The International Coffee Organization (ICO) on Thursday extended its support to Colombia’s coffee federation (Fedecafe) while tens of thousands of growers continued to protest all across the country.
“Of course we want the best for the coffee farmers,” ICO Head of Operations Mauricio Galindo told Colombia Reports, “and the way forward for them is with the federation.”
Thousands of Colombian coffee growers on Monday took to the streets in departments all across the country to protest what they perceive is a lack of financial support from the government during this tough time for the industry.
While empathizing with the protestors and calling their complaints legitimate, Fedecafe has also supported the government’s assistance during this trying time for the industry. Fedecafe chief, Luis Genaro Muñoz, claimed the farmers were clear “beneficiaries of decisive governmental aid.”
Several external factors have thrusted one of Colombia’s flagship industries into a precarious position. Poor weather conditions that led to leaf rust beset several coffee growing countries in Latin America. Falling international prices coupled with massive amounts of foreign investment due to mining and oil booms have caused the Colombian peso to rise to “dangerously” high rates. The three formed an almost perfect storm of adverse conditions for Colombian coffee farmers.
Coffee prices in February 2013 are 28% than they were a year ago. In January, strike organizer Victor Correa told Colombia Reports that farmers are paid $282 for a sack of coffee, but the cost of production is $366.
Fedcafe represents over 500,000 small farmers across Colombia, and the industry is “enhanced” by its efforts according to Galindo, which ensure sustainability and better [overall] conditions. According to the ICO official, to break with the federation would spell disaster for the farmers.
“We don’t want it to turn out like Africa. In the 1990’s, primarily in countries like Kenya, they dismantled the coffee institutions with the opening of the free markets [and] never recovered. They were left to the mercy of the markets,” said Galindo.
Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos, himself a former coffee federation official, has called the strikes “unjust and unnecessary” and has claimed his administration has given more funding to the farmers than any other, pouring $1.6 million per month into the industry.
“The government have put quite a lot of resources on the table,” said the ICO official. “The coffee farmers would like to see a minimum price for coffee – which there used to be. But a return to that is no longer possible.”
Whatever money was in the Colombian government’s coffee fund is mostly, if not all gone, according to the ICO head of operations.
According to the ICO, the volatile prices affect over 120 million small farmers in more than 50 countries around the world. “The current coffee prices situation is affecting producers everywhere. Of course no one person or country can control the market,” said Galindo.
Colombia’s Central Bank has been battling, unsuccessfully up to now, to keep the peso down. In what has become a vicious circle, the higher the peso is valued, the lower the profit on exports, which in turn hampers the ability to buy necessary items such as fertilizer, which in its turn affects productivity.
“The big challenge for the small farmers in Colombia is productivity,” said Galindo. A productive small farm will make enough to turn a profit, but Colombia is only just beginning to crawl back from a period of bad weather and subsequent plant disease that decimated bushes and plummeted production to all-time lows.
“We have great sympathy for the farmers, and we hope that everything will be done to help them. But the only way to solve this is to sit down at the table and talk it through,” said Galindo. The “way forward for the coffee farmers must be with the federation.”
- Interview with Mauricio Galindo, Head of Operations International Coffee Organization
- Press release from ICO