The history of coffee in Colombia

The missionary origins of coffee in Colombia

Like the origins of coffee in Ethiopia and Yemen, the arrival of coffee in Colombia is surrounded by legends and uncertainty. The country was inhabited by hundreds of agriculturally skilled tribes, such as the Muisca and Taironas, who numbered up to 2 million people. When the first Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1499, an era of transformation began, with the first permanent European settlements being established over the next thirty years. Jesuit priests were very influential at the time and are often credited with introducing coffee seeds to the country after visiting Guyana and Venezuela. Estimates of when this actually happened, however, range from the mid-1500s to 1730.

Leaders of the fledgling state, then called New Granada, sought to encourage farming communities in the east of the country to adopt coffee as their staple crop. But growers were not pleasantly surprised to learn that it could take up to five years to harvest the fruit from the first crop. As legend has it, a village priest named Francesco Romero saw an opportunity to use the church as the perfect marketing tool for coffee. Through the word of God, Romero encouraged his congregation to each plant 3 or 4 coffee trees instead of their usual penance of gold and silver. In the community of Salazar de la Palmas, this plan worked well and Romero shared the good news with the Archbishop of New Granada. The Archbishop saw a great opportunity and instructed all the priests to ask their local faithful to do the same. Soon coffee was well on its way to becoming a key building block of future Colombian society.

The first literary reference to coffee in Colombia where we can confirm its presence was José Gumilla's 1741 book El Orinoco ilustrado, y defendido (known in the English-speaking world as The Orinoco Illustrated). The Jesuit missionary from Valencia documented his journey along the Orinoco River and its many tributaries, describing the indigenous cultures, flora and fauna that have formed alongside the world's fourth largest river. His study took up much of the year 1730 and, thanks to his meticulous chronicle, has become a document of immense historical importance.

A safe bet - a chance for coffee

As the presence of coffee spread from the east to the northern lands of Santander, the inaugural export of Colombian coffee took place in 1835. Approximately 2,500 bags of coffee were sent to the United States from the eastern port of Cúcuta, near the present-day Venezuelan border. As the international commodity market exploded, coffee production spread to the centers and western departments such as Cundinamarca and the northwestern region of Antioquia, where the Finca Naya estate was located.

The world economy was entering its biggest boom yet in 1850-1857 and the wealthiest landowners in the Republic of New Granada knew they had to quickly take advantage of the wide open market. Taking a rather speculative approach, many took risks on which commodities would be the most lucrative. Tobacco and quinine were the early favorites, bringing wealth to those who believed in them, and soon fine hides and cattle also enabled tremendous growth in the country. All was well for a time, but the unconsolidated nature of investment led to an unstable agricultural industry, so that eventual collapse was inevitable. International prices fell and production in these industries plummeted.

After its founding in 1863, the Colombian coffee market grew in much the same way, with wild speculation fueling growth in the last quarter of the 19th century. Unlike the earlier fad crops of the 1850s, coffee became a reliable crop, allowing for a steady increase in export earnings. Faster turnover in the cultivation of other crops made them ubiquitous on the international market, but coffee was still a sought-after commodity, and slower production rates meant less competition from other countries in the market. In the early 20th century, the republic exported 600,000 bags of coffee a year, a 900% increase in less than 25 years. This rise was initially fuelled by the emergence of large plantations owned by wealthy individuals with links to Bogotá, and subsequently by the lucrative international banking circuit. Coffee was now the most important resource in Colombia and the core of geopolitical stability in the region.

This meant war

Colombia was fraught with political difficulties throughout the 19th century, from the achievement of independence from Spain in 1819 to the culmination of the Thousand Years War. The 1899-1902 conflict claimed over 120,000 lives, overshadowing the dawn of a new era, and coffee played a key role in the fighting.

After allegations of corruption tainted the ruling conservative party, it became clear that the intended democratic processes had failed. Emboldened by the loss of power, the Liberal Party launched a fierce confrontation. When the fourth civil war in 100 years broke out, Colombia's lands fell into crisis again, and the owners of the big cafes found themselves in a dangerous situation. Prior to the conflict, these landowners had literally invested their fortunes in coffee production, but during the war they were unable to maintain their land at the same level. They lost access to foreign finance, which gave them a monopoly, and with it their long-standing advantage over impoverished small farmers. With the large landowners no longer able to afford to keep their plantations in good condition, Santander and North Santander fell into a crisis, soon followed by Antioquia and Cundinamarca.

The growth of small coffee growers began in the mid-1870s, largely as part of a focus on self-sufficiency. Due to traditional farming methods, much of the land was unable to sustain crops year after year due to the overuse of slash and burn agriculture. Coffee represented an attractive and intensive agricultural alternative. As retail farmers turned to coffee, the effect of a burgeoning international market gave hope for a new age of prosperity. The composition of rural social identity was about to change forever as the economy received a colossal increase in trade, which in turn increased the value of land. Small businesses began to develop at an unprecedented rate and with it a newfound social status for independent farmers. Suddenly, foreign-financed landowners found their influence waning, and when violence broke out in 1899, they were buried in export taxes and the devaluation of their crops. Coffee prices dropped significantly and would not fully recover until 1910. This period had a limited effect on the small peasants as they experienced a sudden upsurge away from peasantry. Even these historically low coffee prices were a vast improvement on their previous average incomes.

While the old capitalists of the New Granada era had fallen, the agglomeration of smallholders allowed the coffee economy to expand into the newly colonized mountainous areas in western Colombia. This gave small farmers the opportunity to unite as a profession and social class, building their future on the perfect landscape for coffee cultivation. Marco Palacios, the famous historian and author of El café en Colombia, 1850-1970: una historia económica, social y política, declared that this was not an "attack on the capitalist camp" but a reorganisation of the social and economic structure of the entire state. This view is respected and has been echoed by academics across the fields of history, agriculture and, more specifically, coffee production. In particular, after years of domination by people with strong ties to Bogotá, the "peaceful coexistence of multiple systems of appropriation and distribution" has finally been made possible (Fernando Estrada, 2011, The Paths of Coffee: A brief economic history of coffee in Colombia).

During a period of intense unrest, the country was renamed seven times in 67 years, agricultural gambling destroyed much of the old wealth, and the population skyrocketed from 2 to 5 million people. In these turbulent times, coffee has become a symbol of survival, a crop that will reward dedicated growers for years to come.

The development of the coffee trade in Colombia between 1730 and 1902 would affect enormous changes as the troubled country faced an uncertain 20th century. Although the future would be fluid, coffee would become a key driver of economic development in the world's second largest coffee producer.

The present

Colombia is considered one of the top coffee producers on the planet. Currently the third most successful coffee exporter, estimates for 2018 suggest that 13.3 million bags of coffee will be shipped during the year. The International Coffee Organization (ICO) reports that a standard bag of coffee weighs 60 kg (132 pounds), which predicts Colombia's coffee production for the year at 798 million kilos (1.76 billion pounds). Only Brazil and Vietnam produce more coffee for caffeine fanatics around the world.

Colombia's 600,000 coffee growers carefully cultivate over 12% of the world's Arabica coffee and are enjoying a recent resurgence after the community was hit hard by climate change. In the mid-2000s, Colombia was easily producing 12 million bags a year, but difficulties in coping with poor conditions saw a drop below 9 million bags in 2010. Climate change can cause significant difficulties in coffee cultivation, as the Coffea arabica species requires rather specific conditions for its growth. With a 25% increase in rainfall and steadily rising temperatures over the last four decades, local producers must learn to adapt and protect their precious crop.

After mineral fuels such as oil and petroleum, coffee is the largest export commodity for the Colombian state. The legendary bean accounts for 7% of all exports. Unsurprisingly, the United States is the biggest buyer (43%), with Japan, Germany, Belgium and Canada taking a further 31% of Colombia's coffee.

Yes, the $2.5 billion coffee industry is successful, but Colombia is still far from the dizzying heights of 1992, when 17,000,000 bags were exported in a record year. This significant drop allowed the Vietnamese market to overtake Colombia for the first time, but it will take something drastic for the Asian nation to regain the reputation for quality enjoyed by South Americans.