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Colombians find redemption in coffee

Coffee beans
Colombians are fiercely proud of their coffee industry

By Henry Mance
Bogota

Some might wonder what happened to Juan Valdez's sense of humour.

For 50 years, the figurehead of Colombian coffee has appeared in witty adverts around the world.

Now, the organisation behind him, the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation, is planning to sue American cartoonist Mike Peters for linking coffee exports to human rights abuses in the country.

Carlos Castaneda, 39, chosen as the new Juan Valdez in 2006
The character Juan Valdez (far left) is the industry's advertising figurehead

"When they say there's a little piece of Juan Valdez in every can, maybe they're not kidding," says a character in his Mother Goose cartoon.

For the Federation's President Gabriel Silva, that amounts to "a denigrating and disrespectful piece of black humour".

The Federation is demanding $20m in compensation for Colombia's coffee producers.

The Colombian government has also lodged a diplomatic complaint.

'Untouchable'

Such sensitivity goes beyond commercial concerns.

"Coffee growers see their produce as traditional, as something that represents us with pride throughout the world. For them, it's untouchable," argues Carlos Mario Gallego, a Colombian cartoonist.

This romantic view of coffee has gained widespread popular support.

"It's about image," says Constanza Paez, a engineer in the capital city Bogota.

Coffee farmer
Some farmers are paid fixed prices for their beans
"In the past, when we Colombians travelled abroad - it happened to me - [people would say], 'Colombia? Ah, cocaine!'. But last year, I was in Argentina wearing a Juan Valdez T-shirt, and everybody recognised it and asked me questions.

"That's why there is indignation. After so much time spent trying to clean up the image of Colombia, someone comes along and ties it to violence again."

In 2008, nearly 120,000 branded sweaters and T-shirts were sold in the country - one for every 400 inhabitants.

The National Coffee Park, a park devoted to the bean's cultivation, near the city of Armenia, receives more than 300,000 visitors a year.

For many Colombians, their coffee is more than just high quality.

Unlike oil and biofuels, it has remained above politics.

Unlike sugar, it has not been involved in messy labour disputes.

Indeed, the Coffee Growers' Federation's co-operatives guarantee farmers a set price for their coffee, accounting for 30% of national coffee sales.

When Colombian sportsmen have triumphed abroad, it has often been with the sponsorship of the coffee industry.

It all appears a neat antidote to news of kidnappings and corruption.

Decline

Nonetheless, sceptics question coffee's transcendence for Colombia.

It was a US advertising firm, DDB, which created the figure of Juan Valdez in 1959.

While his star has ascended, winning various advertising awards, Colombia's coffee industry has declined.

In the 1950s, it made up 80% of the country's exports.

Today, Colombia produces less green coffee than Vietnam and only a quarter as much as Brazil.

Cups of coffee
Colombia's coffee industry has declined since the 1950s
According to the historian Marco Palacios, "coffee does not have the power to represent the country as it did half a century ago".

"Of course, coffee growers have an image in Colombia," he says, "but it's not like in the US where the man who conquered the West is glorified. Unfortunately, in Colombia farming and rural culture are undervalued."

Mr Palacios sees the reaction to the Mother Goose cartoon as strictly nationalistic.

"Colombians want to appear above all totally civilised. The cartoon is a reminder that there are issues which are still to be resolved," he says.

Angelica Escobar, the head of one of Colombia's 500,000 coffee-growing families, sees both sides of the argument.

On the one hand, she says, Juan Valdez is more myth than reality.

"Firstly, it shows coffee-growing as a man's thing - as if the only females are the donkeys! Also, it's a very positive image. In reality, we've experienced difficult times, due to the winter, the price of fertilisers, and labour costs."

Yet, on the other hand, Ms Escobar concedes that within Colombia, coffee farmers do benefit not just from the federation's purchasing guarantee, but also from a certain kudos.

"There's a social recognition and a greater respect. You feel something strong," she says.

This feeling, experienced by both producers and consumers, is likely to outlast the froth surrounding one cartoon.

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SEE ALSO
US cartoon provokes Colombia ire
08 Jan 09 |  Americas
Colombian coffee icon steps down
31 May 06 |  Americas
Country profile: Colombia
19 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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