Colombian Coffee Break

Lest you think I just spend my life mooching between pool, party and pontification, I should point out that work does occasionally feature.  How else could I fund the three P’s otherwise?

I presented to the Board of the organisation I am working with recently. A strategic review, and the product of 2 months work (admittedly half of it spent with laptop by pool). As it turned out, they were Quite Important People.  At least one former Minister of Agriculture now current President of the National Bank of Costa Rica, one former Foreign Minister of El Salvador, and an Impresario who had made her name and fortune growing organic indigo and selling it to Gap and Levi’s.  The President had to leave a tad early to go to sort out the country’s inflation rate. (I reckon our discussions were far more interesting than his could possibly have been..)

From here, straight to the airport and Bogota and three days of intense, beautifully brewed coffee with some of the worlds experts on the stuff.  People who grew it, roasted it, distributed and marketed it, and those whose careers were built on tasting it. Like the chief Nespresso Wizard who could tell you down to the last 50 yards where a bean had been grown, at what altitude and with what degree of shade.. (can’t imagine how much his taste buds must be insured for..!)

The purpose of the three day shindig: to discuss how to improve the long-term sustainability of coffee. The stuff is pretty important to Colombia’s economy and at least 400,000 farmers depend on it.  But it faces similar challenges to other coffee growing parts of the world – decreasing prices, increasing costs, declining productivity, and if that wasn’t enough, the tangible effects of climate change to boot. Not surprisingly, farmers are getting fed up with any or all of these issues, leaving their farms, or switching to growing something else.

Interesting nugget: did you know that it takes 4 day long donkey trips, each carrying 150 coffee plantlets, to restock the average 2-3 hectare farm? Can you blame the poor farmer (not to mention the donkey) for packing it all in?

Donkey work (ok, so not coffee plants, but you get the idea..)

Our role in the proceedings was largely to shake some complacency out of the proceedings and deliver some hard facts to the hard of hearing. Not least the Colombian Coffee Federation. An ageing, secretive cabal, if ever there was one. They travelled in packs, mostly men, all wearing the same ill-fitting dark suits, lurking in corners looking slightly sinister and reeking of bureaucracy and self-interest. Reminded me very much of the Chinese Tobacco Monopoly Administration, who did a fair share of lurking in packs (as you’d expect from a tobacco company I suppose), in badly made suits attempting to hide their dark arts and machinations from the outside world.

Was given strict instructions not to wear open-toed sandals and to lose my ‘free range sabbatical look’. Bogota’s posh like that.  So naturally I had no choice but to go buy a new pair of red shoes..

Red not Dead

But then some fun stuff!  
Bogota, big and burly, an ancient underground cathedral made of salt (great place for tequila parties..), and a lovely long weekend on a beautiful flower farm.
The city (as indeed the country) is fast shaking off its reputation as a dangerous, crime-filled, drug fuelled, FARC-threatened place and it’s been a few years since a bomb went off. There are still places even taxi drivers don’t go, but then there are probably places in Yorkshire that no self respecting cabbie would go either..
I found shi shi cafes and slinky bars that wouldn’t look out of place in New York.
 
 I also found a llama for rent and a man selling coconuts on the main street.

Hairy llama and coconuts

  And people renting out mobile phones on a chain for 7 pence a minute.

Rent-a-mobile man

However, just when I was getting all complacent about walking back to the hotel myself at night.. the guide I had planned to take for an out of city tour never made it. Poor man was  mugged 2 blocks from my guesthouse on his way to meet me.. broad daylight in a ‘safe’ part of the city!  Crime, just like any other big city, but tragically exacerbated by 40 years of ‘La Violencia’ which has displaced millions of people from their homes, land and livelihoods.  These poor souls end up in cities like Bogota looking for anything that might keep body and soul together.

Interested to read of one rather clever ex-Mayor of the city, (Mockus) who did huge amounts to restore civic pride and confidence in Bogota in the ‘bad years’. Artist and self professed ‘anti-politician’ he sought to reach people by appealing to the power of collective and individual (dis)approval through ‘creative expression’ –  rather than through boring speeches and formal regulation. Like: dressing up as Superman, employing mime artists on the streets to follow and mimic people behaving badly, inventing ‘Women only’ nights out (leaving men at home with babies/washing up – or, if they insisted on going out, requiring them to carry passes..imagine that, in a macho Latin culture! Que cojones!). And, to address a water shortage, appearing on TV taking a shower and turning off the water as he soaped up..  Boris, get a load of this! (but please don’t get soapy and naked on TV..)

http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/03.11/01-mockus.html

I stayed with one friend that refused FARC threats to leave his farm in the ‘bad years’. He hired two body-guards, bought a bullet proof car, got police to trace the incoming calls/threats, and sat tight for a few years.  Scary. And expensive! As we drove into his beautiful flower farm (in aforementioned bullet proof jeep), he introduced me to aforementioned body guard, now just a gate-keeper. And happily no longer armed.  The most dangerous weapon he carries on him these days is a nail clipper…

Warmth and hospitality in the heart of Colombia

Flowers destined for M&S... (is that child labour I see lurking amongst the leaves?)

Flower farming in Colombia: key facts:

1. Getting the ‘wrong colour’ for the season can wipe 200K off the bank balance…

2. Brits seem to go for gentler shades, Americans bolder ones, and Latin markets..a riot of brassy hot pinks!

3. Precision and speed are key when M&S wants its fresh flowers within 24 hours. On progressive farms like this one, good piece rates mean that women can be big earners. Colombian men just stick to fixing things, fumbling around and driving trucks.

4. Workers are scared of going into the cold storage unit because it represents ‘a change of season’ which can be bad for their health..

Barely skimmed the surface of this beautiful, wounded country, and only a glimpse of what is now shaping its future. As to what shaped its past, you can’t go wrong with a visit  to El Museo D’Oro, the Gold Museum for starters. Best of its kind in the world…

A couple of my favourites..

cheeky monkey pre-colombian style

cheeky man, pre-colombian style

Life is speeding up. Probably more than I want it to.

But I’ll be back.

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