Deep in the heart of Colombia, there is a story that unravels the complex history of Colombia’s dark years, explains the rival stances of the civil war’s multiple parties, and paints a picture of how this war over money and power impacted all Colombians, particularly farmers, all delivered in a fresh cup of coffee.
I’ve been in Colombia for four weeks. I’ve taken at least three tours led by natives in Bogota and Medellin trying to relay the events of Colombia’s dark years that led up to the death Pablo Escobar, its most infamous narco-terrorist. I visited Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum in Medellin dedicated to preserving the testimonies of all victims of the civil war, regardless of stance, a museum that attempts to present an unbiased and complete picture of what it was like to live through those years — entire school buses gone missing, loved ones taken in drive-by shootings, whole communities displaced. I even read “The Sound of Things Falling,” a historical fiction by Juan Gabriel Vasquez that illustrates life in and after those dark years.
Short of opening a history book, my understanding of Colombia’s dark period remained obscured by terms like la FARC, paramilitares, and guerrillas, and occasionally thrown in, M-19, AUC, & Lara Bonilla. Trust me, I love asking questions, and yet my understanding of the era of the eighties and nineties was clouded. So I was surprised to find that a cup of fresh coffee, as close to the source as one could get, was all that I needed to clarify any cloudiness.
Don Leo of Finca La Alsacia lives in Buenavista, Colombia, in the department of Quindío, the heart of Colombia’s coffee region. Don Leo is a campesino through and through, now likely in his 70s. He’s lived in Colombia all his life and has always been a farmer. Today, he owns Finca La Alsacia and employs 10-20 workers depending on the season. At heart, he is a laborer and his wish when buying the plot of land that became his coffee farm was to go back to his roots and to treat laborers how he wished he’d been treated, with dignity and respect. Everyone who works for Don Leo has breakfast, lunch and dinner provided. It’s the same meal that Don Leo and his wife eat, it’s the same meal that tourists who tour the farm eat, and it’s the same meal that volunteers (like me) eat. Not only does La Alsacia practice social equity with their workers, but their farming practices also reflect native and natural methods. Their farm is a beautiful mess of 1200+ native fruit trees — bananas, plantains, guava, avocado, yucca, citric, coffee — and non-fruit-bearing. Coffee is their main product, though equally more important (if not more) is the story of Don Leo himself.
Don Leo grew up in a small town with 16 siblings, dirt poor, but happy. Farmers weren’t treated well and were paid poorly, but there was work. In 1974, Colombia was the world’s 2nd largest producer of coffee, topped only by Brazil. Then in June 1975, a two-day frost damaged two-thirds of the Brazilian coffee crop, causing a shortage of coffee resulting in a price spike to twice its former level from 1975 to 1977. In Don Leo’s words, the Colombian government, wanting to take advantage of the coffee price spike, decided to increase the costs of all commodities — gas, milk, food. According to economists, the coffee-fueled goldmine caused inflation to grow rampant, reaching 35% in 1977. Meanwhile, the price of labor remained depressed. (Urban wages even contracted 10% between 1974-1977.)
In short, campesinos were dirt poor and social tensions rose. Many turned to nomadic labor, moving to where farms were prospering. This is how Don Leo, under the promise of rich coffee farms in the northeast region of Colombia, was deceived into illegal farming. Many laborers scraped up the money to pay for transportation and made their way to Santa Marta only to find that instead of coffee, the farms there were harvesting marijuana. Dirt poor from years of low pay and having spend all they could to get there, they were forced to accept work harvesting marijuana. Over time, the owners of the farms, realizing the even higher profits that could be gained, transitioned to cultivating coca.
Don Leo’s is a story of how a simple farmer of high ethics and morals could transition from farmhand to cocaine chemist. Upon weeks of working harvesting coca leaves, Don Leo overheard talk about a laboratory and chemist. Curious to see what a laboratory looked like and expecting it to be clean with high-tech equipment, Don Leo was stunned to see a dingy, dirty mess of a kitchen. For days, he’d watch as the chemist mixed ingredients, using gasoline, ammonia, and bicarbonate to create a substance, and each day, he’d notice the chemist’s hands growing unsteady. Don Leo knew by watching the chemist’s feverish symptoms that he was plagued by malaria and would need to be replaced. While first unwilling to train Don Leo, the chemist eventually accepted him as his successor.
Don Leo worked as a cocaine chemist, and his attention to detail, perhaps in an effort to prove himself given his lack of formal schooling, brought him recognition as the lead chemist in the area. In two months time, he received his first paycheck, a whopping 180,000 COP, over 20X what he’d received as a laborer. That same night, his conscious made him restless and gave him the courage to escape. Knowing full well the dangers of the jungle through which he wandered or worse, how we would be slaughtered by the narcotraficantes for getting caught., he walked for four days through dense jungle until reaching a small town where he was able to seek medical relief. From there, he made his way to his wife and son and with the money he’d earned from his two months as a chemist, they opened up a small shop in the quietest town they could find.
Don Leo’s shop grew and he became a successful businessman with multiple properties and two cars, but his dream was always to return to the farm. And so in 2009, he bought some land in Buenavista and opened Finca La Alsacia with the intention to build a farm that practiced the social justice and sustainability values that he believed in. Don Leo’s coffee tours go by the name Caficultur, combining the concepts of coffee, culture, and tourism, and take visitors from the town plaza where his coffee is served down a winding road to his farm.
It’s on that journey that Don Leo recounts through his own experience what it was like for campesinos during Colombia’s dark years. How during the coffee boom of the late 1970s and the social injustices harbored against laborers, some campesinos formed groups of bandits and later guerrilla groups to defend their rights and their properties. How la FARC rose as a promise to offer a unified front to defend the rights of campesinos. How many campesinos joined only to be disillusioned by the FARC’s violent and inhumane practices. How they wanted to escape, but couldn’t, and those that did, came back to warn the others. How in many rural areas, the only alternative to joining the FARC was to move to a nearby city. How the government, entangled in corruption and blinded by dollar signs, supported clandestine armed forces, the paramilitares, to carry out the ruthless acts that governments aren’t sanctioned to do. How Colombians, particularly campesinos, were left vulnerable by a poor economy on one side and armed, ruthless groups on the other. How all of these factors combined led to the displacement of millions of campesinos and the growth of drug-trafficking. And how Colombia is pressing ahead to the bright future ahead of it.
Deep in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region, there is a man called Don Leo whose story tells it all.
If you are planning on visiting Colombia’s coffee region, make sure to check out our post on Buenavista! Don Leo’s farm has tours every day at 10am and 2pm. To schedule your visit, visit his site here. Let them know in advance if you need translation!