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Medardo's coffee parable

Medardo (aged 70) is another or our collaborators. He once told us the story of how the coffee plant was transformed during his lifetime. When he was a child, he says, nobody was a “coffee grower”. Instead, coffee plants just seemed to pop up in people’s gardens and farms. It seemed to grow everywhere! A coffee plant provided generous yields year after year without any need to care for it. It grew in the wild quite happily. Back then, farmers who grew their own food would have coffee plants dotted around their lands and would occasionally collect and sell coffee as a way of generating extra cash. Several different coffee types existed (Caturro, Borbón, and others), which were all adapted to different geographical qualities, and had evolved over time to suit those unique circumstances.

Many decades ago, a Federation of Coffee Growers was set up by the government in Colombia, with the view of generating big business through exports. The Federation went to all the regions where coffee grew naturally and told farmers that coffee was now a big business: that if they focused exclusively on cultivating coffee (and if they got rid of all other crops) farmers could make good money. In return the Federation would buy all their coffee as an export product. Farmers all around the country signed up.

Within months, however, the Federation declared it would only buy coffee from those who replaced their old coffee plants with a new variety which had been especially “developed in a lab”. The Federation said that this was essential to guarantee the consistency of the product. And so, farmers destroyed their coffee plantations, and the old varieties of coffee disappeared. Most farmers didn’t have enough cash to buy the seeds for the new variety, so the Federation gave out loans to farmers. As time passed, the new variety proved to be much more demanding than the old varieties, and the Federation declared that pesticides and fertilizers were required. For this, it also rolled out further loans to farmers. The yields of this new variety were meagre compared to the old varieties – in two years of harvest the plant would die out, while the old plants used to provide generous harvests for decades. The fertilizers and pesticides dried the land and generated poor soils. This situation was worsened by monocrop cultivation which had depleted the rich ecology of the farms.

Now, after decades of existence, the Federation has hundreds of thousands of affiliated farmers who have infertile lands and can only make ends meet by taking further loans in order to pay for seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. The abundance of life and nature that was part of these regions has been exhausted. This is what the commercialisation of agriculture has done in rural Colombia ... to say nothing of the cattle farming, but that is a whole other story…

This tale is just one snippet of a phenomenon that has occurred globally with edible plants such as banana, rice, cacao, soy, corn, wheat and many othes. In our watershed, we have begun exploring local plant species and treasuring the seeds and wisdom we come across in our region. We also aim to grow our food as part of a rainforest garden – pockets of edible gardens with a diversity of plants growing amongst a rich ecology. Many of the older people we have met locally still have a meaningful connection to the land, to traditional herbal medicine, to old varieties of crops and their seeds, and to celestial rhythms for planting. We highly value the opportunity to connect with these local wise ones, and learn from the ancient wisdom that is still part of their lives.

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