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Coffee Producers Have a “Forum” to Speak

World Coffee Producers Forum 2017, Foro Mundial De Productores De Cafe 2017, Hotel Intercontinental, Medellin, Colombia

This week I attended the inaugural World Coffee Producers Forum in Medellín, Colombia. The conference, which took place 10-12 July, was conceived by coffee associations and organisations from producing countries around the world and organised and hosted by the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC).

It’s not “new news” that the coffee chain – from bean to cup – faces myriad challenges such as economic sustainability, the effects of climate change, as well as how to retain quality, provide traceability for increasingly discerning consumers and maintain production to meet and a growing demand of 50-million bags of coffee in the next 10 to 15 years. The World Coffee Producers Forum was designed to analyse those challenges in a comprehensive way, primarily from the perspective of the coffee producers.

“Many efforts have been made to raise fees paid to farmers—all have failed but we can’t stop trying,” said Former President Bill Clinton during the panel discussion with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos moderated by FNC president Robérto Velez, “Economic Sustainability and Rural Development to Promote Global Stability and Democracy.” The Clinton Foundation works to make coffee an anchor crop with supporting crops to help decrease drug trafficking. “Coffee is a magical resource if you do it right…so ride coffee, but don’t depend on it,” Clinton urged. “Use it to grow other crops and diversify. You need more people involved to answer the ‘how’ questions—they can’t just be people from the coffee industry.”

President Santos, who was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, spoke prior to the panel discussion, noting, “There is no [coffee] chain if there is no raw material.” He also highlighted that the global coffee market has become more vulnerable, noting that coffee growers’ access to markets – particularly small-scale growers – has grown increasingly disadvantageous, but offered optimism. “We face great challenges; addressing them won’t be easy. But if we work together, coffee we will continue to be a driver of development and equity in our societies.”

There were also zealous speeches from the presidents of Central America countries including Costa Rica and Honduras, as well as Ministers of Agriculture and government officials from numerous countries including Brazil, El Salvador Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Vietnam, who all stressed the importance of working together to overcome the sustainability challenges faced by producers.

The Central American presidents stated that coffee has been a driving force for rural development in their countries and has helped mitigate issues including migration and poverty. They emphasised the urgency for attendees and society at large to understand the importance of guaranteeing the sustainability of the entire chain, starting by the well-being of producers.

Producers who attended had the opportunity to voice their concerns, share their thoughts and offer solutions—and those who spoke did so passionately. The leading solution proposed during the Forum, was to charge consumers more for a cup of coffee. This solution was also recommended by Jeffrey Sachs, economics professor, senior adviser to the United Nations (UN) and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. If consumers pay 5-cents more per cup of coffee, producers will receive twice what they receive today. A slight increase for consumers would mean a huge increase for producers. That is fair trade,” said Sachs. (He estimated that a pound of coffee is the equivalent to about 25 cups of coffee. At a price of USD $1.25 per pound, coffee producers receive about 5-cents per cup of coffee. Many on the ‘consuming’ side disagreed with Sachs simple calculations.)

In the end, it was a forum for coffee producers, and many felt validated that their voices were finally heard. It’s a complex problem that does not have an easy solution. As one smallholder producer from Honduras said, “This was a good first step, but a lot of work needs to be done.” The problem, she said, is that “change needs to happen now because we are barely hanging on.”

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