Over the past several months and years, our blog has been focused on the positive side of our trips to origin. It’s been about the great people we meet, the places we are fortunate enough to see, and the all around amazing experiences we’ve had searching the world for great coffee. Because we’re so happy with what our trips to origin accomplish, we’ve tended to gloss over the negative side of things. The danger and unrest in some of the countries we visit is serious, and it affects the people we work with and care about, and sometimes us. All of these stories are based on personal experiences or have been told to us by people on the ground in these countries. They are true as remembered by the people who told them.
Photo Credit: The Long Miles Coffee Project
Burundi is an example of how quickly the political climate in a coffee growing country can disintegrate and recover almost as quickly. Many of you know that we work closely with an organization called The Long Miles Project in Burundi. Many of you may also be aware that there was recently a violent and failed coup in the country that attempted to overthrow current President Nkurunziza. While the violence and unrest was far worse in the cities than in the rural areas where coffee is grown, Burundi is a tiny country about the size of Maryland. No one was left unaffected. The American leaders of the Long Miles Project decided to leave the country after the violence got bad enough, but they have since returned. The project is back up and running. It was a frightening time for everyone involved.
When we tell people we go to Colombia for some of our coffee relationships, people tell us we’re crazy, because they’ve heard it’s so dangerous. For the most part however, the country has been turning around. Our window into how dangerous a country is often involves our interactions with local police forces. When we were in Bogota, Mike and I spoke to a police officer about the dangers of the city, and he basically told us to just avoid certain sections of the city after dark due to gang violence, etc. It wouldn’t be hard to name at least ten cities in this country where the situation is the same.
Colombia Villa Glady's Coffee
However, things were not always this way, which is how Colombia got its reputation. One of the Coffee’s we offer is grown on land that had previously been controlled by the Colombian drug cartels for cocaine harvesting. The cartels have lost some of their grip over the region in the past few years. This has allowed coffee growing to make a comeback, and a great one at that.
Some of our favorite coffees come from El Salvador. It’s a beautiful country full of great people, and produces some of the best coffees in the world. It’s also one of the most dangerous countries in the world in certain sections. San Salvador is one of the worst.
German Shepherd Guard Dog in El Salvador
When Mike visits the home of one of our suppliers about once a year, he is told that he should never leave the property unless it’s in a heavily armored Mercedes van. Even moving around the property he should be escorted by armed guards at all times. All of this armed security comes with good reason. MS-13, one of the most dangerous gangs in the world is very active in the region, and wouldn’t hesitate to rob, kidnap or harm anyone whom they believe to be a threat or potential hostage.
Armed Guards, El Salvador
Armored Van, essential for protection in Dangerous San Salvador
Corruption is a big problem in some of the countries we visit. We sometimes wind up making a deal with a farmer one year for a reasonable price, and then find the price going up seemingly exponentially every year. The first time this happened we didn’t realize why. Through time & talking to people working on the ground for years we discovered the reason. She was raising her prices because the coffee export board and the organized crime organizations in the country were demanding a larger and larger payout from her every year. These people were going to take their cut of the money no matter what, potentially leaving the farmer with nothing. We no longer work with that particular farmer, not because she had an inferior product but because we don’t want to help support the corrupt regimes or organized crime in some of these countries. She is now working with a Japanese buyer, and is doing well. Corruption is something we have had to be much more aware of when forming our direct relationships since this experience.
Rwanda is another one of those countries that people say seems too dangerous to go to, especially since the civil war and genocide in the early 90’s and the notoriety the country gained because of that. When we were on the ground in the country thing seems to be going fine though. The people and government of Rwanda have done what they can to change their country’s reputation. When we were driving through the streets of a small rural town in a cab, I was looking out the window and noticed how clean everything was. I made a comment about this to the cab driver and he told us that ever since the end of the troubles, the government has mandated a monthly cleaning day for every man, woman and child in the country. Obviously this keeps the streets and towns clean for the people who live there, but the most important reason behind this policy is people are forced to know their neighbors, whether they are Hutu or Tutsi, so that in the words of the cab driver “we can never hate each other again”. It’s an ingenious solution to a problem, but a problem that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.
There has been a lot of talk around Coffee Labs about Yemen in the past month or so, but there has unfortunately not been enough talk about it in the world. The situation going on there is horrendous, and as is all too often the case, the people who are most affected are those who are most vulnerable. The situation is incredibly complicated, but the fighting in the country is occurring mostly in the interior, where coffee farmers were already living in poverty before the fighting started. Because of the violence these farmer’s lands have become war zones, and their situation has become even worse than it already was. It’s situations like this that make us proud to work with people and organizations who make it a priority to help the people who make the specialty coffee industry possible, the farmers and workers on the ground in some of the most unstable regions in the world. Andrew Nicholson and Mokhtar Alkhanshali, are the ones responsible for bringing this coffee out of Yemen and helping the farmers on the ground to make a product that can show the world what Yemen has to offer. You can read more about them in The Village Voice article “Magic Beans”.
Andrew Nicholson and the crew of the boat he and Mokhtar Alkhanshali escaped from Yemen in. Photo credit Andrew Nicholson and The Village Voice
We like to focus on the positive here at Coffee Labs, but we have to acknowledge the danger and instability the people who grow some of our beans endure every single day, and the sacrifices they make just to scrape together a living. We’ll get back to the positive in our next post about our trip to this years SCAA conference in Atlanta. We’ll be shopping for our new roasting equipment while we’re there!