Introduction | Coffee Craze Spread With Islam
Old Labels Have New Meanings | Safeguards Spawn Illegal Profits | Coffee Fills National Coffers | Concocting a Quick Cup

Click to enlarge     

Safeguards Spawn Illegal Profits

As some protection against coffee’s boom-or-bust cycles, farmers like López may commit their entire crop to the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia at a daily established price. To fund this subsidy program, the federation levies a 25 percent tax—in cash and actual coffee for its inventory reserve—on the exporters of outbound beans.

Most principal producing nations follow similar practices. But Colombia loses a lot in the process to smugglers.

Dr. Pedro Valencia, director of public relations for the federation, acknowledges the problem: “About 400,000 bags of contraband Colombian coffee reach the States every year; Miami warehouses are full of it. It’s a free-access commodity to your country, so no one cares how it gets there. Returning ships bring back contraband cigarettes, which clear your country legally and enter mine illegally. So we lose both ways.”

Smugglers ran far greater risk in Uganda (map) during the tyrannical reign of deposed dictator Idi Amin. Compelled to deliver coffee to his corrupt regime for worthless currency or none at all, smallholders began sneaking their better beans into Kenya (map), which also prohibited such traffic. Those caught on the Uganda side were usually put to death, while those across the border made a bundle as illegal middlemen.

While the intake of coffee may not be hazardous to health, its output can be, especially in tiny El Salvador (map), where 3 percent of the growers produce 60 percent of the crop. At the larger fincas one may be greeted by ferocious guard dogs and wary, armed employees. These coffee czars, most from the country’s wealthiest families, have long been targets of terrorist threats, kidnappings, and sometimes murder.

Here, amid past volcanic convulsions, some farmers must rope themselves down their near-perpendicular manzanas to pick and prune their trees. And funiculars outperform man and mule in conveying the harvest from windswept ridgetops to deep-cleft chasms, where beneficios hull, dry, and bag the beans for export.


© 1999 National Geographic Society All rights reserved.