COVID-19 has impacted the world and created challenges for coffee farmers that threaten their livelihood, which was already in a delicate balance before the pandemic. In addition to concerns over the pandemic hitting their local community, they have also faced government restrictions, transportation problems, and economic uncertainty.
Indiegrow works with a group of 50 small-scale women coffee growers in a remote area of Cauca, Colombia. How have those coffee growers faced the challenges of COVID-19? We spoke with women from 50 Amigas about the additional strains they face and how they have overcome them.
Daily life in rural areas during the COVID-19 pandemic
In an effort to contain the pandemic, Colombia entered a nation-wide quarantine on March 25, 2020. For farmers in rural areas, that meant they had to observe restrictions on their movements according to their ID number. Control points were set up to limit travel between communities. Just one member of each family was permitted to visit local stores to buy essential items, and only on certain days of the week. At control points, people were instructed to shower and change their clothing before re-entering their community. The government provided face masks with instructions on how to use them, as well as how to follow health protocols such as handwashing.
Food prices in many areas skyrocketed by 25-50% at the beginning of the pandemic due to increased demand (1). However, women coffee growers found ways to get around the higher food prices. Most coffee farmers in the area also grow yucca, beans, citrus fruits, and herbs. They have chickens, pigs, and perhaps cattle. They grow much of what their families need to cope with the situation, and what they lacked they obtain by bartering with their neighbors.
In the midst of this global pandemic, coffee growers have coped by relying on traditional customs and values. People in these communities have a willingness to help, a deep sense of belonging, and a true desire to help the sick and elderly. These traits can be seen in traditional practices like bartering or the common practice of ‘mano cambiada’ (literally, “exchanged hand”), which involves taking turns working as a team on each farm.
Colombian coffee harvest in time of pandemic
As the pandemic first took hold of the world, fears in much of South America focused on the difficulty of harvesting coffee. According to a survey by Caravela coffee, the primary fear of 61.2% of Colombian coffee growers was not having sufficient labor to harvest coffee. They feared losing over 53% of the harvest (2).
The women coffee growers we work with faced the same fears and difficulties, since the coffee harvest in that area took place towards the beginning of the pandemic, from May to July. How would they find enough workers to harvest the crop?
Mélida Montero, who belongs to the Chapa ethnic group, explains how her family faced the difficulty: “Indigenous groups always support each other. We work together to achieve our goals.”
Argenis Rosas found a way to keep production up: “My father always taught us to work together, as a united family. Since most of my family works with coffee, we all helped each other out on our different farms.”
For those who did need to bring in outside workers, the challenge was how to maintain a safe environment. Maria Cristina Potosí explained some of the changes they made: “Now, outside workers don’t enter the house. They bring their own food and they eat outside on the porch, and they drink out of disposable cups. We now provide many gallons of soap so that the workers on the farm can wash their hands.”
Challenges to transport coffee
Transportation problems were another fear for coffee growers in the region. To take their coffee to the co-op, coffee growers in rural areas often arrange for group transport. That way, costs of transportation get shared and the burden for each farm is reduced. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, traveling in groups was no longer possible. That increased costs for each grower.
To overcome these transportation difficulties, Jessica Montero explains her family’s strategy: “We needed special permits to transport coffee and pass through the many control points manned by civilians. We paid a driver in our town for transport, and since we couldn’t take small amounts of coffee, several of us transported our coffee together.”
Ways women coffee growers in Colombia cope with COVID-19
Not everything in 2020 has been negative. Since last year coffee prices have risen– in fact, Colombian coffee growers expect this harvest to be one of the best in years (3).
The women coffee growers in our Caficultora 2.0 program sell directly to Caficauca and receive higher prices. They don’t depend on contracts with international buyers who could not travel to Colombia this year due to COVID-19 restrictions. Additionally, Caficauca provides them with small loans to get through the harvest season, so the growers didn’t feel compelled to sell coffee to middlemen who pay in cash at low prices.
Ligia Beiba Jiménez sums up her feelings of growing coffee in a remote region of Colombia: “People who grow other crops, like avocado or fruit, have had to give them away because they couldn’t sell them before they rotted. That doesn’t happen with coffee. In these times of COVID-19, I’m thankful I grow coffee. I’m proud to be a woman coffee grower.”
Together, the women coffee growers that are part of our 50 Amigas group have seen that sticking to their cultural roots has helped them in times of crisis. They support each other, working together to reach common goals, and are willing to lend a helping hand to the weaker members of their community. By following these community traditions, they have been able to overcome hurdles put in their way by a world pandemic - and have come out winners.
USDA, Foreign agricultural Service. Food in the Time of Coronavirus - The Food and Agricultural Situation in Colombia.
Caravela Coffee. Harvest Arrives, Along with a Pandemic.
Daily Coffee News. Colombia Harvest Report: Higher Prices and Yields Ease COVID Worries