rights and ownership, and the assassination of the then reformist Liberal candidate, Jorge Eliécier Gaitán. For four decades the Farc fought paramilitary groups and the Colombian army for land, terrorising those caught in their way as they advanced or retreated. Estimates of the number of Colombians killed during this period are wide ranging. Some US papers report around 70,000 deaths, while Agence France Presse suggests it is closer to 200,000. The battle continued into the 2000s – Al Jazeera believes Colombia was facing 30,000 killings a year in the early 2000s – with large sections of territory outside of the state’s control. Drugs is one of the three points already settled upon in the current draft agreement. The guerrillas are committed to helping eradicate coca, the illegal crop used in the production of cocaine. Colombian Coffee Grower’s Federation (FNC) CEO Roberto Vélez says the ratification of a formal peace agreement will be a welcome outcome for all of Colombia. “The signing of the peace agreement will absolutely be a good thing,” says Vélez. “Less presence of violence is good for everyone.” In 1927 the FNC was established to support the growing number of Colombians turning to coffee farming. Favourable climatic and economic conditions at home, plus a souring global price, created the right environment for coffee to emerge as Colombia’s main export.  In 1929, Colombia established a price stabilisation fund to provide farmers with a guarantee that they could sell their coffee at a fair rate, based on international prices. Today, the FNC will purchase the coffee through 36 cooperatives that are located in 511 purchase points throughout the country. Aside from ensuring access to market prices, the FNC provides coffee farmers with technical support, credit, infrastructure, health services, education programs, and a range of other services. Vélez says the FNC is hoping to support the integration of Colombians coming from regions of conflict through coffee farming. “We know that the insurgents want to go back to their own towns and villages – there will have to be cooperation and understanding to achieve this, but we believe it’s possible,” says Vélez. “Our generation has never lived in a society without any violence so it will be a big boost for all of us.” The FNC’s Extension Service (ES) ensures that its presence is felt in the most remote regions of the country. Comprising 1500 agriculture professionals, or Extensionists, the ES is FNC’s main knowledge transfer vehicle. Its primary objective is to provide training, enhance the quality of Colombian coffee, and improve the lives of coffee farmers. “There have been times in Colombia’s history that the media have abandoned an area, the police have abandoned the area, everyone has left except for the Extension Service. It’s something that people rely on and see as a way of getting programs through,” says Vélez. “There are a number of studies which show that the higher concentration of FNC Extensionists in an area – the chances of having violent acts in that area decreases.” In one such study, researchers from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium and Universidad de los Andes in Colombia found that a strong presence of FNC Extensionists in a coffee region provided a safe haven, which isolated farmers from the conflict ravaging other regions. “Because coffee farmers are smallholders they bond together in community – they want to live in peace so they work together,” says Vélez. “Because they have a survival crop, it is much less common than other crops to be substituted for more violent alternatives.” The researchers found that even though the institutional support the FNC provided kept coffee growers protected from the extent of the violence for many years, unfavourable market conditions hampered production in the late 20th century. The end of the international quota agreement, which had stabilised prices at high levels, changed coffee markets across the world. Large price fluctuations, previously unknown to coffee growers, became frequent. In 2001, prices fell to the lowest levels in 180 years. The conditions put pressure on FNC resources, limiting its capacity to ease the consequences of the crisis. Consequently, traditional coffee regions, which had been historically isolated from the conflict, were exposed to risks such as violence and the presence of illicit crops. According to the study, Abandoning Coffee under the Threat of Violence and the Presence of Illicit Crops: Evidence from Colombia, in 1985, guerrilla groups were present in 2 per cent of coffee growing municipalities, while in 1995, these figures increased to 53 per cent, putting farmers under increasing pressure. “The pressure had two reasons,” says Vélez. “One was the low prices – the price was far too low. The other was that the frustrations from the growers didn’t reach the government fast enough, so measures were not taken fast enough.” Having taken over the lead role at the FNC in mid-2015 Vélez says he has made it a key characteristic of his leadership to have direct communication with growers. “I myself am travelling every weekend to different places – meeting with growers,” he says. “I am doing this systematically to really reach the growers and be able to listen and get notes on their campaigns and their complaints and their aspirations. In Spanish we say ‘conversemos’ – it’s a rough translation, but it means ‘let’s talk’.” In the case of Colombia, researchers believe the conflict had a direct impact on agricultural decisions for two main reasons. The first is through the destruction of assets; the loss of life, a reduction in the availability of goods, and increasing transactions costs. The second is that conflict may change the incentives to participate in the production of illegal crops. This is facilitated through the breakdown of the rule of law, the deliberate strategy of armed groups to promote illegal crop cultivation, and a decrease in the profits from legal agricultural production. Edwin Price, Director at the Centre on Conflict and Development says that the situation in Colombia is reflective of global trends for countries in conflict. “Typically for farmers in conflict the great danger is caused by the theft of their crop from raiders among the insurgence. In some countries we’ve even observed cases of the regular military raiding farmers crops for food,” says Price. “So the threat is not just from illegal militia and insurgence – it is often from within too.” The Centre on Conflict and Development investigates how to use technology to assist communities to avoid conflict, to survive during conflict, and to recover quickly after conflict. Price and his team, through the Texas A&M University, are interested in how conflict-resistant crops can minimise the effect violence has on production. “A conflict-resistant crop is a crop that farmers and families can use for their own survival but is inconvenient for rebels and military to use,” says Price. “This is generally because it cannot be eaten directly as it requires a lot of processing to be sold for profit – like coffee. If it is easily gathered above ground it is vulnerable – like maize.” Price says coffee is conflict resistant for a number of reasons. “Coffee is resistant because it is time consuming. You have to go through quite a complicated marketing mechanism to turn it into money,” he says. “The fact that it is often grown on sloping land and difficult to reach terrain also makes it less appealing to rebels. Smallholder farmers are often the poorest and often the worst affected by conflict – but they are also often the most resilient.” Price and his team have examined the effects of conflict on agriculture in South Africa, the Congo, Angola, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. They led a mission to Sudan to try to discover genetic material that could be used to improve coffee’s resistance to disease. Price says for the prosperity of the coffee industry, now more than ever it is important for researchers to have access to countries such as Sudan. “South Sudan is part of the region of origin, which includes Ethiopia and Yemen, which has the most genetic diversity of coffee. Right now we are using only a very narrow genetic breadth of coffee,” he says. “The decline of conflict in a region, particularly in an origin of coffee, enables scientists to get in and explore its genetic material.” As one of the team that helped form World Coffee Research, Price understands the risks the coffee industry is facing in the future. “As climate change proceeds it’s going to be more and more important to locate, identify, and utilise new genetic material that provides a resistance to climate change and disease,” he says. “In order to combat that we really need a broad genetic base, to breed the coffee that will be resistant. In the case of Yemen, the conflict means we can’t get in – access to these countries will improve outcomes for the whole world.” Price says he absolutely believes coffee has the potential to reduce the risk and effects of conflict in countries around the globe. “Just after the conflict in Rwanda we began working with the widows and children of the generation who were killed during the genocide,” says Price. “Our scientist Tim Schilling noticed that people were uprooting their coffee plants. Europeans had planted a lot of these crops and the Rwandans didn’t drink it. They were trying to sell it but receiving 15 per cent less than the lowest level it was being traded at.” Schilling noticed that these varieties were unique bourbon varieties, a treasure of the specialty coffee industry. “Tim worked with the Rwandans to rebuild these crops – it was a tremendous reawakening,” says Price. “Before too long international buyers began looking at Rwanda. It is a wonderful outcome for a country which has experienced genocide.” Price’s colleague Johanna Roman is the Program Manager for Latin America at the  Centre of Conflict and Development. Roman says that now more than ever farmers need incentives to stay in coffee. “Low prices and low productivity in coffee may have a detrimental effect on the lives of small-scale farmers who already live in poverty conditions, and could have an effect on violence, conflict, and migration,” she says. Roman comes from a family of coffee farmers and in her professional career has worked in several coffee projects with farmer associations. “I believe that rural economic opportunities in coffee can help small-scale farmers in Latin America during their peace and recovery period,” says Roman. “Just like I believe that poverty can lead to violence and conflict, economic opportunities can lead to peace.” While Colombia’s violent past may have captured the imagination of travelers now flooding in to the country, it is the stability brought by the success of industries such as coffee that will make sure it is a place they want to return to. GCR

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