'There and Back Again': The Journey of Colombian Coffee

Follow the steep, winding trail of Colombian Fair Trade coffee through the Sierra Nevadas.

“Well, I wasn’t expecting this,” I thought as I stared into the docile eyes of the mule I was about to ride up a winding, muddy path through green mountain valleys to Yiribeth’s farm. This wasn’t my first time riding an animal—my childhood was filled with horseback riding and county fairs—but it would become one of the most magical, especially as I thought of the journey I had already taken to arrive here in this small town. But that story begins about 24 hours earlier.

Six in the morning the day before, I woke up in Santa Marta, Colombia, to the sounds of motorcycles and colorful buses as they started their regular (and loud) routine outside my window. Today, I was to start my three-day visit to Asoprosierra, a coffee cooperative located in the Sierra Nevada mountains. After a very groggy bowl of fruit and a cold wash in the sink, I was awake and ready for the call I was expecting at seven… it came at nine. The first thing I have learned about working in Latin countries is that schedules are relative. I answered Eduardo’s call and got moving to meet him at a bus stop on the outer ring of town. It was at this bus stop that my seven-hour journey began.

I had to ride three means of transport over 100 kilometers (62 miles) and up 8,000 feet to get to Yiribeth’s farm. I was visiting to see a Fair Trade farm in action. From a colorful bus, to a muddy dirt bike, to rain delays, to the back of a sure-footed mule, it was an adventure to say the least. And as I sipped Aguapanela with Yiribeth (“Yiri” as her father calls her) and her family the following night, I imagined how every coffee bean from her farm would undergo the same journey.

The Sierra Nevadas of Colombia is a mountain range that juts straight up from the Caribbean coast, rising from sea level to nearly 19,000 feet in a matter of 24 miles. Since coffee grows best between 2,600 and 10,000 feet, farms need to be located up to as much as halfway up the mountain slopes. This ensures cool temperatures and adequate rain as the clouds collide with the mountain, pressing out the rain like a sponge.

So many times, we forget the journey that our food has to undergo and the hands that have to nurture it in order to arrive in our cups or on our plates. Yiri spoke to me with tenderness in her voice as she pointed out her own coffee trees as well as dozens of other local plants. I learned with eagerness the proper reds and yellows to look for when harvesting fruit and the care needed when drying the beans.

So many times, we forget the journey that our food has to undergo and the hands that have to nurture it in order to arrive in our cups or on our plates.

Yiri and her family told me about all the opportunities that have been made available to them because of Fair Trade Community Development Funds ever since Asoprosierra attained Fair Trade certification in 2009. Homes like Yiri’s now have tile and concrete flooring instead of dirt, calamity funds have been established for when disasters wipe out a crop, and there are coffee quality trainings.

Her father led me through a history of paramilitary violence and oppression towards coffee farmers. Even as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, there were curfews that restricted farmers from leaving their homes after dark for danger of being shot. Many festivals and celebrations were discouraged. Soldiers would often commandeer crops and supplies for themselves. Over the course of the last 10 years, Colombia has undergone a dramatic shift. As the national government worked harder to eliminate violence, peace accords were also signed. Yirbeth’s father told me of this shift as it happened in his own community. Music, happiness, and peace of mind has returned to the town. People have open festivities, farmers no longer worry about being stopped, and they can finally interact freely with the outside world.

But while there has been much progress, farmers still face adversity and uncertainty. Coffee prices can fluctuate drastically in the course of a day and climate change causes smaller harvests. The work is not over. It’s up to us to demand equitable and sustainable sourcing from the brands we purchase from. You vote for farmers like Yiri with every dollar.


Andrew Gonzales is a supply chain specialist who visited Colombia in November of 2017. In addition to supporting local farms, he went to better understand the impact of Fair Trade Community Development Funds. Visiting a spectrum of farming communities, he was particularly captivated by the impact on smallholder coffee farmers and their communities.