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333. Saving Colombia’s endangered coffee

Over the past two weeks, I have been writing about the response of Colombia’s coffee authorities to the current coffee leaf rust epidemic – a massive effort to replace the country’s traditional coffee varieties with the disease-resistant Castillo cultivar.  Today we profile a decidedly more modest effort – our support for farmers who are determined to swim against the tide and keep Colombia’s traditional coffee varieties alive.

The Castillo cultivar was released by Colombia’s coffee research institute in 2005.  At Sustainable Harvest’s Let’s Talk Coffee event in Colombia in October, a colleague heard a representative of the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros say that more than 60 percent of Colombia’s coffeelands are already planted with the Castillo cultivar.  At this rate – and given both the advance of coffee leaf rust and the fact that public financing is only available for farmers planting Castillo – the total eradication of other varieties would seem to be only a matter of time.

But the results of a survey CRS conducted in Nariño show that not everyone is ready to give up on Colombia’s traditional coffee varieties.

I recently visited with farmers in a part of Nariño that has been hard-hit by coffee leaf rust.  As I walked with one farmer to visit a seedbed financed by our Borderlands project, he told me his family has struggled with rust, and is currently replacing a lot of its older coffee plants – half with Castillo and half with the Caturra that was destroyed by rust.

When I asked him why he would replace an old Caturra plant that has been devastated by coffee leaf rust with a new one, he said that Caturra generates big harvests when rust is effectively managed.  As if to illustrate his point, we happened at that moment in our walk upon a field of coffee regenerated a few years ago through pruning.  The plants were healthy and the branches were heavy with red and yellow coffee cherry – all Caturra.

Others refer to Caturra as a “grateful” variety – with proper care and feeding, it produces large volumes of high-quality coffee.

Many cite tradition as a key motivation in opting to keep at least a part of their farm in varieties other than Castillo.

Whatever the reason, there are still plenty of farmers in Colombia who prefer not to plant their entire farms with Castillo.

The Castillo credit for other cultivars.

In Nariño, CRS is working with a local bank on an initiative to extend Colombia’s extraordinary coffee renovation loan for the Castillo cultivar to to participants in our Borderlands project who want to plant varieties other than Castillo.  Where the Colombian government provides a 40 percent subsidy for Castillo, CRS will provide a 40 percent subsidy for all other varieties until the funds we have earmarked for farm renovation run out.

Moral hazard.                                                                                                  

Moral hazard is an economic term that refers to a situation in which one party takes risks because the potential costs of those risks would be borne by others.  We are acutely aware that it abounds in all international development projects, and perhaps particularly in this aspect of this project.

Salaried workers for development agencies all around the world promote specific strategies to help poor people overcome obstacles to the full development of their families and their communities.  We are not reckless in this work – we work in partnership with local organizations and design and implement our approaches together.  But at the end of the day, we don’t bear the risk of the failure of our projects in the same way participants do.

In this case, the moral hazard seems particularly acute: we are making credit available for poor farmers to plant varieties of coffee that are susceptible to the coffee leaf rust epidemic – varieties that could fail, leaving farmers with debts to repay and no coffee income to pay with.

But CRS is not imposing a choice of cultivars on farmers.  On the contrary, we are trying to expand the choice available to poor farmers by helping them access the credit they need to plant what they want to plant in the first place.

My favorite line in all of Romeo and Juliet is not delivered by either of the love-struck leads, but a bit player who makes a late but decisive appearance: the apothecary who sells Romeo the poison that would seal the couple’s fate.  He accepts payment grudgingly and not before before issuing this memorable exculpation: “My poverty and not my will consents.”

We don’t believe that farmers should be obligated by their poverty to plant one variety over another.  We think that decision should be based on other considerations.  Farmers who participated in our baseline survey gave a range of reasons for preferring one variety over another – tradition, productivity, quality, resistance to disease, referrals from trusted sources, etc.  These are all valid reasons.  Being obligated by need is not.

Market opportunity.

The Castillo cultivar — and the financial incentives that Colombia’s coffee authorities have created for coffee farmers to plant it — may represent the best overall approach for the country’s coffee sector.  The one that generates the greatest benefit for the most farmers.  But Castillo may not be the right answer for every one of the country’s 560,000 coffee-farming families.  Or the only cultivar those families should plant.

We see a real market opportunity in traditional coffee varieties in Colombia. There are quality-focused roasters in the marketplace demanding traditional cultivars, and smallholder farmers at origin willing to accept the production risk associated with growing them, even in the context of a coffee leaf rust epidemic.  What is missing is an enabling environment in which flexible credit products help connect the willing buyer with the able farmer.

We hope our modest renovation fund can fill this gap, help farmers seize opportunities in the marketplace, and contribute to a better understanding of the returns to smallholder families of investments in coffee quality.

– – – – –

This post is the sixth in a seven-part series titled “Colombia’s other eradication campaign.”

<< Previous: Credit for coffee in Colombia.

Next: Colombia’s cultivar question – What can it teach us? >>



  • Carla Veldhuyzen says:

    Dear Michael,
    I only just rediscovered your blog and came across this very interesting series of posts. Thanks for giving thought to the FNC renovation strategy!
    I would like to note that the castillo variety is not the only precondition set by FNC for accessing the financial incentive. Farmers are also obliged to take down the trees that provide shadow and plant high densities of coffee trees, requiring large amounts of fertilizers. This makes it almost impossible for organic farmers to maintain their organic practices and has decreased organic coffee production tremendously in Colombia over the last few years.
    I very much welcome the CRS initiative that allows producers to choose for themselves what kind of coffee they want to grow and how to do it.
    Best wishes,

  • Karl says:

    Michael, amazing article series, by far the most inclusive and no-nonsense explanation of the subject.

    Carla, excellent point as well and maybe even more worrisome than the cultivar debate. I agree with you and have see this in practice.

    I also wanted to propose another topic related to FNC policy… desmuciliginador (I know, impossible word to say even for many Colombians), that´s the mechanical “spin-cycle” that scrubs the mucilago from the grain in lieu of fermentation. It uses less water and the FNC says it doesn´t affect cup quality, but in my opinion and that of my specialty coffee colleagues that is not the case.

    Do you have any thoughts on this, Michael?

    Best regards,

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      A pleasure to hear from you. Thanks for the kind words.

      I started asking the same question about five years ago when we were installing nearly a dozen “micromills” in El Salvador, all of them with the desmuciliginadora technology. (Been working hard on that pronunciation and confess to taking more than a little pride each time it rolls off my tongue.) I was shocked at how little was in the public domain on this issue, especially given how much market share this technology has captured in recent years. Peter Giuliano finally shared with me research that had been done in Rwanda with Tim Schilling in connection with the PEARL project there in which the same coffees were processed side-by-side in two different ways: with the demucilager and without, through a traditional wet-milling process. I would post my copy of the report here, but it is trapped inside a hard drive that just died. If/when I extract it I will post! Meantime, I will share the summary judgment: no dramatic difference in cup quality.

      I have heard folks in the industry say that this technology has improved cup quality, but that has tended to be in places where milling conditions had previously been pretty awful; the improvements may have been as attributable to standardization of process and clean processing than the demucilager itself. I have also heard what I suspect you have, that the demucilager is not good for quality, mostly because it rarely succeeds in removing as much of the mucilage as wet processing does when it is well done.

      Where do we come down? Well, we love the technology’s water efficiency and we have used it in the past. But in Colombia, where we are building two washing stations in Nariño, we are outfitting them for wet processing, mostly at the behest of our friends in the marketplace who have accompanied and advised us throughout the process.


  • Karl says:

    Hi Michael,
    I really appreciate you taking the time to reply in such detail. And very interesting the results you found! Personally I am partial to pushing the limit on fermentation and flirting with the “winey” end of the spectrum in some cases, which may influence my view of the machines. I hope to try some tests myself this harvest! Also, to look at natural and honey options as water-saving options.

    Looking forward to more insightful articles that keep us focused on what is best for growing communities.

    Best regards,

    • Michael Sheridan says:


      Personally I like that kind of flirtation in terms of the flavors it can produce. And I know that is a popular line of experimentation right now. In our work, when we have worked with growers on processing experiments like honey coffees, we have always been careful to mobilize funding to guarantee purchase of the coffees at a price that meets or exceeds market prices—a measure that has not only secured eager participation but also (and more importantly) protected growers from risk.

      What I have seen lately is something I would characterize as a kind of backlash against processing experiments. Or perhaps less a backlash than a pendulum swing toward a focus on fundamentals and physical quality as remarkably reliable proxies for cup quality. From the project management side of things, there is something deeply appealing to me about that approach since it is a “no-regrets” approach that involves less risk than some of the edgier experimentation—everyone can get behind efforts to maximize physical quality.


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