view of mountainside from porch in colombia

In the United States, our supply chains, health care systems, public institutions and economy have all been put to the test by coronavirus.

But how has life changed for coffee farmers? So many coffee producers live with little-to-no access to social services or emergency government support during normal times. Has this pandemic exacerbated those vulnerabilities?

In a series of blog posts, we will look at how life has been impacted for our producer partners around the world. First, we begin with the Fondo Paez cooperative located in Cauca, Colombia.

Cauca, Colombia: Fondo Paez

Fondo Paez Background

Cauca is situated in the southwestern highlands of Colombia, along the Cordillera Central mountain chain.  It’s a remote area of rolling green mountains where ancestors of Fondo Paez farmers date back thousands of years. 

The farmers are Nasa, a determined, community-minded indigenous group that represents about 200,000 people in Colombia.  The Fondo Paez cooperative is co-owned and operated by some 370 small-scale Nasa farmers.

you man smiles for camera with verdant mountains behind him and a gray horse in the distance.
Luis Eduardo Dagua Rivera, a member of Fondo Paez’s cupping team, is pictured near Fondo Paez’s headquarters in 2017.

When Nasa farmers came together in 1992 to form Fondo Paez, they were looking to preserve the cultural and agricultural traditions of their ancestors.

Today, they produce organic, specialty-grade Arabica coffee that we roast as a Medium Roast Colombian coffee. It is some of the highest-quality coffee we purchase.

Coronavirus arrives during Cauca’s Harvest Season

The first cases of coronavirus were reported in Colombia in early March. By March 17, the country had restricted entry to foreigners and by March 20, Colombia was under a nationwide quarantine.

March thru July is typically harvest season for coffee farmers in Cauca, so coronovirus reached Colombia just as harvest was beginning.

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Ripe coffee cherry ready to harvest. Photo by Scott Umstattd.

Logistics Restricted in Fondo Paez Communities

Not long after Colombia instituted a nationwide quarantine, a Nasa volunteer guard set up checkpoints between local communities to reduce and monitor travel. 

Fondo Paez staff travelling to visit farmers must pass through these checkpoints and undergo a regimen of disinfection that involves the application of smoke and medicinal plants.

“Covid provoked a fair amount of uncertainty and fear in these communities and a lot of indigenous communities have had to act very strictly,” Yuri Pilliume, outgoing president of Fondo Paez, explained in a June 12 interview facilitated by our importer, Cooperative Coffees.

“They’ve implemented a pretty rigorous lock-down, shutting down transportation from rural communities to the big cities,” she said.

As of that interview, no cases had been reported in Fondo Paez communites. However, just a 45-minute drive away two coronavirus cases had been confirmed in Santander de Quilichao, the closest town to Fondo Paez farmers.

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Traveling between Nasa communities. Taken by Scott Umstattd in 2010.

Travel Restrictions Force Innovation

Travel restrictions have forced Fondo Paez to change how they receive coffee. 

During a normal harvest season, producers would take their freshly picked, washed and dried coffee to Fondo Paez’s central warehouse in La Placa to prepare it for export. 

Now farmers are bagging and preparing their coffees at home.  And soon, they will be able to drop their coffee at one of several remote warehouses where Fondo Paez is planning to rent space in the coming weeks.  The benefit to farmers is that they won’t have to travel too far from home to deliver their coffee, but the operational costs of the cooperative will increase, Yuri explained.

Lack of access to cities means farmers are also missing tools and other household items they might otherwise purchase in Santander.  To help meet those needs, Fondo Paez is entering a contract with a local distributor to open a small store on the mountain.

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Since Nasa communities implemented travel restrictions, Fondo Paez farmers can no longer take their coffee harvests to Fondo Paez’s central processing warehouse like they did here in 2010.

Long-term Planning Stalled

Like here in the U.S., long-term planning is a moving target for Fondo Paez.  

With travel restrictions nationwide, it’s impossible for the cooperative to estimate when their coffee will be ready for export.

By June, Fondo Paez would normally have collected about 80,000 pounds, or two containers of coffee from local producers. But this year, they only have a fraction of that.

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The mountains of Cauca, Colombia.

Plus, moving coffee beyond the Nasa communities poses a risk. Cooperative leaders worry that they might bring the virus back to these remote villages that have so far been spared of infections. With an aging population and limited access to medical care, the consequences of an outbreak could be grim. 

The neighboring departments (or states) to the immediate east and west of Cauca have some of the highest per capita cases of coronavirus in all of Colombia. Traveling outside of their communities and beyond the Cauca Department seems risky. 

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Luis Eduardo Dagua Rivera is evaluating the aroma of Fondo Paez coffee in the Fondo Paez cupping lab in 2017.

Bright Spots

Children have Returned Home

Despite an uncertain future and fear of the virus, there have been some bright spots during the pandemic, Yuri said.  

Most notably, young-adult children have returned home from the cities.  As Colombian cities started implementing lock downs, many young people moved back to their childhood homes. 

Now, they are helping their parents harvest coffee, and serving as mentors to younger children, she explained. Local leaders are even trying to convince the young people to stay in the region after the pandemic ends and help develop it for the future.

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Cafe Campesino CEO Tripp Pomeroy and Fondo Paez President Yuri Pilliume pose for a picture in the Atlanta airport during a 2018 visit.

Connecting with Coffee Buyers is Critical

Connecting with buyers and learning that there is still a demand for Fondo Paez coffee is also promising, Yuri said. 

“We need to be able to demonstrate to members that the effort they are currently making is worth it in the long run,” she said.  

Plus, communicating helps strengthen the relationship.

“We have been hearing about what’s happening in the U.S. and Europe, but conversations like this are helpful to get more real-life detail,” she said. “We think of our trading partners as family, so we want to hear how they are doing.”

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