It’s no secret that Medellin's reputation was stained by drugs and violence all throughout the 80's and 90's. It's impossible for a lot of people outside Colombia to hear the word “Medellín” and not immediately think Pablo Escobar and cocaine. The violence that hit our city was deeply attached to an even broader violence that shook rural Colombia and brought it down to its knees. Illegal armed groups fought hard to control territory in order to provide export routes and drug ingredients to the powerful cartels. In return, they made juicy profits that filled their wallets and fueled their war with the state. These groups terrorized the countryside and thousands of innocent people died or had to either place their lives on hold or move away from their home town in order to survive, most of the time to cramped cities that offered them nothing.
Although we don’t pretend to explain in detail the roots and complexities of this violent phenomenon in one short blog (not that we could in a long one either), it is important here to give you at least a short history of Medellín, and how the cartels came to be. Medellín has always been an incredible city, one built between in the 18th and 19th century by hard working frontier folks. These pioneers in many ways set the tone for an industrial and entrepreneurial city, filled with families that would work hard in agriculture, commerce or industry in order to prosper, instead of depending on patronage from the Spanish crown. Today, Medellín is the home to some of the most important companies in Colombia, including the biggest bank, food conglomerate, insurance company, cement company, energy and utilities company, and supermarket chain, just to name a few. Coffee was also an important part of Medellín's initial prosperity, as Antioquia (the state where our city is located) became the biggest coffee producing region in Colombia in the late 1900's and continues to provide almost 20% of the country's coffee production.
Ever since Colombia's independence in 1819, our country has been plagued by civil conflict fueled by political disputes between liberals and conservatives. Multiple civil wars were fought, and in the 1920's and then again in the 1940's, this political turmoil spread from the battle grounds and deep into society. All this lead to a weak state, one that had little control of certain parts of our country and sometimes even of our cities. Then the 70's came, and demand for exotic drugs in the US and Europe started to skyrocket, and supply followed. The first cartels were started by smugglers, most of them from Antioquia (remember our entrepreneurial and commercial spirit? It’s a double edge sword). They started dealing with marihuana, and then struck gold when they learned how to process the leaf from the coca plant into cocaine. The initial days were all about truckloads of cash (Pablo Escobar´s fortune was calculated at its highest at 25 billion dollars). This money was used to control territory and export routes, and to pay off the few members of the authorities that bothered to look their way. In the 80s this began to change and our government, with a little help of the DEA, mounted a massive offensive against the cartels. The result was years of mayhem, as Escobar and other drug lords responded by murdering major public figures and spreading fear by detonating bombs and kidnapping left and right (Narcos, anyone? It’s actually semi-correct in its story).
If the late 80's was the darkest period of our winter, the 90's could barely be described as slightly better. Guerrilla groups, emboldened by their drug fortune and a still weak estate, kept the countryside terrorized, while at the same time the residues of the cartels kept fighting each other for power after the main leaders were arrested or killed. Only until the early 2000's, with a stronger government and, at least in Medellin, with a strong public policy towards urban development, education and law enforcement, did our country and our city began to move away from violence.
Although our city's and country's reality started to change more than a decade ago, its only recently that people around the world started to realize that Medellin is in the midst of a wonderful awakening. This second start in life is filled (check out this link from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/travel/things-to-do-in-36-hours-in-medellin.html) with art, public architecture and food. We like to believe that this change comes from a powerful convergence of public and private efforts, where absolutely everyone in our community has had to pitch in in order to move the needle from fear to hope, to move from winter to spring, or “primavera”.
Our company is connected to this change in two crucial ways. On one side, our small coffee shop, located in a more than aptly named street called Via Primavera, has slowly but surely become a community epicenter for our broader neighborhood of El Poblado. Around this neighborhood you can see the incredible development of our city, now filled with design shops, restaurants and bars worthy of the streets of any major city in the world. Coffee, and great coffee in particular, plays an important role here. Coffee shops are crucial as a space to foment entrepreneurship, creativity and enthusiastic discussion of every topic imaginable. Furthermore, Colombians have been accustomed to drink low quality beans (basically the crap we don’t export, which is every bean that has a major defect), and we wanted to help change that. With other pioneers, Pergamino has been one of the first roasters to bring to Colombians some of the best coffees that our country produces. We don’t want to take coffee too seriously, but if our city is discovering how to empower itself through design, art, food and architecture, it should better understand and drink properly one of its most famous products in the world market!
However, from what we told you before, you can see that our violence had its roots deep into Colombia’s rural poverty. Lack of opportunities there provide a fertile soil for the procreation of violent groups, and lack of economic development, mixed with weak institutions, is the perfect scenario for these groups to prey on innocent communities. Therefore, a real, sustainable change for our country and our city, has to be founded in rural prosperity, and in Colombia, this rural prosperity is linked intrinsically to coffee. Unfortunately, coffee is no longer a motor of development in it of itself. Long gone are the days in which coffee was grown anywhere in our country, and growers had only to wait two years for the trees to start producing and begin reaping profits. Nowadays the commodity market reacts to many factors, but really never to the growing cost of production in high cost countries like our own (more on this in another blog). For most growers, the past 10 years have given them prices barely above the cost of production, providing them with skim incomes and little capital to invest in improving their farms or their livelihood.
This is where we feel companies like our own have a big responsibility and a big opportunity to pitch and help out. Specialty/craft coffee is about recognizing quality, and behind that quality there is a large number of factors. However, there is always a grower, and usually a grower´s family, at the center of these factors. Paying fair, high, and sustainable premiums for amazing coffees provide these growers with an opportunity to look at their farms as small, successful businesses, ones that will provide them with a better lifestyle and make them the center of an important rural transformation. This transformation, which will help rural communities participate in the awakening of cities like Medellin, is the fundamental step towards uprooting violence from our country. It’s important to think about this not as charity, but as the way things should be. There is no money being given away, only money being spread throughout the chain fairly and proportionately.
Not to get poetic or anything, but our coffee Primavera is our way to honor the transformation of our neighborhood, our city, and above all, our allied producers.