Americas Beans Series 3 - Venezuela Coffee Story
The ports located in the Caribbean islands were witnesses of the raising of trading between South America and the old continent.
Coffee travelled from Europe in the pockets of merchants, missioners and slaves, we may bring back the name of Josè Gumilla, author of “El Orinoco Ilustrado” (The Orinoco Illustrated), as the mayor documented evidence of how coffee was introduced in Venezuela by the hand of Jesuits groups, whom planted the coffee seeds in the west part of the country, Guayana (currently Bolivar Estate), around 1730, from this point, coffee made its way to Colombia.
During this time, the major economical activities were related to mineral extraction, tobacco, sugarcane and of course, cocoa, a highly demanded item for the aristocracy in Europe, most of the trading in the land of Venezuela was controlled by the company “Guipozcoana”, a merchant society favoured by the Spanish monarchy (1730-1785). Created with the propose of battle limit the contraband of goods made by the Netherlands and restrict the commerce through important rivers by placing armed ships and forts in strategically places ready to attack anyone who dares to avoid taxes. In 1774 this company made the first economically significant and legal coffee exportation to Spain from Maracaibo. Mario Briceño Iragory, a Venezuelan writer pointed out an Interesting view about the dynamic between the cocoa and coffee in the Venezuelan Economy, considering the cocoa as a symbol of colonial dominance over America, over the natives, and the coffee arrival represented a source of empowering of for the new mixed races, able of endure the challenges related to the born of a new republic, beyond the legacy of the monarchy.
Coffee made its way through Venezuela quickly, over the years 1777; small plantations were reported in the regions of Mèrida, Trujillo and Tàchira. In Chacao (a town nearby Caracas, the capital of the province) around 1784, the “Hacienda La Floresta” was the place with the biggest organised plantation at the time. The independence process from the declaration in 1810, the conformation of “the Big Colombia” (conformed by the former provinces of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama) in 1821 and the establishment of a single and separated nation in 1830 was a traumatic and chaotic period for the economy. After obtain a short notion of peace in the region, coffee was attracting the attention of the farmers and politicians, coffee came to the rescue. Still passed through the effects of several international crisis in 1836, 1840, 1857, 1882, 1890, all related to gold trading, banks collapse, conflicts in Europe, all causing the drop of the international coffee prices,despite all this in 1896 Venezuela was the third coffee producer worldwide, descending slowly to the eight place in 1933. It was dealing with the consequences of being highly dependent in one single item (we’ve seen this before, right?).
In the beginning of the new century, coffee cultivation was extended across the country, in the states Lara, Portuguesa, Táchira, Mérida, Trujillo, Monagas, Sucre, Yaracuy (even now), but two notable events were responsible of the change of the behaviour of coffee economy in Venezuela, the big depression in EEUU (1929- 1938) and the exploitation of the new black fluid, the oil. In the first aspect, the dollar was devaluated 34% and the Venezuelan currency kept its value, the result: the decrease of exportation due to the high value of the Venezuelan goods. By the other hand, the insane among of black profit underground was the focus for the Venezuelan governments (mostly militaristic and autocratic), leaving agriculture in a second of further place. During this period, a massive flood of farmers and young persons from the field to the cities occurred, willing to take part of the new era. The populations in the cities increased drastically in few decades, faster than most urban-ism planning could possibly handle.
We can mention that for a long part of their history, Colombia and Venezuela were very similar in their economies and history, but oil impacted deeply the idiosyncrasy of the Venezuelan society at the point that the income from it allowed a huge investment in governmental and health infrastructure, education and modernisation of agriculture, especially during the government of the “elected” president Marco Perez Jimenez, a famous politic figure that even appeared in the “time” magazine in 1955. Colombia by the other hand, despite having coffee as a significant economic base, it kept investing in other crops and manufacturing, leading to a more diversified economy.
After Gomez, started the “democratic era”, with politics with a remarkably different tone than previous governments, reforms in oil and other industries and foreign relationships were made but attention to coffee remained low, used frequently as topic of interest to earn the support of farmers for political issues and campaigns.
Traditionally, farmers have been very close and grateful to their plantations, even at the point that some of them think twice before cut old plants for restoration. The commonly used arabica varieties are Caturra, Catuai and Bourbòn, but also is common find canephora in warmer areas. The arrival of “Roya” caused the loss of entire plantations around the country, the research in tolerant varieties was carried by the “INIA” (Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones Agricolas, public institutions oriented to agricultural research) and some important universities as “ULA” (Universidad de Los Andes), the varieties “Monte Claro”, “INIA-01” and “Araguaney” (Originated from Catimor) were released in the last decades, having good acceptance among the farmers.
While talking about political decisions that affected negatively the coffee economy we can mention that in 2009, the government had the “brilliant Idea” of importing coffee from Nicaragua and Brazil, instead of supporting the local production (It was cheaper, they said), affecting the competence of national farmers. Farmers and politics are attracting their attention back to the field, hopefully, after learning something from the recent history. As we saw in the past, coffee can be the answer to restore the economy of a developing country, but we must to keep in mind the dangers of a high dependence on a single item, Venezuela has a lot of experience in this issue, first with the cocoa, later with coffee and now with the oil.
Venezuela is one of those countries that counts with natural and human treasures, having everything that it need to succeed, but the legacy of being one single trick pony, talking about the dependence of oil, represent a challenge for a country that must deal with alarming increasing inflation process; coffee appears as a lifeguard to recover the strength and trust of the economy and a breath of hope for a society that was commenting the sin of ignoring the farmer.