El Andariego: Relatos Cafeteros, published in Colombia in 2018, is a book written by Carlos Ospina Marulanda about the life of coffee growers from ten departments of Colombia. The chapter found here depicts the journey of two women coffee growers and their families struggling to break through the gender-stereotyped and traditional Colombian coffee industry. This book is important for coffee farmers in Colombia, as it gives them the opportunity to tell their stories and gain more recognition in the industry. The coffee sector in Colombia is the main source of income for more than 550,000 families. We chose this chapter especially to recognize the efforts of women growers and their struggle for gender equality in the industry. We decided to provide an English translation for our readers to help highlight the importance of these female coffee growers and their stories. A new edition will be released by the end of the year by publisher amm. Hambre de Cultura.
Everything started in the 1920s or 30s; my memory has been blurry. Maybe it all began with a coincidence, a conspiracy, or something else … Well, no one can really tell.
A raging fire hit Pereira back then, wrecking houses, taking lives and causing huge economic loss. I have no clue how many blocks were burnt down, but people always say the disaster was staggering. Among the burning houses was a coffee trading company, which also peeled and processed coffee berries. After the fire was put out, the police, the fire brigade, the owners – I guess they were from the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia – gathered there, finding nothing but ashes.
Mr. Gómez decided to buy the house with no hesitation. The man who had just arrived in Pereira from Antioquia made an extremely cheap offer, but the house owner agreed to the deal without hesitation or further demands. No one could understand the point of buying a ruin.
The very next day, Mr. Gómez came back and cleaned the house with his brothers. They found the burnt coffee berries were actually intact. After removing the ashes of the burnt skins, the berries were still green, totally qualified for processing and sale. That’s how they got kilos of coffee without paying a penny, thus embarking on their journey to wealth and later emerging as one of the richest families in Pereira. I don’t know whether this was a coincidence or their conspiracy; after all, it was a business in the old days.
The increased coffee production in Colombia has granted the Federation a more important role for coffee farmers. With unique geographical advantages, Risaralda, Quindío and Caldas Departments have become the center of coffee plantations in the country. Here, the slopes of the mountains stretch northwards; the sunny and mild climate brings rain at the right time for each harvest. In the first half of the 20th century, the three Departments took over all the property from the ruined large coffee estates in Santander and Cundinamarca, including machinery, knowledge and migrant workers. Then, coffee moved here and the Federation embraced an enhanced position.
The Gómez family, pioneers and great merchants from Antioquia, made Pereira their new treasure trove. They owned businesses from grinding and roasting to procurement and export; their fortune grew together with the soaring coffee production. These merchants also helped to open a new chapter of coffee history in the city, by providing credit at low bank rates to local farmers who were not good at roasting and exporting.
But this gamble did not last long. The first plan of a private coffee plantation came to an abrupt end. To put it more precisely, it was snuffed out. The Federation was emerging, so was the Gómez family. They played the same role: lending, fertilizing, procurement, grinding, roasting, export and relending. There was no room for two tigers to live in peace, so a gun was aimed at the Gómez family to phase them out in Pereira. Who did it? The judiciary never made it clear. It was another unfinished, forgotten case, not too uncommon in Colombian history. Some of the Gómez family left the industry, and some left the country; they were not short of resources. Rumors were abound that the first Colombian coffee beans in Japan were brought by a brother of the Gómez, who fled Pereira to the Asian country and settled down there. Who knows? Nevertheless, one thing is for sure: the private business came to a dead end, making the Federation the only official representative of local coffee farmers.
My husband Gabriel’s father inherited a farm in the Altagracia farming area, not too far away from Pereira, where he also inherited a coffee buying station which was no longer in operation because of the fire accident. When he passed away, my husband, who continued the Gómez line, became the third generation of coffee farmers. His life was centered around coffee. Ever since he drank the first cups of coffee in his mother’s womb, it was clear that coffee would never be absent from his life.
It was not easy to make a living from coffee at the time, although it remains the same today. Coffee farmers were born for coffee. I have often said that coffee farming is one of the most dangerous occupations. Coffee production brought more debt than profit, and created more cost than output, but there was no way not to do it. Their passion for coffee is also a dangerous addiction which is beyond control. I came to know Gabriel because of coffee. In mud-stained trousers and half-buttoned shirts, he commuted between coffee and banana plantations, drove livestock, sowed seeds, and ran the farm inherited from his father in Altagracia … That’s where he grew up; it would also be the place of his final farewell. Later, Gabriel married me, an agricultural engineer from the city. I found myself loving coffee more than I loved him. I loved farming and had learned a bit about coffee, but there was still much to learn.
We didn’t have much, but enough to put food on the table. We have three sons who grew up with the coffee and the farm, until that damned day, July 4, 1989. The International Coffee Agreement collapsed, the economy opened up, coffee prices plummeted, the government did nothing to intervene, and we fell apart. It was a time of real famine. The Federation monopolized the right to buy all the coffee at very low prices, and also exclusively occupied the roasting and export rights. A dead end.
My eldest son had always maintained good relationships with coffee farmers and roasters, so before coffee prices slumped, he was aware of some illegal export routes to Ecuador and an “underground” roastery which was still operating in Pereira. Hunger left us with no choice but to risk exporting coffee to Ecuador.
Everything was under the control of the Federation, and the rock-bottom coffee prices were unsustainable. Hunger drove the coffee farmers to seek illegal channels to transport their products. The sons of Ángela and Gabriel managed to contact a buyer abroad, possibly from Canada or perhaps Japan … doesn’t matter. This customer was waiting to sample and buy the coffee.
However, Gabriel was too weak to take on the new task. When the three were discussing how to address this challenge, Ángela stood up and banged the table with her tired fist. She would take charge of everything, including roasting and sending out samples, she said. Her son stepped in, trying to convince her to give him full responsibility. He paced briskly around the dining room, explaining it was for the best since it was a man’s world. Silence ensued.
The next morning, she picked the coffee berries and drove to Pereira for roasting in her pick-up truck. She began the new role, a role that would stay with her for the rest of her life and test her special power as a woman.
She arrived at the roastery with only the samples and her unwavering will. The money was long gone. The staff received her with some hesitation. They told her that the roasting cost was too high, and they couldn’t do it for her unless she could offer ninety kilos of coffee beans. But Ángela only brought less than five kilos of the samples. She would come back in three days, she replied. The engine turned on, the truck made a U-turn, and she departed.
“Ninety kilos, that’s a lot of risk!” It was the first response she got from her son, who was used to questioning her decisions. But she didn’t want to negotiate this time; she didn’t even look at him. She had the only two remaining workers and their children joined her – the children were there as the workers lived in the farm with their families – to select the best ninety kilos of coffee beans. It took them three days and three nights. The next morning, two ninety-kilo bags of samples were loaded onto the truck, including a bag of the best beans selected from her latest harvest and a bag of the second best coffee, which was to be sent to Ecuador for subsistence purposes.
I arrived early at the roastery in the city center of Pereira. Two workers helped to unload the coffee beans, and I drove away to find a parking space, as there was no way to park in the factory nor the narrow roads of the city center. When I came back, I was freaked out – the bag of selective beans and the other bag with slight flaws were mixed together into the roasting machine. I didn’t know whether they just didn’t want to listen to me or I failed to express myself clearly. Sometimes, no matter how much we raise our voices, the female couldn’t sound as loud as the male. The three days of painstaking selection went in vain, along with the ninety kilos of coffee beans and the samples to be sent abroad. The workers excused themselves, saying they thought it was supposed to be mixed up, this and that … Anyway, they couldn’t get much payment from this, they claimed. It didn’t matter anyway. We lost our jobs and beans; there wouldn’t be a harvest for months, and we ran out of money to keep the farm going.
When the roasting was done, I took out the pre-prepared self-designed bags from the truck to pack the coffee and prepare to send them to my customers. I cried while packing up. I named them Café J after the farm Gabriel inherited. In that afternoon of 1992, I didn’t feel like going back to the farm. My son was right. In depression, I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. The long, narrow tunnel seemed to further narrow down as time went on.
I went to a friend’s coffee shop not far from the city center. The coffee shop was not open yet, but she sensed my predicament and welcomed me. I told her what just happened and she didn’t know how to comfort me, she simply asked me to give her some freshly roasted coffee. “We just give it a try. There’s nothing to lose.” With no confidence, I still took one bag off the truck. She had an old coffee machine, the Victoria Arduino, an espresso machine that made the best coffee in the city. While we were grinding the coffee, Pierre Joseph, a Frenchman who owned the largest and most famous cafe Le Garçon in Pereira, came in. I met him a few times, but we had never talked before. My friend Victoria invited him to taste the great coffee from Altagracia made with freshly-roasted beans. I glared at her and even wanted to kill her, preparing to be humiliated – we couldn’t even sell this coffee to customers in Pereira. But Victoria ignored me. She prepared two cups of espresso and handed him one.
Surprisingly, he ended up asking for one more cup. He congratulated me and asked me to tell him more stories about the farm and the coffee. He asked me whether I could supply him with coffee every week and he wanted to buy the whole lot. I agreed. When he asked about price, nerves made me offer a price four times higher than what I thought the beans should be worth. He seemed unfazed and didn’t bargain. We signed a contract right there on a napkin – I became a partner of Le Garçon.
With the first sales with Le Garçon, Ángela raised the money to roast a new sample of beans; completely selected beans for this time. The beans were sent abroad. In Canada, she won the Cup of Excellence. It was not in her plan to go from smuggling coffee to winning an award in Canada for the quality. She never thought she would be so lucky, if that could be called luck. The Chairman of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the client who received the samples visited the farm a week after she got the award. An agreement was reached and the partnership began with two containers of coffee beans. Ángela and Gabriel agreed without hesitation, but the challenge became even greater.
Two containers of coffee beans meant a lot. They didn’t have enough coffee and had to work with farmers in the village on a private basis. Gabriel took on the job. Moreover, shipping two big containers to Canada or Japan could no longer be done illegally through Ecuador. They had to face up the Federation squarely for an export permit. Only a few in the country had these documents. But there was no need for them to hide with legal foreign contracts in hand. The eldest son took on the daunting task, while Ángela took the lead on everything. She became the head of the third-generation farm.
Coffee farmers in Altagracia were happy to cooperate. Gradually, they formed a cooperative and together harvested the best coffee from their farms to fill the two containers, each with a capacity of 20 metric tonnes and both known as Café J. Even the Federation lent a hand by providing agricultural training, so that they could harvest coffee beans with higher quality.
It didn’t go so well for Ángela’s son. Instead, it was more of a torture. Though he had sorted out all the paperwork, he was ignored by the Federation every time he called to check the progress. At first, he was told the documents would be reviewed, but later no one answered the phone. He decided to go to Bogotá and solve the problem in person. Initially, he was rejected with excuses like the person responsible for reviewing export documents was out of town or in a meeting. Whether for him in Bogotá, his family in Altagracia, or the buyers in Canada or Japan, patience was slowly running out. Finally, one day, he couldn’t stand it anymore and decided to sneak into the building to find the official who refused to see him. He unlocked the combination lock, crossed the corridors, avoided the security guards and eventually arrived at the right office. He walked in without knocking.
“Hello, you seem to have been avoiding me,” he said, “I am from Altagracia. You know very well why I am here and I will not leave without an explanation.” “Okay,” the officer replied, barely looking up as he was reviewing the documents, “you should know that we need one more document.” “What do you need?” He asked in rage, “We have sent you all the documents over thirty times.” “We need a letter from your buyer. It should outline who the buyer is, how much coffee they are buying and where they are shipping the coffee to.” “You think I’d be stupid to just give you the whole information about my client?” Anger flared up in him, “You want me to give up my client to you. You want to be the player and the referee. Don’t make a fool of me and be serious.”
“Well then,” said the officer eventually, picking up a piece of paper on the right side of the table, “Let me tell you something. You are the only one who came here and I don’t want you to make this trip for nothing. Do you see the list of over a hundred items? They are all the coffee exporters guaranteed by the Federation. Out of the 100-odd, guess how many of them can actually be permitted to export coffee? Eight, yes, only eight. Now, you see why you and your farmers in Altagracia failed to meet the requirements?”
There was a huge gap between the two sides. My son returned to the farm, disillusioned. Many strange people joined the cooperative; they were not from the village. Soon there was a new coffee brand called Café J Excelso, which did have all the Federation’s stamped documents and licenses. They bought coffee from the farmers at the same low price as the Federation, regardless of the cost of selecting good beans or the time and effort the farmers put into growing good coffee. The tunnel narrowed once again to what it was at the beginning. We lost the clients, even though they might have received coffee in Canada or Japan. Who knows, nothing mattered.
Clouds shrouded the sky, the rain was about to fall, a storm was looming … We looked at each other without a word and ran up the hillside. The workers were already there waiting for us. They cut the agave leaves knives and removed the spikes; we put the leaves on our feet like sleds or skis. The rain poured down and the storm created huge rivulets rushing down the hillside around the coffee trees. The coffee plantation became a giant chute and we slid down the stream, constantly bumping into the coffee trees along the way. We knew we would be chastised when we got home, but we still had a great time. This was my childhood and my first encounter with coffee; it was more of an omen.
I grew up on the family farm with all my cousins. I can’t remember how many there were in the family. We used to have another farm that belonged to my parents. There were rabbits, guinea pigs, coffee, herbs, fruit, cassava and bananas, and a little hut where we never slept in because it was too crowded. That farm was as big as half a block big, and maybe that’s why it was called Mediomundo (meaning half of the world). For me, it was the whole universe.
One day, my father told us he was seriously ill. I can’t remember how old I was, but emptiness still wells up in my chest when I think of the feeling of powerlessness. He was the most important person in my life, carrying the pressure of raising seven children.
In Pereira, my father was declared hopeless by the doctors; the family sent him to Bogotá, where an expert in the team was a friend of his. We didn’t dare to sleep during those months, because we were not sure if something would happen to our father when we woke up. My father’s company helped a lot, but the money was not enough, so we had to sell Mediomundo. Eventually, after several months of closed treatment, my father recovered. He was under thirty years old and lived to the age of 92, when he passed away in peace.
My siblings and I often lament how difficult it must have been for our parents to raise seven children. But when we were children, we never realized this. They had nothing, yet they gave us a happy childhood and let us have everything. My father was the richest man in the world, even though he didn’t have much wealth.
However, Mediomundo no longer existed. We spent less days on the farm, and could only look forward to the holidays to meet up with cousins there. We all grew up, having our own friends, our classmates and neighbors. We left the farm and the coffee and moved to the city. Dear Coffee, we will see you again.
Lucía had not had contact with coffee for years. Living in Pereira, she was immersed in the world of design and dressmaking, and won recognition for her work. She got married, had three children and led a quiet life. But she felt something was missing.
They had lost the farm for family reunion. Dozens of family members barely contacted each other, and the scenes of gathering together to bake and tell stories seemed to have disappeared forever. Everyone once knew they were a family, but their expansion in Pereira has somewhat swallowed up the family memories. The big city belonged to everyone and also no one; the city was a prisoner of solitude. The fate of the farm was the same. Given the rising land cost, the corrupt, the fraudulent or the rich built leisure villas on their estates. The peasant tradition of cultivating the land disappeared into oblivion.
One day, Lucía went to visit her father and talked to him about the emptiness she had felt when he was ill. They talked about the happy years in Mediomundo and the coffee they had at home every morning. They recalled the dreams of their siblings that had come true there. For Lucía, her father was a romanticist with nothing and always a smile on his face. With tears in her eyes, she said goodbye to her father and closed the door. She made her decision before walking across the street to her car.
I didn’t hesitate to quit my job. It wasn’t that I was sick of the textile industry; in fact, I was doing well and even teaching at a university. I needed more, and that was the only thing I was sure of. My husband was supportive and did his best. Then I spent some of my savings to buy a farm. I wanted my farm, my Mediomundo, though it sounds quite pretentious.
I knew my older brother and second brother had the same idea. They miss that world and both of them are big coffee lovers. How could you not grow coffee in such a beautiful coffee region?
We made a verbal agreement to work together without formalities, as it was not necessary for true siblings. We started looking for land. When the decision was made, one of my sisters also felt interested. The four of us began to form a capital.
Every tide has its ebb. When we had the start-up capital and looked for a loan to buy a farm, we came across our elder brother’s sudden bankruptcy with financial difficulties. He owned a small piece of land with pasture but no livestock. We couldn’t abandon him in this situation. I suggested using the money we had to buy some cattle and raise them on his land. Everyone agreed. I remember that we bought a heifer, three cows and two calves. We put them on the farm and trusted in God.
Then the pregnant cow gave birth to a calf and we had milk. When the calf grew, we sold it to buy in more heifers, eventually having seventeen in total. It was actually enough to operate this farm in a self-sufficient way just by selling the milk.
Then my eldest brother got a job in Medellín, a rare opportunity. He needed a sum of money to start a new life and had to sell the land. We decided to lease a piece of land in Salento, even though we thought it would be of no use at all and very expensive to do so. After a few months, we figured out that it would be better to take out a loan and buy the land. We obtained a loan in my husband’s name and brought the cows there. Sadly, they didn’t adapt to the environment, got bitten by lice, became emaciated and stopped producing milk. We had to sell them for half the price. But it was our farm; we finally had our own farm.
They were left with no livestock but only a piece of the unconstructed farm. The first task was to renovate the house, which was not really a house. This wooden ramshackle hut was originally used for someone to look after the farm – the butler, as how they called it. We decided to use the money from selling cows to repair the place. But an earthquake struck the farm during the repair. On January 25, 1999, an earthquake hit Colombia’s coffee region. In 28 seconds, the 6.2 magnitude earthquake killed thousands, injured 200,000, forced more than 800 coffee plantations to stop operating and reduced 28 municipalities to rubble.
People lost friends, family, money and jobs. The repair in the hut was also destroyed. After the earthquake, we decided to take down some of the broken beams, but unfortunately the move made the hut collapse, because the structure did not have enough load bearing capacity. It was the most difficult time; the city was in crisis. Lucía felt lost and didn’t know the way to go, with no livestock, no hut and no money. She even considered giving up everything.
The government set up the Fund for the Reconstruction and Social Development of the Coffee-Growing Region (FOREC), investing 1.6 trillion Colombian pesos. These funds, which come from the Colombian government and other countries, were earmarked for rebuilding the destroyed cultural heritage. The government also invested in the affected coffee farms and estates to recover the industry; the money was managed by the Coffee Growers Committee.
Lucía didn’t expect anything from the fund. She hadn’t grown coffee yet. A few weeks after the earthquake, she got a call from the Coffee Growers Committee. “Ms. Lucía,” they said, “we must rebuild your farm immediately, and please come to the office to discuss the subsidy.” She couldn’t believe it, but she didn’t have time to think. The previous owners of this land had grown coffee, so the farm was still on the roster. They had visited here, but she had happened to be away and the butler had told the Committee that the earthquake had destroyed everything. In a way he wasn’t wrong. Soon the subsidies were put in place and the siblings each burdened part of the cost. They were lucky and eventually started the rebuilding.
My son, who studied architecture in Bogotá, was in charge of the design of the house for the reconstruction. Since he didn’t live here, my father and I were doing the construction. My son always said, jokingly and seriously, that I had ruined his design. A few months later, the house was completed. My brother suggested growing coffee on the estate. It was the only thing we still needed to try, a memory from our childhood and a reason to rebuild. Today, the coffee business still doesn’t make ends meet, but it has become a hobby, a passion and a profession for us. When we save some money, I want to expand the planting scale.
When the house was completed, we had a grand opening and invited our cousins to get together and talk about our lives as we had done in our childhood. They brought their partners, children and grandchildren, adding up to almost a hundred people. We prepared a pot of chicken soup and asked my father to give the new farm the name Mediomundo. Without speaking, he took a napkin, drew a world, tore it in half, and said with a choked voice, “You will be called Mediomundo.” He then handed me half of the napkin and put the other half in his shirt pocket. My dad was such a romanticist. I still keep the half piece of the napkin. If I had twenty farms, they would all be called Mediomundo.
Lucía and Ángela met at school. Living in different places, they had no contact for many years until coffee brought them together again. Ascafé, an association of women coffee growers of Pereira, became the bridge between them.
Ascafé was founded 17 years ago by two women who had to take over a coffee farm overnight because they had to make a living from it. It was a necessity and also a shock in the patriarchal rural world that did not approve of women managing, ordering and running farms, whether they knew what they were talking about or not. In order to manage the workers, women had to unite and get trained. This was the origin of the union: in Betulia and Altagracia, 11 women faced up to the reality of trying to promote women’s rights.
They took their seats on the city council, started managing their own farms with gained respect, making a foothold in the countryside and the coffee culture of Pereira.
Lucía has been there for five years and has been working on the coffee farming front. Ángela has been there from the start. They are not only confronting the patriarchy rooted on the slopes, but also pushing for a better life quality for all, including the farmers, the families and the coffee itself. It is a constant battle.
Today, 33 women are producing “gendered” coffee and selling their raw beans to the world. The world is celebrating these powerful women, who own their own farms and produce their own coffee. But now, they have faced more than patriarchy – some of them still don’t get the coffee growing certificates from the Federation, even though they have been growing coffee for decades. They have to deal with the complications of producing coffee at a frequent loss in the country, where coffee farmers can get tiny attention when newspaper headlines are not about football.
Ascafé wants to build its own brand, roast its own coffee beans and export more. They are women over 40 who have stepped out of the established framework. They define themselves to be more than just mothers and housewives, but also a coffee farmer. Lucía and Ángela are still fighting; in fact, this is just the start.
Carlos Ospina Marulanda, he is a professional in Government and International Relations with a master’s degree in Demography and Development and in Literary Creation. He is also author of the book of chronicles El Andariego: Coffee Stories and co-founder and director of the independent publishing house Zaíno de Bogotá.