BOGOTA — Since 2012, the Sustainable Trade Platform (STP) has aimed to make Colombia's production of coffee, flowers, palm oil and bananas more environmentally and economically sustainable. It's an ambitious task to help change long-established farming practices, production methods and consumption habits.
But what makes it particularly interesting is the consciously bilateral nature of the program between players in both the producer and consumer nations: the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Bogota and the local NGO Solidaridad.
In the northern Colombian department of Antioquia, the program is retraining 11,000 coffee farmers in and around the district of Salgar, with 2,800 of them already integrating sustainable practices in their production.
Coffee technician and Salgar resident León Jaime Restrepo says STP has worked with farmers to improve the quality of the coffee bean crop. "That's what sustainability is," he says. "It's a matter of necessity for the Colombian coffee farmer who sees how coffees are not just conventional anymore, but moving onto new levels. Sustainability is measured with environmental components like reduced use of chemicals, reduced water pollution and the defense of natural resources."
To specify who and what is considered sustainable, Restrepo says that "those not in the sustainability program use chemical pesticides, throw coffee pulp into the river, have no treatment of waste waters and employ minors instead of supporting their education."
Restrepo also says sustainable coffee farmers will let the coffee grain mature longer, making it sweeter, weightier and more valuable.
STP is the first public-private alliance in Colombia trying to boost sustainability in the production, trading and consumption of the country's four most important farming sectors: bananas, coffee, flowers and palm oil. It's currently active in 13 of the country's 32 departments.
The initiative is managed by Solidaridad, an international NGO with 10 regional centers and 20 offices around the world. The idea is to create sustainable supply chains from producer to consumer. Sustainable practices first began to be recognized in the 1970s, and their criteria began to be specified after the 1992 Rio summit.
"Sustainability programs had to be articulated toward the market, and the market had to make an ethical commitment to go in that direction," says Carlos Isaza, who manages the coffee sector for Solidaridad Colombia.
Get the seal
The European Union and the Netherlands in particular see Colombia as an important partner and supplier of food products. And supermarket shelves (especially in Finland and the Netherlands, the top consumers of sustainable coffee) display not just coffee but also bananas, palm oil and flowers.
Who's the fairest coffee in Amsterdam? Photo: Amfrank
Colombia is one of the five principal exporters of farming products, and therefore crucially important to the spread of sustainable agriculture practices. The country is the world's No. 2 exporter of flowers, third in coffee, and fourth for bananas and palm oil. These sectors assure the livelihoods of more than 3.5 million people in Colombia.
STP is bringing together producers, buyers, government and aid organizations. The dialogues it promotes are to define actions and strategies so that these four products can be positioned and sold in world markets with the certified sustainability seal. Some 90 entities are collaborating actively with the organization.
"Sustainable products have been viewed as a luxury for a market niche," says Koen Sizoo, economic affairs chief at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Bogota. "Yet more and more companies are seeing the need to invest in the sustainable production of raw materials in order to meet the requirement of mass customers like supermarkets and the food industry."
With that in mind, there are three principal objectives to help local producers: spreading knowledge about good practices and techniques, helping them access international markets and certifications, and understanding how to react to global warming. "The aim is to transform sustainability in a competitive advantage for buyers and producers," Sizoo says. "Today we are focusing on transition from the classical model of cooperation for development to a relationship as equals between the Netherlands and Colombia."
The first signs of real change have already been registered. In 2010, 40% of the coffee the Netherlands consumed was certified as sustainable. Today six million of the 12 million sacks of coffee produced in Colombia are sustainable. The goal for 2015 is even more ambitious: to have 75% of Dutch consumers sipping certified sustainable coffee.