Climate Change, Killer Bugs, Asian Upstarts: Colombia Losing Edge In Coffee Market

A coffee farmer inspects his crop in Colombia's southwestern Cauca department
A coffee farmer inspects his crop in Colombia's southwestern Cauca department
Tamara Muñoz

BOGOTA - According to legend, Colombia is blessed with coffee thanks to sinners.

The legend comes from Francisco Romero, the priest of Salazar de las Palmas in the Santander province, who had a strange penance for residents who confessed their sins: to sow coffee seeds. The priest wasn’t naive – it was yet another push for the cultivation of coffee, which later expanded throughout Colombia and became the pillar of the national economy.

Until the 1980s, Colombia boasted of being the second largest coffee producer in the world, and the country’s ‘brand’ seemed inseparable from the popularity of coffee. "That’s how Colombia managed to position itself as the "coffee country" of the region. Even now, that’s how Colombia is known abroad," explained Carlos Rojas Gaitan, the executive president of the Colombian Association of Coffee Exporters.

Rooted in the Colombian peasant culture, the extensive plantations in the Andean hills contributed to growth in the GDP, a positive trade balance, jobs and monetary stability. But at the end of the 1980s things started to change for the worse.

Between 1989 and 2011, the country lost seven percentage points of its market share in the world coffee market, while Brazilian coffee producers increased exports and new actors, like Vietnam and Indonesia entered the market and knocked Colombia off its coffee throne.

"Right now, we are fourth in the world in terms of production of coffee," says Andres Guerrero, a professor at the University of the Andes in Colombia. "There is a change in the market and in the coffee context. Colombia should pay attention to that."

Increased competition internationally is not the only reason that Colombian coffee producers have been suffering. Domestic headaches have also been multiplying. Price instability has affected the harvests of small farmers, and with it, their means of survival. Government assistance has proven insufficient, and a depression has spread throughout the community of coffee farmers.

At the beginning of October 2012, around 50,000 coffee farmers in Colombia joined protest marches to protest the coffee industry’s problems and the government’s indifference.

According to them, this is the worst time for coffee production in Colombia in the past 36 years. "We had a first crisis 10 years ago, and now we are starting to have another one that is really bad," says Juan Pablo Echeverry, the manager of a coffee plantation in the city of Manizales, to the south of Bogota.

The harvest in 2011 was the smallest in 30 years. Only 7.8 million 60-kilo sacks where harvested, mostly due to heavy rains in the main coffee-producing regions. Price volatility made the situation even worse. Coffee prices started going up in 2004 and reached a peak in 2011, when they reached the prices of the 1970s. Since then prices have been dropping.

Plagues and climate change

In light of this, the Colombian Federation of Coffee Producers has launched a price protection program, an insurance that aims to protect incomes and reduce risks. "Colombia has 560,000 coffee producers. We came up with this idea to protect these farmers and create a financial mechanism that allows them to protect themselves," explains Luis Fernando Samper, the head of communications and marketing for the Federation of Coffee Producers.

Will this be enough to weather the crisis? In addition to the price volatility and the macroeconomic circumstances, there are problems related to climate change, which have caused increased plagues and epidemics. "The red spider and insect larva represent majors problems for us. Now we have to harvest all year, and fumigate. That means increased costs," explains Juan Pablo Echeverry.

The Center for Coffee Research is working on a project to map the coffee genome and give the plant more defenses against its natural enemies. In addition, they are working on ways that coffee producers can prepare for the changes associated with climate change.

However, the coffee harvests between January and September 2012 in Colombia were 3% less than the same period in 2011. A report by the International Coffee Organization said that, although Colombian coffee production is improving, "getting back to the production levels of the beginning of the millennium will take time."

The coffee industry knows that, and is preparing for a couple of difficult years. Some say that the most important thing is to promote institutional reform that will strengthen the industry. "The future of coffee production depends on what happens now in the coffee guilds; the strategies that they design not only to survive the crisis, but also to maintain a strong union," says Alfonso Gomez, an economics professor at the EAFIT university in Colombia.

Colombia is not going to stop being a coffee country. But returning to the good times will depend on public policies and what the producers’ associations do to confront the situation. Because going back to tricks of faith, like Father Romero did in the middle of the 19th century, does not seem like a very good idea.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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