What Colombia's Coffee Farmers Can Teach Us About Good Health

Farmer in process of drying and grinding coffee beans
Farmer in process of drying and grinding coffee beans

BOGOTÁ — A new in-depth study of the well-being of Colombian coffee farmers could help provide the prescription for good health for us all.

Understanding the fundamental elements of healthy living could lead to something of a "positive pandemic," according to researchers of a project that began in 2012 after medical experts gathered in Toronto to consider the question: what causes good health? Seeking answers to the seemingly simple query, the group began the Health of Humanity Project, which led to the "Health Pandemic" summit two years later, inviting thinkers in the sector to find ways of promoting health. One of the organizers was the Colombian physician Alejandro R. Jadad, head of Canada's Centre for Global e-Health Innovation.

Colombia's Health Minister Alejandro Gaviria, who had attended the 2014 summit, was keen for Colombia to be one of the first epicentres of this health pandemic. He wanted it to become a model showing that health could be understood differently, not exclusively from the perspective of illness and that people could take part in improving their own welfare. While 72.3% of people in the world believe they are healthy, says Jadad, "We can talk of a pandemic phenomenon, which means health can be created."

The country's coffee-sector workers, a population of some 540,000 people united in the National Federation of Coffee Growers, have acted as a living laboratory in this project, providing data on work activities and conditions that had a direct impact on their state of health.

Jadad, Gaviria and Federation representatives recently published the results of their investigations in a book, Desatando una pandemia de salud desde el sitio de trabajo. Hay que creer para ver ("Unleashing a Health Pandemic from the Workplace. Seeing is Believing"). It has contributions from 23 experts from four countries who believe work environments are fundamental for good health.

A clear link between health and material conditions

And yet firms are paying too little attention to the essential role they play in people's physical and mental well-being and social relations, or to their ability to improve these. Quite simply, you can be happier or healthier depending on where you work.

Coffee growers provided some clues. After interviewing 3,442-grain harvesters, 94% said they felt healthy. Only four people said they did not, and when asked what should be done to maintain or better their health, their answers tended not to be medical. The head of the Federation's health services José Humberto Devia, says requests he receives tend to be more for increased leisure time and better transportation services, higher wages or improved housing. He sees the clear link between health and material conditions.

Fresh coffee beans — Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

The Federation designed a strategy to make itself the country's healthiest organization. "We're in a country where health management is oriented around managing illness. But beyond that, an organization's role is to help workers deal with the psycho-social challenges life throws at them," said Devia.

While designing a health strategy based on the data collected so far is proving to be complex and requires time, the Pandemic book seeks more focus on the various physical, geographical, legal or environmental factors that can affect workers' sense of security.

The book highlights some specific connections. With depression, it indicates, "Work-related stress, especially when caused by inadequate workload management, has become the main source of incapacity in the world. Things seem worse at senior levels in organizations, with studies showing 96% of leaders feeling high levels of exhaustion, which a third of them qualify as extreme."

And concerns are mounting. The book cites "the collusion of technology, economy and politics' in the workplace that ultimately undermines good health. For now, at least, the men and women who harvest Colombia's coffee bean are apparently shielded from that.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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