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The coffee heroes of Cauca

Stories like Benjamin’s (last post) are not the exception in Colombia. Decades of violence have strained people’s hope, so that many simply leave, if they are able to. Those who stay and choose to fight must confront indescribable violence and sorrow, and it is truly bewildering to see how many keep their heads up high in spite of it all. This is the case, for example, of the indigenous and farmers’ resistance movement in Cauca and Huila, the regions we went for the last part of our journey. Leider Burbano Calvo, a leader of the movement from the municipality of La Vega, Cauca, believes that freedom for the people comes first and foremost from food sovereignty, and that food sovereignty comes from respecting the environment and its ecosystems. He is an integral revolutionary who will not compromise his politics for anything, and who will fight anyone who encroaches on the mountains of the Macizo Colombiano. The Macizo, located in the southernmost regions of the country, is where the Andes have not yet split into the three ranges that traverse Colombia all the way to the north. It is a territory of touching beauty and biodiversity, crowned by the majestic, sacred paramo ecosystems, places so rare that they occur, at most, on 0.05% of the entire terrestrial surface of the planet. These biomes are characterized by flora that behave like a filtering sponge. Espeletia, known as Frailejones, are plants with hairy leaves that trap water particles in the atmosphere and pump it into the soil through their roots. Unlike what many people think, water in the clouds is not sterile. Clouds are formed because water vapor “sticks” to bacteria and other aerosol particles, often fine dirt and exhaust fumes. So, what the frailejon does is purify dirty cloud water that will eventually turn into rivers! Paramos constitute 1.7% of Colombia’s surface area, but provide over 70% of Colombia’s clean water. Sadly, these territories, constellated by pristine lagoons that are sacred to the indigenous people living there, are the target of many transnational agricultural and mining corporations that want gold and other metals hidden in the rocks, as well as control over this strategic region. Leider and his community have risked their lives multiple times trying to fend off military and paramilitary forces that accompany geological exploration missions, whilst also trying not to fall prey to the bribes of Monsanto and other agro giants, who try to trap farmers into using seeds and fertilizers that will doom them to servitude. When we got to Leider’s farm and saw his coffee plants, we were astounded. Without using any chemicals, his bushes were greener and healthier than any we had seen along the way. They were rooted in a layer of topsoil at least 30 centimeters thick, dark, moist and full of microbiota. He was very proud to show us, and became emotional when we did roasting and cupping sessions together. His coffee has very unique sweet mandarin notes, and he told us that one time, a customer asked him why he soaks the beans in mandarin juice before drying them! Obviously he doesn’t… the beans were soaked in nothing but love. His dream is to inspire all farmers to trust Mother Nature, so that they can be free from anyone wanting to control their lives and their territories through technology that may seem advantageous, but hides ever-rising costs of all sorts. He told us that having stable international buyers would be a blessing for these communities. Leider is one of the noblest human beings we have met, and we hope to be able to showcase his coffee in London very soon. Unfortunately, extreme changes in weather are impacting his crop severely: this year brought so much rain that he barely has enough to satisfy his local market. Leider introduced us to the historical founders of the popular farmers’ movement in Cauca, Luis Fernando Girald, Jaime Pastor, and Oscar Gerardo Salazar. Since the early 1980s, these men have led the people of the Macizo in defense of water, soil, and community, and we were beyond honoured to sit at their table, discussing next steps for the commercialization of coffee from the Macizo, and for the protection of the mountains. The most pressing action to be taken right now is to jump in defense of various water sources around the Macizo, before miners and agribusiness takes hold of them. Thankfully, this might be easier now than in the past, given that Gustavo Petro, a leftist and ex member of the M-19 guerrilla group, has won the presidential elections, pledging to reduce and reverse environmental exploitation. Francia Marquez Mina, his vice-president, is the first Afro-Colombian woman to have been elected to this role. She is a victim of the conflict who was born in an impoverished community in Suarez, Cauca, and who has been fighting legal and illegal mining to protect waterways since she was 13 years old. Jaime Pastor, who offered us crackers with chontaduro jam in his home in Popayán, had been Francia’s teacher in middle school.

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