People’s happiness - this is value worth paying for by Leo
Sandra had the look of a woman who ran a coffee co-operative in former coca-leaf country.
“Just be ready tomorrow at 6am” she said, whilst responding to an ever-incoming series of messages on her phone.
I had more questions, of course, but Ivo, my fellow crew-mate turned translator deftly deflected requests for further info with the grace of a man well-versed in Latin adventure. Instead, he ordered another coffee.
I and my camera had joined the Tres Hombres one week earlier, on the Spice Island of Grenada. My mission - to document the ship on this Caribbean leg of her journey, from the absurdist beauty of life at sea to the rich and textured products that fill her hold.
At times this had felt akin to the moral dilemma suffered by crisis photographers, torn between helping their subject and bagging a front-page shot. Watching crew-mates pull on ropes in the pitching sea from behind a lens felt wrong, but dammit I was getting gold. Thankfully they still toasted a cold Aguila with me on our arrival in Santa Marta, Colombia
The 4x4 arrived on time, sporting coloured leather seats and stuffed animals on the dash. This clearly was a Jeep driven with love. Where it was headed, I didn’t know. How long it would be driving for, who could say? All I knew was that there would be coffee at the end.
I had persuaded myself I liked coffee when I was 12, especially how they drank it in films, sweet and black. I used to drink it and feel like an adult. It’s a habit that stuck.
As the jeep snaked through Santa Marta’s suburbs we passed innumerable informal bars lining the street. Of the many things Colombia does well, the informal bar sits absolute top of my list. A few scattered plastic chairs around a grocery shop is all it takes for people to gather, crack a cool one and listen to music. A lesson in irrepressible humanity, licensing laws in London take note.
The jeep swapped out for a donkey as we climbed higher and higher into the Sierra Nevada, the vegetation turning thicker and the air cooler. I realised I didn’t know what a coffee plant looked like and had to be pointed in the direction of a rather ordinary looking bush. It seemed unpretentious for a plant that helps the world to wake up, squat, with muddy green leaves, nothing flashy. Black, with sugar.
The Sierra Nevada mountain range has historically been a hub of drug production. The impenetrable terrain and varied altitudes lend themselves especially well to marijuana and coca cultivation with the nearby port of Santa Marta being a handy distribution point. At the height of Escobar’s power a third of all Colombia’s narco-traffic was passing through Santa Marta’s port. This part of Colombia has always been a little wild.
The people who grew these crops non-grata weren’t hawaiian-shirt wearing gun-toting gangsters with thick moustaches and questionable accents - they were ordinary farmers, working hard to put meals on the table and send their kids to college. They will grow whatever pays the best price, basic economics. A war on drugs is, or at least should be, a war on systemic poverty. Less stick, more carrot.
Enter another of America’s top addictions – caffeine.
The Cooagronevada coffee cooperative is made up of 45 individual coffee producers, and we were staying with one family of them. Their finca’s crest a picturesque hilltop with coffee fields spreading out above into the mountains and down into the valleys below. We were met with unquestioning hospitality typical of Colombia, the serving of huge portions of food and exhibiting of delight in watching us struggle to finish them.
Belly full I set about finding out about the processes of coffee production, from bean to cup. “People forget chocolate is a fruit”, so said Edmund, Grenadian chocolate-maker extraordinaire, and the words similarly ring true for coffee. We’re so used to picking a metallic bag of black powder off the shelf of a grocery store that the fruits true form is often forgotten, vivid red, green and yellow berries, flesh sweet to taste. The extraction and preparation of it’s valuable insides is a beautiful, almost ritualistic process that culminates in watching pale green beans turn oily black over a roasting fire. Et voila, cafe!
Coffee has enabled these farmers to have a viable and legal income. In comparison to other exporters Cooagronevada pays them fair prices for their crop, helping break a cycle of exploitation familiar to the global south. It was only 90 years earlier and 100km down the road in Cienaga that banana workers of the United Fruit Company were gunned down in the street whilst striking for liveable pay. Capitalism has a record here.
It was by sheer chance I had read the previous day a review of the most expensive cup of coffee in London, selling for £15 courtesy of some designer chef in some designer hotel. Given that these farmers told me that for them 5 Euros a kilo is a fair price, that someone sure is getting rich for just pouring hot water over something. We humans are especially capable of inventing value to justify expense, indeed it’s one of the ways we inject meaning into our lives.
And as I sat in the milky sunset of the Sierra Nevada mountains, sipping the freshest coffee I would ever drink whilst watching the people who had grown it play with their kids, I was sure of one thing. People’s happiness - this is value worth paying for.