In 1995 I presented a paper at the annual Latin American Studies Association (LASA) conference entitled “From Coffee Consciousness to the Coffee Family: Reformation and Hegemony in Colombia’s Coffee Fields”. In it I analyzed the shifting discourse of the National Federation of Coffee Growers (FNC) (among other things the owners of the Juan Valdez brand). What I tracked is how the discourse of the FNC evolved over the 20th century. In the 1930s they promoted coffee-based nationalism, striving to develop in farmers and the public generally a conciencia cafetera, the belief that what was good for coffee was good for the nation. By the end of the 20th century the discourse had shifted to the familia cafetera. The hegemonic discourse was now centered on the family as a production unit that needed to be managed both for maximization of productivity and for achievement of social goals such as higher education, better health, wider life prospects, etc. But while the production unit was the core of the “family,” the particular phrase “coffee family”, as articulated to me by a smallholder farmer, was really meant to refer to the whole industry, that the family was the totality of families and institutions that made it up. This latter discourse was embedded within the global regulation of the coffee industry through price stabilization under the International Coffee Agreement (ICA). I wondered in that paper and others what the implications of the abrogation of the ICA in 1989 would be for this discourse and for the families and growers.
30 years later I can see that the implications are profound. In core coffee towns there has been a demographic collapse, for example, in one of my research sites a town that had over 16,000 residents in the early 1990s by 2014 had dropped to around 5000. This collapse was due to the declining profitability of coffee production driven by the cost-price squeeze that is inherent to industrial, globalized agri-food systems. But it was also due to the very success of the “coffee family”. That is, the goal of increasing education and diversifying opportunities was to some extent achieved but rather than strengthen the family it led to its fission: the families that make up the coffee family have dispersed nationally and internationally. The region of the Eje Cafetero (the departments of Caldas, Risaralda and Quindio) which for decades was the production and cultural heart of the industry is the region with the highest rate of international out-migration. The production leaders are now southern departments such as Huila which before had been marginal. While coffee continues to be a key commodity and livelihood in Caldas, there the reconstruction of life and livelihood for cafeteros who committed themselves to the industry over several generations.
In 2014, with grants from the Studley Fund, I began working with Ethan Steinman to create a film to explore the present day “post-coffee” condition in Colombia. Through this film we will be able to tell a story about capitalism in the development/Fordist era, globalization, “neoliberalism”, the Colombian conflict and post-conflict, and current trends in so-called ethical consumption. This plan is quite different than other films focusing on coffee which typically either tell a story of degradation (the evil development apparatus, evil capitalism, etc.), the wonders of fair trade, or the aesthetic pleasures of coffee, specialty coffee in particular. Our goal is to disrupt all of these narratives by exploring the global and institutional history of the commodity but also diving deep into what it takes and means to grow this product. Our goal is to humanize the commodity chain, as it were, to show how it is built and what the consequences of that building are, ultimately, for millions of people. Because one thing is clear, this story is not merely about coffee or Colombia, rather it is about the world we live in today, the diverse ties that bind us, the barriers that divides us and the prospects for what we can do going forward. Due to diverse scheduling challenges we have not finished filming but here is a preview of the project.