How coffee is aiding Colombia’s peacebuilding efforts

coffee production colombia
  • A peace deal in 2016 brought an end to decades of civil war in Colombia
  • Coffee has emerged as a key tool for promoting peace
  • The work of cooperatives continues to play a significant role

IN 2016, a peace deal brought an end to over 50 years of civil war in Colombia. 

The armed conflict had seen successive waves of violence between the government, paramilitary forces, and guerrilla groups – namely, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The negotiated deal and subsequent ceasefire were only the first steps in a longer journey to achieve the social and political coherence necessary for lasting peace.

A major challenge now facing the country is to support previously war-torn areas and rebuild their social and economic resilience so as to lessen the likelihood of violence returning.

Coffee production has emerged as a key tool in the process thanks to its potential to provide a sustainable livelihood for thousands of families seeking to rebuild their lives.

Coffee is a major player in the national economy, accounting for 23% of agricultural GDP, and providing a livelihood for more than a million people across the country.

Much of Colombia’s produce is farmed in the so-called “coffee belt” across the Andes mountains, often on small-scale farms comprising just one hectare.

Large multinationals and third wave coffee players are increasingly contributing to the peacebuilding process through direct trade and sustainability initiatives, supporting farmers’ cooperatives and development schemes across Colombia.

North American-based Coop Coffees supports local producer cooperatives in the department of Cauca, one of the areas worst affected by the violence.

According to Sourcing Manager Felipe Gurdian, local cooperatives are vital for supporting farmers as they can provide a baseline price for produce, as well as technical and commercial assistance.

Many of the cooperatives have been working in the area for decades and have gained the trust of local farmers, no easy task in communities that have been ravaged by conflict.

As he says, the cooperatives need to “navigate a very fine line and remain apolitical” in areas that were disputed between central authorities and rebel factions.

Aiding the switch to coffee cultivation

One strategy to promote peace is to encourage farmers to plant coffee instead of coca.

According to Gurdian, “coffee can play a key role providing a viable alternative for local farmers previously involved in the mass coca production which bankrolled the conflict.”

However, persuading farmers to make the switch is not always easy. As he explains, coffee “is a more labour-intensive crop, with only one harvest per year and it can take 4-5 years from seedling to start producing.”

By contrast, coca provides three harvests per year and does not require the same amount of processing as coffee. It also has a pretty much guaranteed market and stable price. In this context, the work of what Gurdian describes as “visionary local leaders” – the cooperatives – is vital.

Direct trade and sustainability initiatives, bolstered by an international consumer profile ever more hungry for responsibly-traded and niche coffees, are likely to grow from strength to strength.

Coop Coffees, for example, is focusing its attention on supporting farmers to move to organic production and currently has 99% of its coffee organically certified.

The last few years have inevitably seen some tensions emerging in the peace process. With mass civil unrest throughout 2021 and elections coming in mid 2022, it is unclear how politics and peacebuilding will unfold in Colombia in the short and mid-term.

What is certain is that coffee production will continue to play a pivotal role in building grassroots resilience and supporting communities to develop.