Despite being caught in the crosshairs of Colombia’s civil war, the determined coffee farmers of the Department of Cauca are more interested in co-existing with others in peace than in taking sides. These peaceful activities for them include making a living, improving the quality of their products and building community. They have long resisted intervention by any of the illegal armed groups, fervently working their coffee groves with an entrepreneurial spirit strengthened by forming cooperatives. Their stories represent hope in the face of conflict and change, the potential for opportunity and the importance of community leadership.
On a recent tour of the region I visited several of those cooperatives. My journey included the Cooperativa del Sur del Cauca (COSURCA), or Southern Cauca Cooperative, a grantee partner of the Inter-American Foundation (IAF). This cooperative is an umbrella association of 11 different farmer groups.
Town of Timbio in Popayan, Colombia
COSURCA’s offices and processing plant are located in Timbio, a town in a particularly beautiful area of Colombia about 30 minutes from Popayan, the department capital. Unfortunately for the nearly 1,700 coffee farmers joined under the COSURCA umbrella such as the Asociación de productores de la Sierra (ASPROSI), or Producers Association of the Sierra, and Asociación de Productores de Balboa (ASPROBALBOA), or Producers Association of Balboa, the region is also ground zero for Colombia’s epic struggles. This is an area of historical conflict among the government, the guerilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), paramilitary groups fighting the FARC and the various criminal groups involved in cocaine production.
COSURCA manager René Ausecha noted that certain municipalities in the area still have a strong presence of illegal actors such as the FARC. Support from COSURCA has been critical for communities struggling to transition from a coca-based economy to coffee production and other legal farming as sources of income.
“The IAF has been with us through the most difficult times,” said Ausecha, “but it’s still an unsafe environment in some communities.” He explained that the conflict divided many communities and frayed the social fabric that is so critical to moving forward with production initiatives. These conflicts have made the work of COSURCA and other cooperatives that much more challenging.
COSURCA processes coffee ready to be exported to a variety of specialty coffee roasters.
Getting coca producers to switch to cultivating coffee, sugarcane or other crops is critical to the peace agenda in Cauca. Even with constant technical assistance it is difficult to make these products sufficiently profitable to replace coca. What most farmers here want to talk about is not the decades-long conflict but the challenges they face in coffee production. These challenges include combating the coffee rust fungus, improving the quality of their coffee and expanding markets in order to stay competitive. COSURCA processes coffee for international roasters and also sells roasted coffee to the domestic market. They have even ventured into processing and selling fruit juices in order to stay competitive and profitable.
We visited Alba Luci Santacruz, 45, a mother of three and a coop member who gave us a whirlwind tour of her eclectic farm. The farm includes everything from organically grown vegetables to coffee and uses organic fertilizers from compost and other recycled products. "My family eats healthy vegetables,” she says proudly as she pulls a handful of carrots from the ground. “I do not grow coca because I have coffee and can grow other things on my farm to eat without taking a risk.”
Alba Luci, a coffee farmer and member of ASPROBALBOA, explained that to be a coca producer is a very risky business for farmers.
“You’ll find many other farmers similar to Alba,” explains Ruber Paramija of COSURCA, who marvels at the members’ resolve to upgrade their products and change their practices even in the face of the many challenges involved in living in a conflict zone.
Over the years the farmers have indeed suffered at the hands of all the parties involved in the conflict. For example, the government’s aerial spraying under “Plan Colombia” aimed to eradicate coca plantations but also destroyed maize, beans and other crops. It even made some local residents sick. Ausecha said that the paramilitaries infiltrated one of their partner organizations and that the FARC demanded kickbacks that the cooperative refused to pay. COSURCA opposes the cultivation of coca except for medicinal purposes and is opposed in particular to its monoculture, which replaces food production.
“Our partners and ourselves have been approached for la vacuna (payments to the guerrilla), but we have resisted paying,” Ausecha said. “We have stood firm to show that the community supports us, and we work for the common good.”
In the end, of course, it is the local farmers themselves who make their own decisions on what to plant and how to resist the conflict that surrounds them. For the moment they’re staying focused on working together and moving forward toward a peace dividend that may well come in the form of coffee. And with peace ever closer on the horizon, COSURCA ‘s Ausecha remains optimistic: “The hope is that now with the peace process, things will be different.” And they most likely will be different because, after having weathered years of war, Cauca’s farmers are making sure they’re ready for peace.
Alba Luci Santacruz shows products from her organic garden.
*Edith Bermudez, is a communications specialist for the Office of External and Government Affairs at the IAF.