A Coffee-Infused Transformation: The Story of San Jorge Alto
In the heart of Colombia's undulating terrain dedicated to coffee cultivation lies the village of San Jorge Alto in the Tolima Department. For generations, determined individuals there have hitched their hopes to the aromatic core of coffee's aspirations.
Their unwavering dedication has not only nourished the very earth they tend, but it has also forged a sanctuary where the cultivation of exquisite coffee beans thrives, bolstering Colombia's reputation as a premier source of exceptional coffee.
With September's arrival comes the harvest season, igniting fellow San Jorge Alto farmers with an unparalleled sense of excitement. This moment marks the pinnacle of their hard work, as their sweat transforms into tangible yields. Hearts brimming with eager anticipation exemplify the potential for abundance and distinction that this year's harvest might yield.
The excitement stems from the community-led cable car project known as Garrucha. Launched in 2018 with backing from the nonprofit Lutheran World Relief (LWR), this endeavor seamlessly aligned with Colombia's peace accord and laid the groundwork for sustained progress in a community that had weathered decades of civil conflict.
Cable Cars: Conquering Challenging Terrain
San Jorge Alto's awe-inspiring yet rugged mountainous terrain concealed the transportation challenges faced by its residents, particularly with their cash crop of coffee. Traditional transport involving donkeys proved sluggish and inefficient, resulting in losses and soil degradation.
For the survival of their lifeblood—coffee—a dependable means of transportation was imperative, not only for market access but for the farmers' very livelihoods.
This led to an exceptional partnership between a nongovernmental organization (NGO)and the local community, culminating in the construction of a cable car system using readily available materials, supported by funding from the Osprey Foundation through LWR.
Liliana Ramos, LWR's regional technical advisor in Colombia, emphasizes its significance, explaining, "The project had a dual purpose: first, to showcase viable and sustainable solutions for and with coffee farmers on challenging terrain, and secondly, to encourage other local authorities and farmers’ groups to adopt similar approaches."
A Path of Pioneering Progress
However, LWR's initiative transcended mere transportation. It embraced a holistic approach to revolutionizing coffee farming in San Jorge Alto through sustainable methods. Adhering to the principles of a circular economy, this endeavor incorporated coffee peel for biofertilizer production and introduced nature-based solutions for conserving soil and water resources.
And, of course, the cable cars.
"At the heart of this transformation was a modest coffee processing unit, locally known as 'Central,' Ramos said. “This facility replaced outdated practices of coffee processing, fertilizer production, and the handling of coffee honey water, which had previously polluted the San Jorge River,” a vital resource for the village.
With the new 'Central' in operation, coffee crops are harvested and processed to high standards, affording improved market access and increased income.
Through NGO-community collaboration, villagers have also improved their coffee cultivation techniques, embraced new technologies, and reduced chemical reliance, resulting in a flourishing, healthy coffee crop.
Importantly, this transition minimizes health risks for both growers and consumers, underscoring the remarkable potential of nature when treated with care.
Farmers' adoption of environmentally sustainable techniques ultimately made the San Jorge River the project’s big winner, preserving it from further contamination.
Motivated by the initiative's success, neighboring municipalities and prosperous farmers have initiated similar projects, subsequently spreading this economically viable and environmentally sustainable practice throughout the region.
For LWR, after transferring project leadership in San Jorge Alto to the local NGO Innovakit in 2022, fresh opportunities for impactful transformation await.
Coffee: More Than a Crop
Crucially, in San Jorge Alto, the project's ultimate legacy lies in its ability to kindle hope among communities that endured civil conflict. Coffee, in Colombia, surpasses its agricultural role, symbolizing an industry contributing 15% to agrarian gross domestic product (GDP) and 1% to the overall GDP.
San Jorge Alto, a village caught in the crossfire between guerrilla and government forces, found solace amidst its coffee fields. For the villagers, coffee became more than just an economic asset; it served as a catalyst for sustainable development and played a pivotal role in strengthening the 2016 peace agreement.
Liliana Ramos highlights that the project's major impact was boosting community self-assurance. She explains, "The project nurtured a mindset where all genders believe in their ability to drive change for themselves and their communities, fostering a profound bond with their land. In essence, the community's self-perception shifted from past conflict associations to active participation in their own advancement."
As twilight envelops San Jorge Alto, the village stands as proof of transformative interventions that have reshaped lives. Coffee farmer households stride confidently towards a future where tradition, innovation and knowledge converge harmoniously. This encapsulates the legacy of San Jorge Alto—a narrative of transformation, empowerment and the enduring essence of coffee.
Author: Muhammad Tahir is the Senior Manager for Media and PR at Corus International, a parent organization of Lutheran World Relief. For more information, please visit www.corusinternational.org.