Americas Bean Series 4 - Coffee Origin in Brazil
Updated: Jan 16, 2019
Coffee Origin in Brazil
Several historians agree that coffee arrived from the old continent to the Martinique and Antilles islands where the first small plantations in America were grown in 1714 from the seeds obtained from a single branch brought by the captain of the French army, Mathieu de Clieu.
The story tells us about the struggles that this captain had while keeping alive a coffee branch stolen from the gardens of King Luis XIV all the way through the Atlantic Ocean to finally plant it in those Islands. From this point, coffee jumped to Haiti, Cuba, and the rest of the Caribbean Island and finally to South America. As we saw in the coffee origin stories of Colombia and Venezuela, Catholic groups (Jesuits) were responsible for spreading coffee cultivation alongside their religion but not everybody was so open to sharing the coffee seeds with others.
French Guiana, aware of the potential of this crop for the region, kept an open eye over their plantations, willing to participate in the coffee economy. The government of the Portuguese colony in Brazil sent Lt. Colonel Francisco de Melo Palheta as an “ambassador” to deal with some frontier issues but in reality, his mission was to get some seeds by seducing the French Guiana governor’s wife. As the story says in 1727, back at home, the region of Parà (river sea in a native language) became the first growing region in Brazil with its rainforest tropical weather with no dry season and highly available hand labour from slavery. The coffee cultivation started to attract attention of great landowners that deforested vast extensions of Amazonian jungle only for coffee cultivation, reaching Rio de Janeiro in 1770 but in a similar way as other countries in the region. The economic value of coffee grew slowly ‘till 1830.
The problems of some are the profits of others. The Dutch East India Company was a multinational corporation founded in 1602 that had a lot of power and influence in the Asian economy, owning the market of products from Asia to Europe. Nevertheless, due to several international conflicts and internal problems inside the company, it slowly suffered a decline since 1720. The economic rise in Brazil, able to offer cheaper sugar to the European market, caused the bankruptcy of Asiatic sugar merchants. However, the last hit occurred in 1770 when the leaf rust disease caused the ruin of entire coffee plantations. As a result, the company was closed around 1799, letting other Latin American countries dominate the coffee market.
After 1830, a series of independence conflicts changed the axis of power in Latin America and promoted the change of social paradigms. As we can imagine, early history of coffee cultivation in America was sustained by the labour of African slaves. The slavery was formally abolished in 1888; meanwhile, the use of labour from European immigrants increased and the industrialisation of the processing of cherries and beans allowed keeping sustainable prices.
The “Republic of Brazil” was born in 1890 and in the early stage, it was something similar to a military dictatorship. In spite of that, the government recognised the importance of coffee as a source of profit, especially due to the decrease of sugar and gold value at international markets. The current policies allowed an overproduction of coffee, looking to displace competitors; it was a promising strategy …… ‘till the Black Friday during 1930 that caused the drop of coffee value (this situation sounds familiar, right?), requiring the destruction of millions of tons of coffee during the following years to decrease the offer. After this decade, Brazil embraced changes in its economic models, evolving from single crop agriculture to a diverse economy. It then continues to be the largest coffee producer worldwide, producing more than Colombia and Vietnam. An interesting fact is that nowadays, Brazil internal consumption of coffee is higher than in the United States.
Coffee Production in Brazil
The major coffee regions are Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, São Paulo, Bahia, Rondônia, and Paraná. Despite the fact that foreign customers have a huge demand for Arabica varieties, Robusta varieties are commonly grown and used for “blend” in the preparation of mixed coffee.
Also, due to the latitude, resulting in lower incidence of UV rays and the weather conditions, coffee plantations can be found at low altitude, even nearby the coasts, allowing a mechanical harvest of the cherries. Using drip irrigation systems in vast extensions of land, the revenues of Robusta varieties overpass that of Arabica varieties due to the productivity and tolerance to climatic change.
Coffee also represents the source of profit for small farmers that don’t have access to huge investment in their plantation and still represents a significant part of the coffee economy. However, it depends on the state; for example, in Bahia, coffee production is dominated by big owners, and in other areas as Sao Paulo, the lack of hand labour is feeding the need of investment in machinery. Overall, Brazil is looking forward to dominating the global market by producing the volume of yield.
In the same way as Colombia and Costa Rica, Brazil saw the opportunity to diversify the coffee economy by making use of tourism. The state of Minas Gerais at the north of Rio de Janeiro promotes the rural development far away from the well-known beaches and cities, a relaxing environment way different to the “Carnaval”.
The route of special coffee, in the plantation of “Sertao” de Mantiqueras de Minas, took inspiration of the wine industry, offering a tour around the coffee plantations and making several stops to show every stage of the production. Meanwhile, in the location of Espírito Santo, local farmers take visitors to a walk through the national park Caparao, showing the native fauna and flora. These trips and experiences aren’t just for foreigners as it can be seen that most of the clients are national travellers.
Most of the major brands count with some seal of origin certification that adds more value to its products, especially because every day the customers are claiming for organic products and the defence of the farmers and environmental rights.
Brazilian agriculture and economy are dealing with the consequences of climate change. In addition, it still needs to improve the social conditions of the rural communities exposed to lack of education, opportunities, health problems, and pollution caused by industry. However, we must recognise that coffee industry has improved itself over the years and brought benefits to rural communities around the country, becoming an example for other developing nations.