Specialty coffee is providing a way out and paving the way for a better future for the residents of Samaniego, Nariño, Colombia. Samaniego is a town with a complicated—and often violent— past. Seated near the southwestern border between Colombia and Ecuador, in Colombia’s Nariño Department, it is a stop along a highly contested route historically used to move illicit goods between the Colombian coast and nearby borders with Ecuador and Peru. It’s also historically been a victim of Colombia’s long-running armed conflict.
The civilians of the community were caught in the crossfire of this violence for a long time. But the Federación de Cafés Especiales ABADES, or Abades, has succeeded in preserving coffee, and livelihoods, for generations to come. With one of the most innovative and forward-thinking programmes in the world for small coffee farmers, Abades endows producers with the infrastructure and know-how to collectively market their own coffee and decide their own futures.
Coffee and Coca in Samaniego
Even though coffee produced in Samaniego consistently ranks among the best produced in all of Nariño, persistent violence in the Department and low global coffee prices have made coffee farming—and life in general—difficult for residents.
Coffee farming is a precarious profession across Colombia. Nationally, low coffee prices have combined with strong El Niño and La Niña weather patterns, causing low yields and lower incomes. While coffee remains a significant crop for Colombian export, many farmers in rural Colombia had turned to illicit crops, including coca (the plant from which cocaine is derived) as a way to earn a living.
The thing is, coca is not entirely legal. Since most coca today is processed into cocaine, the Colombia government has taken an increasingly hard stance against coca growing. When the government peace accords were signed in November 2016, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Rebels of Colombia—People’s Army) forces withdrew from much of Nariño, opening regions and exposing many coca farmers for the first time to the government’s anti-narcotics task force. Farmers who were once protected and ensured of a stable (if extractive and dangerous) market were now made vulnerable in a new way.
Facing pressure from the United States and other countries who suffer from both cocaine smuggling and addiction, the government’s anti-narcotics police often arrive in coca-growing communities with the intention of destroying coca crops. At times, these efforts have ended in violent clashes between police and farmers who are trying to protect their livelihoods.
Fortunately, Nariño, with its high altitude, warm days and cool nights, has ideal growing conditions for coffee. In the face of the rising risks of coca production, farmers are increasingly turning to specialty coffee production as their main cash crops.
The Creation of Federación Abades
In order to tip the scales in Samaniego and make coffee growing more profitable for farmers, something major had to change. Enter Federación de Cafés Especiales ABADES or, Abades.
Federación Abades is a collective of small producer associations created through the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Borderland Project. The project, which wrapped up in 2017 but whose effects are still felt today, created a market opening for coffee producers in the region, helped make technical innovations in processing and quality and, most of all, helped producers achieve self-determination and organisation.
Abades is run by an elected group of representatives from each participating community. The board is composed of mostly women, who have been the prominent leaders and innovators in this region for some time. Many of the adult men in the community have left or been lost to the conﬂict over the course of many years. The women have been running the farms, raising their families and making the strides to improve their communities’ situation in general.
It took several years of intensive work and weathering of challenges, but this is one of the most successful endeavours of its kind in the world of small coffee farmers. Abades is now an independent producer group with the infrastructure and know-how to collectively market their own coffee and decide their own futures.
This kind of organisation, combined with quality and demand from the specialty market, helps smallholder producers have a louder voice in the supply chain. While smallholder producers in Colombia have many more options than most other countries for selling their coffee, it is rare that producers at this scale can dictate the terms and control of sales.
Building Knowledge and Autonomy Through Cupping
One of the most impressive advances of the Borderlands project has been the training of local staff to be able to run quality control (QC) operations at the producer level. The majority of these recent cuppers are the children of local producers.
Many specialty coffee producers depend on buyers to give feedback on the quality of the coffee. For the producers involved with Abades, any uncertainty is removed because their children have become trained cuppers. These children, many of whom are young women, can give Federación members sincere and effective cupping scores for their coffees.
When producers know the perceived market value of their coffees they can use this information to become better negotiators. With more knowledge, producers increase their bargaining position and make better pricing choices.
Further, the ability to cup and evaluate coffees can also be used to help producers improve their crops. The cuppers can provide helpful feedback that gives farmers a variety of insights from ways to improve drying methods to how a new variety might measure in quality against another.
For the young people learning and honing their cupping skills, cupping provides another potential career path. Cupping skills are incalculably valuable in the coffee industry, especially when combined with a familiarity with coffee farming. In a few years, we may begin seeing these young people from Samaniego in importing or exporting offices, working at agricultural extensionists, researching new coffee trees varieties or existing pests and more!
Building Relationships with 32cup
We have been involved in the progress of Federación Abades and purchasing coffee from Samaniego since 2018. It is important for us to support projects that empower producers and work to create more equity in the supply chain.
Our’s philosophy of paying premium prices for quality coffee has, once again, benefitted both parties. Producers with Federación Abades receive higher prices for their coffee which in turn enables them to reinvest in their farms, pay medical bills or school fees and ensure a higher quality of life for them and their children.
The story of Abades shows what coffee has the potential to do when nurtured in collaboration with local leaders who act in tune with a community’s interests and needs.
We still have fabulous coffee from Federación Abades in-store now. You can find more information about the coffee itself on its profile page. But you’ll want to act fast since we have fewer than 55 bags on spot.