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Leon Kaye headshot

Colombian Coffee Icon Juan Valdez is Going Sustainable

By Leon Kaye

Since the late 1950s, the fictional Juan Valdez has been the face of Colombian coffee. The indefatigable Juan and his trusted mule, Conchita, have long enjoyed their role carrying one of the world’s most iconic brands, and have starred in countless television commercials. The actors playing Juan have changed over the years, but the fundamental story has not: Colombia has long had the reputation for hosting one of the best coffee-growing regions on Earth, as this 30-year commercial that used to make the rounds in the United Kingdom proclaimed:

The force behind Juan Valdez is the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, or FNC), which for over 90 years has led the promotion, production and export of Colombian coffee to the world.

It is because of FNC that coffee is closely tied with Colombia’s national identity. The organization’s efforts are why the country endures as the world’s third largest coffee producer. FNC’s branding is why any Colombian with means has a frequent buyer account with the Juan Valdez chain of coffee shops. And finally, FNC's drive is why outside of the Zona Cafetera (coffee growing region) of Colombia, many foreign visitors complain they cannot find a decent cup of coffee: after all, the best beans are exported to North America, Europe and East Asia.

Coffee is one reason why Colombia’s economy has been growing at a stable, upward trajectory over the past decade, avoiding the volatility that has beset other South American countries such as Brazil and Argentina. If Colombia’s economy will continue to rise (last year the World Bank ranked the country’s economy as the world’s 39th-largest), coffee will continue to be part of that equation.

FNC also realizes that the surging demand for coffee worldwide can only continue if growers cultivate coffee sustainably. To that end, the organization has focused on ensuring that Colombia’s coffee is produced ethically and responsibly. At the moment, FNC touts a bevy of sustainability programs that rests on four pillars: communities, farms, the environment and information technology.

This shift has also opened another door for more coffee farmers – the opportunity to benefit from the surge in tourism Colombia has enjoyed over the past several years. The beans that have made Colombian coffee coveted worldwide are grown throughout some of the country’s most spectacular scenery.

Those beans, as in the species of coffee for which Colombia has become famous, arabica, have behooved Colombian coffee growers to become better caretakers of their land.

Unlike robusta, the species largely grown within the world’s two largest coffee producers, Brazil and Vietnam, arabica beans thrive in higher, mountainous altitudes. Robusta grows better in warmer climates and lower altitudes, and also produces higher yields. Hence those beans end up in more in mass-produced coffee blends, instant coffee and the espresso blends popular across Europe. Gourmet and single-bean origin coffees from Colombia are generally the arabica variety – a species that is also more challenging to grow as it is more susceptible to pests and wide fluctuations in temperatures.

If arabica coffee will continue to flourish in Colombia at a time when climate change poses long-term threats to the global industry, Colombia’s coffee growers have got to be more mindful of challenges including water management, pests and biodiversity.

On that point, FNC says it up to the task of ensuring Colombia’s 500,000 coffee growers will still have a crop to grow in the coming decades.

On biodiversity, for example, FNC says it has been working on this front across Colombia for over a quarter century. The country’s abundance of flora and fauna is one reason why Colombia continues to attract more travelers year after year, as many environmental groups estimate Colombia has the world’s second-richest biodiversity after Brazil. Preserving Colombia’s biodiversity is not only good for the environment, but it can also sustain the country’s coffee industry while offering growers additional revenue streams related to tourism.

One example of how FNC is working with growers and local governments is Recinto del Pensamiento, a nature park located seven miles (11 kilometers) outside the central Colombian city of Manizales. The sprawling grounds, which are also home to one of the many local FNC committees, showcase plants and animals that can coexist with coffee farms. The park employs staff that take pains to conserve pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds; other workers cultivate orchids and native plants. Additional staff members work as guides who take visitors on two-hour tours across the park to explain the value of biodiversity, as in how various trees can provide the shade necessary that allows Colombia’s arabica trees to produce those lucrative beans year after year.

This park’s program is one key to FNC’s goal to educate the Colombian public about the need for the country’s industry to become better stewards of the environment. While Recinto del Pensamiento is mentioned in just about every travel source, from Lonely Planet to TripAdvisor, my guide told me that day after day, the overwhelming majority of its visitors are Colombian. “Yes, the grounds are beautiful and make for excellent Instagram posts, but the real value we offer is to show people how important caring for the environment is to the future of Colombia and its coffee industry,” as one employee explained to TriplePundit.

In addition to environmental education programs, FNC is also working with growers to improve the coffee industry’s overall social impact. The organization’s current five-year strategic plan seeks improvement in three areas: more investment in rural education programs; the introduction of programs that can boost the quality of life for the industry’s workers; and building better infrastructure so that growers can seamlessly transport their product from farms to global markets. FNC also launched a program earlier this year that seeks to make the sector more inclusive by taking on problems such as sexism and homophobia.

While Colombia’s coffee industry has made considerable strides in improving its sustainability performance, the country’s farmers cannot confront all the social, environmental and economic challenges alone. 2018 has been a rough year for coffee farmers: prices are down, labor costs are up, and while more people in emerging economies are drinking more coffee, consumption in producing countries such as Colombia is flat. According to a recent Bloomberg report, farmers face an uphill climb when it comes to making a decent living: for every $3.50 someone spends at Starbucks on Colombian coffee, only three cents of that amount goes into a Colombian farmer’s pocket. FNC believes buyers, exporters and coffee roasters need to do their part so Colombian coffee can be viable for the long run. "Everybody in the chain should be co-responsible for the sustainability of the whole [value] chain,” said Roberto Vélez Vallejo, FNC’s CEO, during an interview with Bloomberg’s Alix Steel last May.

Image credits: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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