food / travel

A Colombian Quest For Coffee Perfection

A handful of producers are trying to boost the quality of coffee in Colombia, and improve rural lives in the process. They'd also like local consumers to be a bit more discerning.

Not your regular cup o' joe
Not your regular cup o' joe
Mari­a Alejandra Medina C.

BOGOTÁ — La Palma y el Tucán, a coffee estate located about two hours from Bogotá by car, is just one property in Colombia developing the "specialty" gourmet coffees that have become one of the country's most prized exports in recent years.

There are two key ideas behind this product: to assure growers a decent income, and to boost the quality and quantity of coffee that is produced — and consumed — in Colombia.

Coffee from La Palma y el Tucán sells for as much as $182 a pound, and many in the sector here view specialty coffee as the way of the future. It is produced following higher-than-normal standards, with greater attention paid not just to how the beans are picked and processed, but to the environment and the welfare of the growers themselves. The goal is to make what everyone — from roasters to baristas and their customers — agrees is a "perfect" cup of coffee.

The 13-hectare estate is also evidence of another emerging trend in Colombia: Young entrepreneurs starting farming businesses. La Palma y el Tucán was created by a couple in their 30s, Felipe Sardi and Elisa Madriñán, trained respectively in business administration and marketing. Sardi once worked for a coffee importer in the United States and decided to pursue the production end of the business upon his return to Colombia.

Just the right shade of burgundy

In addition to producing their own coffee beans, Sardi and Madriñán also buy freshly picked beans from approximately 60 different local producers, and then process it all at La Palma y el Tucán. "We realized coffee growers in Colombia did not have enough resources to invest in infrastructure and experiment with their coffee," says Madriñán.

One of the problems growers face most often is a dearth of manpower. Coffee pickers come and go, says Efraín Barrera, a grower who inherited his estate from his grandparents 50 years ago. He says coffee growers used to band together to gather farmhands in the Tolima department, west of Bogotá. That would net them between 10 and 20 pickers.

Today, La Palma y el Tucán recruits pickers for local growers and subsidizes their work. Pickers may be local or from another region. They receive assistance with lodgings, transport and food. The women paint their nails burgundy so they know which color beans to pick, because those that match their manicure are just ripe enough.

But the best part of this collaboration, says grower Rosalbina Bernal, are the prices La Palma y el Tucán pay. The operation pays a premium for quality yields, consistent supplies and organic coffee, and while it may only produce a couple of containers a year — with a record $182 dollars per kilo paid by the Greek firm Taf — the business is sustainable. Ecotourism travel packages provide the firm with additional revenues.

Bernal says she earns twice as much from La Palma y el Tucàn today as she did from other buyers in the past, and with less effort. She moves with difficulty among her coffee and orange trees. The average age of coffee growers here is 63, and many young people, like her sons, have moved to the capital, even when they own land.

Sardi and Madriñán believe the next generation must be enticed to come back, and higher prices for coffee could help. Innovation, they say, is key. With that in mind, they've started studying coffee microorganisms with the National University of Colombia. Their coffee ferments for up to 100 hours, when 18 hours is standard.

Creating a new customer base

Specialty coffee is profitable abroad. But producers are also setting their sights on the domestic market. Currently, growers can only count on small amounts of their produce being bought by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (Fedecafé), a national body representing their interests. The "union" buys a mere 23% of homegrown coffee today. The goal, then, is to increase coffee consumption in Colombia and boost demand for quality coffee by "educating" Colombians about its value and benefits.

La Palma y Tucàn also owns Libertario, a coffee shop in Bogotá"s financial district. "It was created in 2015 as a way of sharing a bit of the coffee we make with Colombians, so they can taste what we sell to the best coffee shops in the world," says Madriñán.

Libertario isn't the only specialty coffee outlet gaining ground in the capital, as evidenced by the popularity of places like Catación Pública, Amor Perfecto and Devoción. "Foreigners and our customers who come to Colombia have always connected the country with coffee. And yet, they don't sip the best coffee available when they're here. We found that very frustrating," says Madriñán.

While she says that for her type of business, Starbucks is "like the antichrist," Madriñán acknowledges the "great job" the U.S. company has done. "In countries like ours, where coffee consumption hasn't typically been sophisticated, Starbucks has paved the way to raise prices," she says. "People are ready to pay more for a coffee."

Fedecafé has done its part to boost consumption using the Juan Valdez brand, which is sold to numerous outlets in Colombia and abroad. According to figures from the Toma Café brand, the share of Colombians aged 18 to 24 who consume coffee rose from 69% to 78% since 2012. Over the same time period, the number of Colombians aged 45 to 49 who consume coffee jumped from 77% to 92%.

Specialty coffees have performed particularly well, tripling their domestic market share in the last four years. They now represent about 5% of the market.

The next stage of the specialty coffee revolution in Colombia aims to train the palates of more sophisticated coffee students, investigators, producers and servers. And after that?

Growers like Barrera and Bernal are hoping that one day, the price and demand for specialty coffees will be high enough to guarantee decent earnings even for people with just a hectare or two of land. It won't happen overnight, but maybe, just maybe, by the time their grandchildren grow up.

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How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation


James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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