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The similarities and differences of Bolivian and Colombian coffee farming

smallholder farmers

Researchers examine how the livelihoods of smallholder coffee farmers in Colombia and Bolivia can be improved through high-quality coffee products.

Coffee provides a livelihood to millions of smallholder farmers but faces challenges resulting from price fluctuations, climate change and plant diseases.

To investigate how the use of high-quality coffee could be used to improve the situation, Dr. Chahan Yeretzian, Professor at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW); Dr. Johanna Jacobi, Assistant Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich; Sebastian Opitz and Sabine de Castelberg, Principle Investigators from the ZHAW; conducted research together with scientists from Bolivia and Colombia over two years.

They investigated the most important quality traits for green coffee and coffee cherry products, analysed the

value chains of both countries to support farmers’ livelihoods, and provided recommendations of strategies and policy reorientations at national and international levels to enhance sustainable and fair markets.

“The objective really was to observe these two countries, which are quite different in their development of coffee and their maturity in the coffee business, and explore what aspects of their production processes could be improved or beneficial to the other,” says Yeretzian.

Opitz says there are not many studies that really make a link between cup quality, farmers’ livelihoods and polices to foster both. First, an interdisciplinary team is needed, followed by a theoretical basis that is not just about monetary benefits like the sustainable livelihoods framework.

“Too little research has focused on the situation of coffee farmers in general. But what I think is really different [in our research] are two things: First, the focus on by-products such as fruits, nuts, or timber and not just coffee, which is also important if we want to enhance agroforestry,” Jacobi says. “And two, the view of what quality actually means. Is it a high-quality coffee when the cup is fantastic but it is produced under slave-like conditions? Or if it comes at the cost of an old-grown forest?”

To Opitz, there are two types of coffee quality, that of coffee measured using the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) scoring points, and the overall quality of the coffee sector.

“We observed that the consistence of production was much poorer in Bolivia compared to Colombia. Colombian coffee farmers are more aware how to produce quality Colombian mild coffee on a large scale, whereas in Bolivia the coffee samples analysed had a much higher spread, which is especially critical when considering defects and high moisture content in the green beans,” he says.

Bountiful Bolivia

Inspecting coffee plants with Colombian producers near Neiva.

In Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in South America, production has been decreasing in the last years despite increasing international recognition and highly sought-after coffees, according to the World Bank.

While Bolivia’s high-quality coffee production and marketing is still in its infancy, the country has a very a good reputation for its cascara or coffee cherry, and a longstanding tradition of using the green coffee by-product as tea.

“Cascara or ‘sultana’, as the locals call it in Bolivia, is an example of a coffee by-product Colombian producers could embrace to help develop and promote in a type of cross-fertilisation between the two countries despite them being in very different phases in the coffee evolution and development,” Yeretzian says.

The research team initiated workshops and modules to help Colombian farmers promote the use of coffee cherry.

“It is always fruitful to exchange concepts, ideas and experience, which also holds true for producing countries,” says Opitz. “Colombia has much more experience with the production of coffee. It is not only the biggest exporter of mild Arabica coffee, but it has also highly successful research institutions that help the coffee sector, for instance with breeding new Arabica varieties. Bolivia on the other hand has a comparably small coffee sector with little professionalisation. However, they have a long history of utilising cascara as a beverage, which in turn are useful concepts for Colombian coffee farmers.”

Through the team’s research, they identified that cascara is best dried at low temperatures under shade, and best consumed as freshly as possible as opposed to storage for a year, which results in a 30 to 50 per cent decrease in flavonoids and chlorogenic acids.

The team also observed the drying process of smallholder Bolivian farmers, which dry their coffee at two different locations with varying humidity levels: one at high humidity and high temperature in the Yungas at 1600 metres above sea level, or in El Alto with low humidity at 4000 metres above sea level. The researchers observed drastic differences in drying times, which also had an effect on the green bean composition. They say a compromise with initial drying in the Yungas and subsequent final drying in El Alto was most promising for sucrose content, as well as from a quality perspective.

Another observation, Jacobi says, is that Bolivian farmers are implementing pesticide-intensive monocultures for three main reasons: the persisting economic pressure, a lack of clear vision and orientation by organisations and authorities from the national government or locally, and that agroecological practices such as agroforestry are almost never taught at universities and agricultural schools.

“The focus is on agricultural extractivism as in many other crops in Latin America, as if soybean was an example for coffee to follow,” she says.

One of the most pressing issues for the Bolivian coffee sector, however, is the lack of representation by a unified coffee organisation. Aside from organizations such as FECAFEB (Federación de Caficultores Exportadores de Bolivia), ANPROCA (Asociación Nacional de Productores de Café) and ANAPCafé (Asociación Nacional de Profesionales y Amantes del Café), Opitz says establishing one multi-stakeholder organisation to represent the coffee sector with democratic principles would be the most urgent policy initiative.

“We observed that the few existing organisations in the coffee sector are working against each other instead of collaborating. This weakens the whole sector considerably and comes out of a state of mistrust which in the end disadvantages the most vulnerable because any effort to make high-quality value chains more accessible will be weaker and later delayed. We concluded that their collaboration accompanied by a ministry could help tackle this situation,” Opitz says.

Colombia’s changing climate

Colombia is a country with a high reputation for coffee quality, stability, and consistency thanks to its well-established infrastructure. The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation has been the leading institution that has guided, regulated, and directed the coffee sector for more than 90 years. It had strong ties to the national government and international organisations. Project researchers say increased technical support and more extension services would also be beneficial to help strengthen the small producers’ associations which constitute 90 per cent of coffee farmers.

Opitz says more policies should also be in place to improve the living conditions of rural areas.

“The negligence of rural areas is a broader problem than just the coffee sector. Most coffee farmers are small farmers. They deal with many problems at the same time. Abandoning the international coffee agreement has resulted in a decade-long coffee price crisis and in a delay of sustainable development in terms of education, health, and many other topics for millions of farming families, because of poverty,” he says.

In terms of production however, Jacobi says the biggest practice Colombian producers can adopt from Bolivian farmers is to take a step back from high-sun intensive coffee production and implement more shade-grown agroforestry approaches for growing coffee. She says this will become even more important with the ongoing climate crisis, which is expected to severely impact most Arabica coffee areas.

“More extensive dry spells are expected with ongoing climate change. Then, keeping moisture in the soil will be critical since artificial irrigation is not possible for most Colombian farmers. Here, not only shade, but also mulching practices will become relevant again. The other factor is temperature and buffering high temperatures in the coffee crop increases coffee quality and reduces the stress for the coffee plant. This correlation between quality and higher altitude (with lower temperature) is commonly accepted,” Opitz says.

Coffee under shade trees in forested landscapes, climate-friendly management and post-harvest technologies will allow for an adapted and resilient coffee production that can fulfil high quality criteria.

Colombian farmers would also benefit from the diversification of coffee processes, and the knowledge of how to produce not only natural, but experimental-processed coffee that could lead farmers to new niche markets. This trend is already happening. The researchers currently have a wide range of experimental fields where farmers are testing modified post-harvest processing methods and even other coffee species.

Growing demand, increasing access

Coffee drying in Bolivia is traditionally done at two different locations with varying humidity levels.

Market access for small coffee farmers remains another significant challenge. Opitz says since smallholder farmers are not able to market their coffee to a broader public, they remain in a weak position of a price taker, since they are highly dependent on the intermediaries to export their coffee. “Here, the risk is high that the coffee is sold below its value,” he says.

As coffee farmers remain the most vulnerable actors in the coffee value chain, Jacobi adds that they are subject to price fluctuations, infrastructural problems, and bear the risk of climate change alone. Without making a profit, many smallholder farmers are in a debt spiral that doesn’t allow them to think about investing in quality, agroforestry, or such things as becoming a barista.

“Farmers’ organisations around the world have helped to build resilience through mutual support, claiming policy-makers’ attention to their needs, and to increase their bargaining power. The most famous example is the global farmers’ organisation La Via Campesina, which has brought small farmers’ struggles to the international policy agenda, and which has over 200 million members,” she says.

To further strengthen the quality and sustainable production in Bolivia and Colombia, Jacobi and Opitz suggest both countries rethink their models of production since climate change is impacting the whole sector.

“Governments, and their national research organisations, need to adapt and to provide solutions to the coffee growers. One practical approach that would be tackling the pressing issue of climate change funding studies how climate change will impact the domestic production. Based on climate modelling it would then be much more efficient to plan any future coffee production areas, instead of hoping to pick the best suited areas. This needs an initial investment in research, which would pay off quickly,” Opitz says.

In producing countries like Colombia and Bolivia, specialty coffee is typically exported, and lower-quality coffee is marketed for domestic consumption. However, coffee cherry products are increasingly sought after and local demand for high-quality coffee is growing. Jacobi says it should be prioritised to reduce farmers’ dependence on green coffee exports and improve access to local markets.

“To value their own coffee means that they see meaning in investing in its quality and in its persistence. If coffee is just a commodity like any other, it will just be replaced by whatever when the problems get too big. If we want to have coffee in the future, we need not only to work on its sustainability but also its appreciation – and especially by those who produce it,” Jacobi says.

In Bolivia, Jacobi observed consumer demand for high value coffee produced within the country, especially from the younger generation. What was also positive to see, was young Bolivians obtaining SCA degrees and successfully opening specialty coffee shops or roasteries serving locally produced coffee to enhance the country’s coffee culture.

Opitz says their research showed that selling roasted coffee within the origin country entails the highest profits for coffee farmers.

Another related topic, Jacobi says, is the decolonisation of coffee: “How can it be that in many parts of Bolivia, you cannot drink a Bolivian coffee (because almost all of it is exported) and all you can get is imported instant coffee, which is of very low quality and pollutes the environment with plastic? How can it be that the best quality is taken somewhere else and people receive a lower quality from elsewhere? This is not an isolated phenomenon, it comes with the cancellation of culture, language, knowledge, and identity and has been going on for centuries.”

Growth, goals and profit

Over the next two to three years, Yeretzian and his team plan to prepare research papers on their findings and are engaging in follow-up projects.

While the project is mainly aimed at livelihood improvements at the local level, the research is expected to improve the positioning of Colombia and Bolivia in taking opportunities in export niche markets, such as for specialty coffee and coffee cherry products.

“Our research showed that when farmers manage to engage with high-quality value chains, it can be very beneficial for them in terms of social, human, and financial capital,” Jacobi says. “However, given the very dire livelihoods situation of many coffee farmers, instead of scaling-up (growth of few farming enterprises), I would use the concept of scaling out (involving more people). This is one of the core concepts of just transitions in agri-food systems, to make these beneficial developments accessible to more people. Otherwise, it would remain a nice but little transformative niche. For this, the overall development of coffee must engage more in quality.”

While sustainable production systems are context-specific, Jacobi and Opitz say other origin countries could embrace pathways to agroforestry systems and learn from other countries that may be more advanced. While it already occurs through new processing methods to improve coffee quality, it usually only happens on a small scale. Therefore, Jacobi says it is important to facilitate the exchange of best practices on an institutional level to have a broader impact.

Above all, what’s most important through all the research and policy recommendations, Yeretzian adds, is financial return for smallholder farmers.

“In all recommendations we shared to both farming communities, we relied on local community members with our group to translate in Spanish. It is important that the transfer of knowledge shouldn’t come from us as academics. Rather, we feed the knowledge to those in contact with the farmers, who they trust,” he says.

“Our research really did cover the whole value chain. It’s important that we as academics and scientists, continue to work with local on-the-ground agronomists and farmers and take a holistic approach to understanding how to use the information to make improvements. Ultimately, over time, we want to see farmers profit from the export of high-quality products and the local consumption of their valued product.”

For more information, view the working paper via the Swiss Network for International Studies titled: “Improving rural livelihoods through promoting high-quality coffee and coffee cherry products in the origin countries Colombia and Bolivia”.

This article was first published in the July/August 2022 edition of Global Coffee Report. Read more HERE.

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