Forget About Juan Valdez

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

San Agustin is a magical place, full of a rich history that is still not understood by many. Located on the borders the Colombian Massif — a soaring mountain group in the Southern Andes connecting the departments of Cauca, Nariño, and Huila — it’s most famous as the biggest site of megalithic religious monuments in South America. These massive stone sculptures, depicting animals and gods and human figures, are considered to be funerary monuments and structures created by a still unidentified Andean culture that existed in the area between the 100 BCE to 1500CE.

It’s believed this society began to dwindle by 1350BCE, roughly around Conquest times, though the exact reasons are unknown. Slowly, long grasses and vines overgrew these hulking but subtly engraved relics, leaving them largely uncovered until indigenous groups like the Mulale, Laculata, Quinchana, and Laboyos moved into Upper Magadelena in the 16th century, likely due to some sort of external pressure to migrate from their own homelands. They were followed closely by Spanish settlers who began to break into the area throughout the 17th and 18th century. Sadly, the value and importance of these pieces was misunderstood or disregarded, leading these tombs to be raided for gold and valuables found inside, and often destroying any remnant of information or clues that could teach us about the culture who produced these statues.

In addition to being looted, many of them were moved to personal homes and used as protective talismans or worse, as foundational supports in building construction. By the 20th century, archaeologists had become aware of these statues and many of them were moved — slowly and perilously — to the early version of what is now known as the San Agustin Archaeological Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995.

As for the town itself, the first official appearance of the name San Agustin for this area came between 1608 and 1612 when the Spanish Captain Pedro Sáenz de la Guía did so on the orders of Pedro de Velasco, Governor of Neiva and Timana — known Conquistador of Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia and famous “pacifier” of indigenous.

While it appears some of these groups did indeed ally with Saenz, a group of indigenous Andaqui are recorded as descending upon and decimating this original settlement.

But the urge to settle this area officially would not pass so easily. As migratory patterns continued, leaving the area largely depopulated, the town would have to be re-founded twice before being officially recognized as a municipality within the department of Huila in 1926.

Small San Agustinian Relics


The year San Agustin was officially recognized as a municipality lines up directly with the emergence of the Colombian commercial coffee industry. In these days, much of the coffee that was available is referred to now as tipica — wild coffee trees growing amongst other crops that were harvested at times but not yet planted en masse for production and sale like they are today.

In 1927, the second National Coffee Producers Congress took place in Medellin. Present was a man named Jorge Villamil Ortega, owner of Hacienda El Cedral, a huge 200 hectare farm outside Neiva from where almost all of the coffee in Huila at that time was produced. Alongside 29 delegates from coffee producing regions, Ortega put his voice behind the new idea of forming a non-profit association dedicated to the commercialization of Colombia coffee and the well-being of coffee producers.

And so the National Federation of Colombian Coffee growers (FNC) was born.

Inspired by these events, Ortega returned to Huila animated to spread to others in Huila the newly founded Federation’s message. By 1928, Ortega had successfully corralled enough support to form the Huila Departmental Committee of the Federation, figuring as one of Colombia’s first and inspiring many departments to follow suit. The Federation still exists today and is very active still in the commercialization and support of many coffee producers — more on this later.

Jorge Villamil Ortega, remained president of the Huila Committee for thirty years, in which time he and Huila department generally played an integral role in the history of Colombian coffee, and its perhaps rightful that it now finds itself as the country’s top producing zone.

The momentum created by this congress that led to the creation of the FNC and its early Departmental Committees did what it primarily sought to do — sell Colombian coffee. In 1920, the production of the department was 15 thousand bags and since then the numbers have only continued to increase. Within twenty years, Huila producers accounted for 100,965 bags and over 2% of the total national export. Now, the zone accounts for over 2 million bags per year.

Coffee production has come to be a dominant agricultural product and Huila province is now the largest coffee producing zone in Colombia — 2016 numbers put them at 18.07% of the countries total production, trailed closely by Antioquia (traditionally known as the zone of larger farms and commercial quality, though that reputation is changing) and Tolima.

Huila in its entirety boasts 80,000 producers spread across 101,263 farms. In San Agustin alone, 6000 of these producers dot the picturesque mountains. Driving through winding dirt roads draped in cloud, one can spot the deep dark green of coffee trees growing up the steep inclines - Caturras, Colombias, Castillos; Typicas and Pink Bourbons.

This land has always held something secret, hidden yet in plain view.

Red Caturra Trees Before Sunset


The FNC continues today under the same motive, though greatly amplified ad expanded, as its original conception — namely, the commercialization of Colombian coffee and the support for the wellbeing of the Colombian coffee producer.

While these may be broken down into more specific areas of focus, the FNC provides an operational infrastructure that manifests broadly in two forms. First, as farmer support organization that deploys extentionistas or field workers who provide technical assistance in all things coffee growing and second, as a marketing and sales agency that works to secure an international reputation and corresponding client base for Colombian coffee.

The latter is surely a fixture that almost all of us are aware of — Juan Valdez and his donkey. Created originally in 1959 as a tool to personify and share the notion of Colombian coffee as emerging from a distinct place may be one of the first examples of origin specific coffee marketing that exists. At a time when coffee was solely a commodity product sold with zero differentiation, this was a radical fact. The real name of the man most would be familiar with as Juan Valdez was Carlos Sanchez, who played this role for 37 years until his death only a few months ago. That the name Juan Valdez is so universal speaks to the success of this marketing campaign.

Today, the FNC continues in its efforts to raise origin awareness for Colombian coffee — including initiatives that develop Denomination of Origin certificates for each department, making Huilense coffee, for example, a specific delicacy only permitted to be named as such with the borders of the Department.

Following in the footsteps of Juan Valdez, in 1985 the Federation launched a second personality — Profesor Yarumo — and his television/radio program “The Adventures of Profesor Yarumo” in which the yellow-shirted professor visits coffee farmers and talks to them about the latest innovations and science concerning coffee growing while also making sure to talk about how great being a Colombian coffee producer is, thanks to the Federation.

Unlike Juan Valdez, Yarumo is now in his third instantiation. After the first retired to pursue his true passion of painting and the second was promoted to Technical Manager of the Federacion, 35 year old Daniel Fernando Chica Díaz was elected (yes, there are elections for these personalities) to be the third Yarumo in 2013. I watched him on TV a couple weeks ago, somewhere in Caldas, speaking with a producer about the benefits of planting the disease resistant Castillo variety.

The Federacion is not perfect — many complain for example about the exactly what I watched Yarumo do — push disease resistant varieties on producers. While the threat of coffee leaf rust continues to creep higher up warming mountain faces, many of these hybrid varieties aren’t only of low quality but also fail if planted in the wrong climatic conditions, incur more problems with the coffee borer beetle, and perhaps most importantly, are foreign to many growers who have worked with older varieties for years.

Beyond that, the idea that any amount of fieldworkers could attend to thousands of producers in a concrete way, with their myriad of different needs and issues, is almost laughable.

On the subject of marketing, these efforts have achieved acclaim for Colombia coffee and were widely successful in creating a consumer consciousness of coffee origins, beyond the idea that coffee comes from a tin in a supermarket.

photo courtesy FNC website
Yarumo and Valdez

However, the FNC's efforts have not succeeded in substantially improving the national consumer culture, nor have they led to a client base that provides consistently good prices for coffee producers. Despite an explosion in sales numbers, the coffee market price hovers in the same place as thirty years ago, while costs have skyrocketed. All of this adds up to the average producer receiving not much, if anything, above basic costs of production for their coffee, leaving them in a cycle where there is always money coming in, but no accumulated gains.

Speaking of prices, it should be mentioned that one of the Federation’s attempts to support producer wellbeing also comes in the form of their Price Guarantee -- a price that is mandated by the FNC and must be paid to any producer who brings their coffee to a buying point. This payment is often received via bank accounts set up the FNC, an admittedly helpful innovation, as it allows for rapid and traceable payments with no transaction fees. Each morning, the Federation produces a region specific document detailing the going rate in Colombian pesos per carga of coffee, 125kg of parchment coffee.

For those who aren’t aware, after coffee cherries have been depulped and finished drying, there remains a white, crunchy shell known as parchment around the green seeds. This is in essence a natural protective layer that is left around the seed until it is ready for export, and which point it is sent to a mill and the parchment is removed.

This price that is sent out daily by the Federation is set in relationship to the global market price (usually a bit higher) and does ensure that producers receive a guaranteed price at any official buying point all over the country.

However, a few growers have expressed to me in the last year that this price, while guaranteed, would at best cover their costs of production — that’s to say the costs necessary to grow and harvest the coffee, not to invest in their homes, their families, or in their coffee infrastructure. Low estimates have put cost of production in Colombia at $1.70USD/lb and above, almost double the current market price, that has hovered around .95USD/lb for most of 2019.

And yet, despite barely covering costs, this continues to be the dominant sales channel for coffee producers. The Federation’s own numbers estimate that 98% of coffee producers are selling at these prices, or worse when selling wet or undried coffee.

90 years after the creation of the FNC and 60 years after Juan Valdez tried to bring Colombia Abaci into our homes, a huge majority of this country’s coffee producers are living constantly on the edge of losing it all. Coffee trees are cut down and replaced with beans or other subsistence crops. Younger generations move to the cities. And a general malaise creeps in.

We may now be facing the detrimental effects of the Juan Valdez campaign — we all know Colombian coffee, but we don’t care about it, and seemingly neither does Juan Valdez. In namesake cafes all over Colombia and also in major airports and centres worldwide, you’re sure to find a Colombian coffee you’d rather NOT drink.

To me, this says a lot.

This has been Part One of a multi part series called Reimagining Colombia.

Next up -- Reimagining Colombia Part 2: What Is the Fixed Price Guarantee?

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