South American Coffee Origins

When one thinks of quality coffee, a Latin American plantation is sure to come to mind. Supermarket brands and artisanal coffees alike feature the green rolling fields of the South American highlands, with rows of coffee trees standing to the backdrop of a shining sun.

Yet while South America remains the world’s largest producer of coffee, the plant’s origins are on the other side of the planet, and the history of prosperous South American coffee production is beset with cruelty, slavery, exploitation, and ecological disaster.

Let’s explore how coffee made its way across the Atlantic to the shores of the Americas and became one of South America’s greatest cash crops.

Coffee’s Origin in Africa

The history of coffee can be traced back to an ambiguous point in the 14th or 15th century, to the Ethiopian highlands. The earliest surviving record of coffee consumption dates back to the 15th century, wherein a Sufi Imam from Yemen makes note of the import of coffee from the neighboring Ethiopia, just across the Red Sea.

Coffee became an important beverage to the Sufis, and its usage spread throughout the Arabic world. The Persians were apparently the first to roast coffee before preparing it, a practice that since became commonplace in Egypt, Syria, and the Ottoman Empire by the 16th century.

Coffee was eventually introduced in Europe via trade during the 16th century, and coffeehouses and cafes became commonplace in cities such as Rome, Venice, and London, and later Paris, Vienna, and other important European metropolises.

At the time, all coffee in the world was produced in Ethiopia and Yemen and traded largely from the Yemeni port of Al Mokha. But the European thirst for coffee went above and beyond the global supply, and industrious Dutch, Spanish, and French sailors endeavored to establish coffee plantations in tropical colonies for the benefit of their respective crowns.

The first Europeans to plant and produce coffee anywhere other than the African and Arabian highlands were the Dutch, who brought the plant to their colonies in modern day Indonesia, eventually cementing the association of the island of Java with coffee.

They also planted and produced coffee in their colony on Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time), where coffee had already been growing natively, although the indigenous Sinhalese did not prepare the beverage, and instead cooked with the plant’s leaves.

The Journey to the West

Coffee’s introduction to the Americas also began with the Dutch, who sent one plant to the French in 1714, and introduced another plant to their Caribbean colony, the Dutch Guyana (today the Republic of Suriname) in 1718.

Two years later, under King Louix XIV of France, the naval officer Gabriel de Clieu transported the sole coffee plant growing in the royal gardens to the French Caribbean colony of Martinique.

The Dutch and the French began experimenting with the growth and propagation of coffee in their respective colonies, yet both research and yield were limited.

These plants were largely curiosities, and neither the French nor the Dutch had much experience in handling and growing them at the time. While the Dutch had become Europe’s greatest suppliers of coffee (among other things) from their main plantations in Java, their knowledge and understanding of coffee production was still limited.  

Both plants, both offspring of the original plant the Dutch had pilfered from Arabia, became the progeny for all coffee in South America.

From Curiosity to Cash Crop

It wasn’t until the mid-18th century that coffee production began booming in the Caribbean, particularly in the colonies of Jamaica and St. Domingue.

Dutch and French colonialists utilized local labor to slash-and-burn large tracts of forest, using the ash and decayed foliage as immediate fertilizer to further enrich the already nutritious forest soil.

This was followed with haphazard planting of coffee trees in giant monocultures without shade, with little regard for ecology or efficiency. The result was massive amounts of soil erosion and accelerated soil depletion, yet despite this, the practice remained unbelievably profitable.

Yields were high and between the years 1755 and 1590, coffee production in St. Domingue alone grew by 1100% percent.

The massive production of coffee in French colonies came to an abrupt halt in 1790, due to the French Revolution. The revolts and uproar back home eventually sparked slave revolts in the islands of the Caribbean, culminating the Haitian Revolution and a wildfire of revolutions throughout the Americas.

Much of Spain’s and Portugal’s colonies gained independence as well, and while European colonialism continued to function on a limited capacity, much of the ownership had transferred into the hands of a new breed of elites.

How an Era of Revolution Shaped Coffee

The 19th century saw a transformation in the relationship between burgeoning South American and Caribbean nations, and the rapidly industrializing countries of Europe and North America. Coffee production in the Caribbean plummeted following the era of revolution, and the eventual emancipation of the British Caribbean.

As slavery and colonialism slowly came to an end in the form that was once widespread throughout Latin America, these nations instead turned towards the production of coffee as an opportunity to exchange the ecological resources of their lands for hard currency.

This saw the beginning of the mass exploitation of the Atlantic Forest to produce coffee and other cash crops. Brazil quickly became the world’s largest producer and exporter of coffee, at the cost of its ecological wealth.

By the end of the 19th century, Brazil was producing 80 percent of all the coffee on the planet.

While abolished, slavery did persist, especially in Brazil, as did exploitative labor everywhere else in the region. Exploitation and the pursuit of profit trumped any concept of sustainability or ecological rationality.

The production of coffee at the time could largely be attributed to the Atlantic Forest and the Caribbean, but the mid-19th century saw the introduction of a third major region in the coffee production of South America: the mountainous cordillera which pass through most of the continent.

Noteworthy countries producing coffee in their rich highlands include Costa Rica, Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia, and Nicaragua. Technological improvements in transportation and communication, including railroads and the telegraph, made it easier for countries to engage in export and import on a large scale.

Two Styles of Cultivation

While Brazil tore down its forests to make way for monocultured coffee plantations, the coffee industry higher up in the South American highlands took on a more modest approach, typically planting coffee alongside shade-giving crops like rubber and banana, and producing coffee at much smaller quantities.

Forests were still torn down and destroyed, yet on a much smaller scale, and replaced with more diverse crops. The many gardens and farms across the region added up into large quantities over time, and the coffee production of the cordillera was nothing to sneeze at.

Modernization and a Scientific Approach

At the turn of the 20th century, South American coffee production began to outstrip global demand. World War II saw true tragedy in the coffee market as South America, especially Brazil, abruptly lost about 40 percent of its market.

This led to the formal cooperation between the United States and local coffee organizations, which had grown considerably in power during the earlier portion of the century. This cooperation, under the Interamerican Coffee Agreement, sought to secure the price of coffee.

This eventually led to the International Coffee Agreement, which was ratified in 1962 to ensure that South American coffee production would not fall into the hands of the Soviet Union.

These institutions and organizations, some of which developed nationally (such as the Brazilian Institute of Coffee, the Mexican Institute of Coffee, and the Colombian Federation of Coffee Growers), and some of which developed regionally (such as the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Cooperation), became increasingly interested in the study and modernization of the coffee industry to better understand the plant, maximize yields, minimize economic risk, manage the booms and busts of the industry, and study its ecological effects.

Quality and Sustainability

The centralization of coffee producing policies helped control the supply and demand of coffee globally, yet it was also around this time that the coffee industry began to feel the effects of numerous catastrophic ecological issues, beginning with numerous frosts, the emergence of the coffee rust disease, the spread of the coffee borer beetle from Angola, culminating in the effects of climate change and decades of deforestation on the production and sustainability of coffee in Brazil and other South American nations.

Despite conservation efforts, rapid modernization in planting and cultivation techniques, and the intensified study of coffee varietals and experimentation with coffee breeding, problems such as soil erosion, monoculture-related pests, and erratic climates continue to threaten coffee production in the region.

A renewed interest in coffee as an artisanal good has led to the individual uplifting of farmers willing to invest in producing coffee for companies marketing single-origin sustainable coffee to upmarket consumers has helped draw more attention to the issues plaguing the production of coffee and other crops, but the vast majority of coffee production remains invested in serving supermarket brand coffee and instant coffee production, for brands such as McDonalds, Dunkin’, Maxwell House, and Nescafe.

As consumers, we each have the responsibility of paying a premium for coffee that aims to reduce the ecological footprint of coffee production in the world, and ensure that we can all enjoy this beverage for decades and centuries to come.

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