On a bright sunny day, Ricardo Quintana’s coffee farm in Miraflores, in northern Colombia, is a peaceful and beautiful place. Its steep slopes are blanketed in a forest of green; neatly spaced, waist-high young coffee trees create a dense lower canopy, their glossy leaves gleaming in the midday sun. Above them tower shade canopy trees, a second layer of green which helps to create the effect of a lushly covered hillside.
Ricardo proudly shows off his farm, a highlight of which is a gravity-fed piping system through which he can deliver freshly picked coffee cherries down to the processing mill beside his house at the bottom of his farm. He has calculated that this is a faster and cheaper way for him to transport cherries to his mill; the cost of his previous option – maintaining a team of mules, which carried baskets of cherries down the hill – has been recovered in less than three years. The pipes are 800m in length and run down the length of his farm.
Ricardo was able to buy and install his piping system with the help of his co-operative, ANEI. ‘I like ANEI because they offer me training, and they help me manage my harvest’, Ricardo explains. ‘I also receive interest-free pre-payments ahead of the harvest with which I can improve my processing equipment’.
While it is not uncommon for producers such as Ricardo to receive loan financing from co-operatives in this manner, it represents an almost unimaginable change in fortunes for Ricardo. When he purchased his farm, he made a discovery which helps to highlight how dangerous it has been to live and farm in Colombia in the recent past. The previous (paramilitary) owner of his property had killed his farm workers to avoid having to pay them; on finding them, Ricardo had to dig up and carry out their corpses.
Ricardo also found there was a major local threat to his family’s finances; both guerrilla and paramilitary groups were roaming his region, demanding extortion payments from farmers in return for their safety. To satisfy one of these guerrilla groups and thereby protect his family, Ricardo agreed to make a protection payment of 500,000 pesos – a large sum of money. In 2010, his community became fed up with the extortions and the killings being carried out by these various groups and collectively decided to stand up to them; in doing so they managed to stop the problems they were experiencing.
‘After all that we’ve been through, all we were looking for was trust’, explains Ricardo. In the peace that ensued, he connected with ANEI, a local coffee co-operative which had been established by a group of indigenous Arhuaco farmers. As ANEI was seeking to promote better co-operation and understanding between the indigenous and non-indigenous people in their region, they were actively wanting to include campesinos (farmers of mixed Spanish and indigenous descent) within the group’s membership, and Ricardo proved to be a good fit. The trust he was shown – in the form of the interest-free loans he received, has (along with the loans) now been repaid. He has been routinely turning in good quality organic coffee to ANEI in recent years, receiving prices which are up to 25% higher than he would receive through the standard local market, and profit from the export of his coffee to fair trade customers like Trade Aid is now helping to support other members of ANEI.
As his fellow ANEI member and campesino farmer Jorge Pianeta explains, ‘We have a number of different peoples within our membership; Koguis, Wiwas, Arhuaco, Kankuamos and campesinos, who all have different outlooks and are at different stages of development. But we all share a vision of working together to create a better future’.