Origin Stories

Coca to Coffee: Colombia’s Conversion Farming Initiative

It may take a lifetime for Colombia to completely distance itself from the world of cartels and cocaine, but if the country is known for anything else, it is their coffee.


The Cauca River and its close proximity to Pacific ports made the region ideal for coca trafficking. Credit: Santiago Restrepo Calle

A Complicated Legacy

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos’ Nobel prize winning peace agreement with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has had a direct effect on the country’s rural farmers. Many have made a living growing coca plants and selling the processed leaves, or pastabase, to traffickers.

Coca is indigenous to the region and has legal uses, but the crop these farmers are selling becomes cocaine. While farmers are often aware of this, they try not to think about it. this isn’t something that’s making them rich, they are just trying to survive.

For years the FARC guerrillas have acted as middlemen between the farmers and cartels. Their oversight kept the market for pastabase stable and farmers relatively protected from violence and intimidation.

Although the average farmer only earned around $176 USD a month, it was a reliable source of income and significantly more than they would have earned producing legal crops.

With the peace accord almost finalized, Colombia is hoping to move into a new era of economic and political stability, but this will not be an easy transition. The decades-long legacy of conflict, corruption, and an economy dependent on narcotrafficking cannot be erased overnight, but one program is pulling up the problem from the root, literally.

President Santos meets with conversion farmers. Credit: Twitter

A New Beginning

The Colombian government is investing significant financial resources into conversion programs, paying coca farmers to replace their plants.

Under PNIS (National Program for Replacing Crops for Illicit Use) complying farmers sign a contract with the government that entitles them to 36 million pesos (around $12,000 USD) spread out over two years.

After receiving their first payment, participants have sixty days to rid their land of all coca bushes. Section of the peace accord firmly states, “Coexistence between being a beneficiary of a substitution program and being linked to economies related to crops used for illicit purposes is not acceptable” and the government is unwilling to compromise.

If farmers fail to meet the sixty-day deadline they forfeit all future payments and development assistance, and the total removal is no easy task. A single mature bush can take hours to uproot, and as many as 10,000 can grow in the space of one hectare.

PNIS has not been able to fully provide the technical and educational support needed to ensure conversion is sustainable and done within the timeframe they demand; they simply don’t have the resources to meet the need.

Initiatives funded by the United Nations and US government, international and domestic nonprofits, and even private companies have stepped in to assist with the task.   

Removing mature coca bushes. Credit: Brendon Maxwell

Is Specialty Coffee the Answer?

It may take a lifetime for Colombia to completely distance itself from the world of cartels and cocaine, but if the country is known for anything else, it is their coffee. With ideal growing conditions and an illustrious global reputation exchanging coca for coffee seems like an obvious choice, but starting a coffee farm from the ground up comes with its own challenges.

A newly planted coffee tree will take at least three years before it produces a cash crop, which is a long time to be left financially vulnerable. Not surprisingly most coca farmers don’t feel like patience is something they can afford. Some have sought more immediately profitable ventures such as dairy farming and egg production.

Last year Brendon Maxwell, founder of Utopian Coffee, began to work directly with farmers who chose coffee conversion in the Cauca region on the Colombian West coast. “The only way to make a good living [from coffee] is to do it in a quality way,” Brendon tells me over the phone.

According to the Specialty Coffee Association, 80% of the world’s coffee is produced by small family farms. By investing the time and resources into specialty coffee these families are able to maximize their earning potential.   

Low grade coffee prices consistently hover around $1.25 a pound on the futures exchange, but Brendon hopes to help the new farmers cultivate beans that meet the standards of the specialty market.

Specialty grade coffee can earn a producer over double the commodity price per pound, which Brendon sees as an investment worth making. “We are really only focused on working on a micro level, helping the farmers with the conversion process from start to finish. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. The farmers make a good profit and specialty roasters and consumers have a dependable supply of coffee.”

In contrast to their former crops, these smallholding farmers are able to capture more value selling green coffee beans, and feel a lot more comfortable with the transactions.

One farmer immediately stuck out in Brendon’s mind when I asked about this. “We work with one farmer, Pablo, who says he doesn’t worry as much about the safety of his loved ones now that he grows coffee.” Pablo also recently purchased a house in the city, something most people in his rural village aren’t able to afford.

Brendon knows the story of these conversion farmers is inspiring to people back home in the United States, but wants to make sure it goes beyond that: “People will buy [coffee] for the story once. If the quality and taste isn’t good they will go back to what they like.”

Pablo and Brendon in Cauca, Colombia. Credit: Brendon Maxwell

Looking Ahead

There is still a lot of work to be done, but the farmers in Cauca are optimistic. “The sense of community is incredible,” Brendon says. “Everyone is willing to help each other and share their knowledge and it’s inspiring to be a part of that.”

Farmers selling specialty coffee are not only making a good living, but are also able to invest in local infrastructure, creating better, safer, more prosperous communities.

Brendon and his team feel fortunate to be in a position to provide market opportunities and technical assistance, but want to keep their involvement to a minimum. “We really take a back seat because autonomy is the ultimate goal for these communities.”

You can purchase coffee sourced from these farms on the Utopian Coffee website.


Edited by N. Von Ebers


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