The situation has been made even less tenable by a related threat to farmers from a group that is ostensibly supposed to protect them. The Colombian National Coffee Federation, or Fedecafé, is a cooperative that was founded in 1927 to represent the country’s coffee farmers nationally and internationally. But Fedecafé, which farmers are required to join and pay six cents on the dollar for each pound of coffee they export, rejects humanity’s scientifically proven role in climate change, instead explaining recent weather changes away as part of a “natural cycle.”According to Mauricio Galindo, Colombia director for the Rainforest Alliance, a conservationist non-profit, Fedecafé has made efforts to support some farmers to become more resilient but has failed to adequately prepare them for climate change. Many farmers would benefit from switching to crops that will be able to survive in the changing climate, such as avocado or bananas, but are probably not receiving that advice, Galindo told VICE News.
“In all my years of working on this land, the conditions have never been this terrible.”
Many coffee farmers struggle to earn a living wage, and slim profit margins are further eroded by the obligatory fee that growers pay to Fedecafé, equivalent to an income tax of 15.3 percent.
“It can’t undermine itself and be the ‘non-coffee coffee growers association.’ It’s very hard to tell its farmers—even if all the evidence points to the fact that in 20 years time their coffee farms will be useless—that they should stop growing coffee.”
Yet Fedecafé’s director, Alvaro Gaitán, has defended the group’s treatment of farmers and its decision to describe climate change as cyclical. “Colombia is living one of its best moments in terms of the agronomic conditions of its coffee growing areas,” he told VICE News. “At least for the coffee growing areas in our country, we have no clear evidence that a new, unseen pattern of weather is occurring right now.”At Patiño’s farm, the reality contradicts these claims. Clusters of ripe red coffee cherries are just meters away from plants that do not have any, and this uneven maturation of crops, according to the farmer, is an effect of unpredictable weather—a marked shift away from the once-distinct dry and rainy seasons. Climate cycles have upturned 100-year-old practices, with coffee trees acutely sensitive to small changes in the weather. “Our economic survival depends on knowing the yields we will have each year,” added Patiño. “But now it’s almost impossible.”Patiño has made efforts to adapt. A new towering canopy of nogal cafetero trees provides shade and protection for the coffee plantation in order to mitigate extreme weather, and alternative produce such as plantain, banana, and lime is now being grown as a safeguard if a harvest does fail.
“Instead of helping us, the state is squeezing us.”
Yet small-scale farmers, who make up the vast majority of Colombia’s coffee production, have very little margin for error. Of 500,000 farms, 95 percent are smaller than five hectares, and the average is less than two. Their small size means many are being forced out of business. In the 18 months leading up to May 2019, Colombia lost 40,000 hectares of coffee-planting area, according to Fedecafé, and since the 1990s, the total amount of land used for coffee has plummeted by 20 percent.“Due to fluctuating coffee prices and lack of institutional support, it’s a constant cycle of poverty,” said Dr. Jessica Eise, who interviewed 45 coffee farmers in Colombia as part of Ph.D. research for Purdue University into their experience of climate change. “It’s backbreaking labor and it’s very difficult for them to plan for the future because they have to focus on the day-to-day precarity. They definitely know what climate change is and they experience it as chaos and an existential threat.”
In the 18 months leading up to May 2019, Colombia lost 40,000 hectares of coffee-planting area.