A conversation with Jorge Cárdenas Gutiérrez

Jorge Cárdenas Gutiérrez has been the leading figure in the Colombian coffee industry for over half a century. Born in 1930 in Medellín, he studied Law and Political Science in his hometown, then he completed a master’s degree in Administration at the University of Syracuse. He has held various public positions in his country, but his lifelong passion has been the promotion of the Colombian coffee sector, both domestically and internationally.

For many years he was head of the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers where he fought to improve coffee cultivation in Colombia, to improve the quality of life for the country’s coffee growers and the quality of coffee for consumers.

Good morning, Jorge. How important is coffee to Colombia?

Coffee has been a leading product in the Colombian economy for 120 years. For many years it was 10 percent of the gross domestic product, 30 percent of the agricultural product and 40 percent of the external income.

Revenues from coffee exports have enabled Colombia to develop its industry, railways, ports and a good part of the national infrastructure.

Today coffee’s economic importance to Colombia is lower, but it is still the country’s most important source of rural employment: 500,000 families on one million hectares produce a coffee harvest worth US $ 2.5 billion, which is 3 percent of Colombia’s GDP. Its social impact is fundamental.

What role has the National Federation played in maintaining the competitiveness of the sector?

The government of Colombia has worked since 1927 in full agreement with the National Federation of Coffee Growers in the development of public policies that build progress in the coffee growing areas with road services, potable water, electricity, health and education.

The Federation administers the National Coffee Fund, which has existed since 1940. The Fund is for the development of these public policies and for the promotion of coffee cultivation, its modernization and the international promotion of its consumption. The National Coffee Fund is a very important instrument of all coffee policy.

The Federation has 350,000 affiliated producers; since 1930, all producers pay a parafiscal contribution by Law of the Republic of Colombia.

To what extent has coffee had to compete with cocaine in Colombia?

The Federation has carried out extensive campaigns to combat illegal crops, and there are really no significant coca crops in the coffee growing areas. The farms are small in the coffee zone. Coca crops are in areas of little agriculture and very far from population centers.

What are the main problems that the coffee sector faces in Colombia?

The main problem of coffee cultivation in Colombia is the size of the farms: most plots are of 1 to 3 hectares. The production costs in these small farms is high compared to that obtained in larger areas.

What is the Federation doing to improve things?

The Federation of Coffee Growers has a Coffee Research Center (Cenicafé) that carries out permanent research on innovation. It has helped introduce coffee varietals that are resistant to pests and are higher yielding. This has helped Colombia to maintain a production of between 12 and 14 million bags of 60 kg for the past several years.

What lies behind the success of Colombian coffee?

The competitiveness of Colombian coffee is due to its quality that is in turn a result of the care with which it is grown and processed.

With the image of Juan Valdez, the Federation of Coffee Growers created a special niche in the world market since 1960. He gave a name to a generic product, that’s the reality.

How does the Colombia maintain a sustainable living for its coffee growers?

From 1940 to 2000, Colombia had an internal price for coffee that did not change more than three times a year. A sustainable and stable price was financed with export earnings and contributions from the producers themselves to the National Coffee Fund. In addition, the various international coffee agreements provided price stability to international prices.

Since 2000, the domestic price reflects the international price of coffee. Only in times of very low international prices the Government and the Federation have given growers a special premium as part of the internal price of coffee.

The Colombian government has recently introduced a new Stabilization Fund which seeks price stability as in previous years; for the time being it does not yet have the necessary resources.

Are you optimistic for coffee in Colombia?

The National Federation of Coffee Growers continues in its task of innovating in the cultivation and harvesting and the producers accompany these efforts. The Federation celebrates 93 years of its founding and continues to be a leading rural service organization. It has the support of the Government and the backing of producers.

Roasters the world over continue to view Colombia as a highly reliable supplier. Today’s consumers are increasingly moving towards high quality coffees, which is very favorable for Colombia. The future of Colombian coffee is bright.

Thank you, Jorge for your time and comments!

© Commodity Conversations ®

This is an extract of an interview from my new book Crop to Cup, to be published later this year.

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