Posted by Chris Treter
In January, the BeanActivist crew arrived in Colombia over 200 years after the first coffee seeds were planted there. We touched down in a month that the nearly 600,000 coffee producers harvested over 1 million sacks (each weighing 132 pounds) of coffee – up 46% from last years January harvest. But unlike the pioneering times of the arrival of coffee, our llegada was planned and organized.
Coffee, on the other hand, arrived to Colombia in the 1700’s under still unknown circumstances. According to the Colombian Coffee Federation, a few stories exist that explain the arrival of coffee to the country. Some believe that coffee seeds were carried from Central America via the Urabá Antioqueño. Others say the small green beans came via Venezuela and found its first home on Colombian soil in the department of Santender and Cundinamarca.
In his book, “El Orinoco Ilustrado,” jesuit priest Jose Gumilla tells readers that the Santa Teresa de Tabage Mission was the first to cultivate coffee and then brought it to Popayán in 1736 where they began to plant profusely.
The most colorful of all coffee birth stories in Colombia is that of Francisco Romero, a fervent admirer of coffee and priest from Salazar de las Palmas. In the sacrament of Penitence he would make sinners take coffee seedlings to plant depending on the severity of their sin. It seems some large coffee plantations can be in the hands of the most sinful descendants of the country!
Today, thanks in part to the Colombian Coffee Federation and the creation of Juan Valdez, coffee from Colombia is well-known throughout the world. The Colombian Coffee Federation was created in 1927 with the support of the Colombian government and intention to reign over the politics and commercialization of coffee in the country. At times, this has become a rather powerful force. With the country producing over 13 million sacks (each sack is 132 pounds) of green coffee in 2007 alone and holding the number 2 spot (2nd only to Brazil) as the largest producer of coffee in the world, the federation plays a very key role in the livelihood of thousands.
Juan Valdez, the-actor-pretending-he-is-a-coffee-farmer brand for Colombian coffee, is a well-known symbol that has been marketed throughout the world. In fact, many coffee drinkers who are still in the process of education (that is, they still drink Folger’s and Maxwell House) believe anything with the word “Colombian” is sure to be of high quality. His name is blazen upon over 200 Juan Valdez cafes, owned and operated by the Colombian Coffee Federation and its 560,000 growers.But, unlike the well dressed, clean and tighty Mr. Valdez, who jet sets across the world, promoting Colombia and sponsoring professional tennis matches, ski races, and figure skating championships, most of the countries farmers are poverty stricken. The image of Juan Valdez provides Colombia with a blank canvas through which to market their pride and joy in a country otherwise mired in continuous unrest, a healthy drug trade, and a heated in-country debate about the woes of entering into a free trade agreement with the United States.