Santiago has memories as a boy of searching for and finding his aunt naked, abused and abandoned after being kidnapped by guerrilla in FARC zone Colombia. “We would army crawl through the house on our forearms because of the bullets flying through the walls,” he laughs.
His family lived the conflict—everyone in/near Miranda during the 80’s and 90’s did. And many still do.
In December 2012, Santiago Moncada and lawyer-friend Steve traveled back to Colombia to help Santi’s father and brother host a Christmas party for impoverished youth in the guerilla-controlled mountain towns.
It was during that visit that they were introduced to a couple of farmers who had courageously cut down their coca fields to plant coffee—attempting to politely exit the drug economy without any real strategy or resources to monetize their new crop.
The drug economy is a powerful one, established and ironically secure. Coffee is different. Selling beans to the government (the largest domestic buyer) wasn’t yielding high enough profits to sustain the farmers. They needed another outlet.
A high-quality coffee that creates sustainable economic opportunity for rural farmers in conflict zones.
Santi and Steve then and there resolved to start a company to help bring the coffee to market—to America. “So we need a name…and a brand, including a logo and packaging and a website,” they tell me. The collaboration began and Redeeming Grounds was born.
The thing you need to know about Santi and Steve is that they are overcomers. ‘Can we?’ is never a question you’ll hear them ask; it’s always ‘how do we?’
And this is their story—the story of ‘how they.’ Beginning with a boy dodging bullets at home and culminating with a global brand delivering high-quality coffee and economic opportunity to farmers entrenched yet.
From Ground to Cup
History of conflict. Land of promise.
Colombia is a place of majestic beauty. Mountains, rainforests, jungles, beaches, plains, canyons and desert come together to form a vast and diverse landscape. The coastline spans both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean; the Andean mountains boast high impressive peaks as well as rich, fertile soil; and the Amazon distinguishes itself as one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world.
Colombia is a country known for its hospitable people, vibrant culture, and diverse landscape. But even with its beauty and charm, Colombia casts a long shadow with its history of conflict and instability.
Colombia’s post-colonial history has been plagued by violence. For more than 50 years, a civil conflict between guerilla groups, paramilitary groups, and the state has ravaged the country, with the drug trade playing a central role.
In the mid-1960s, left-wing guerilla groups (known as the FARC and the ELN, inspired by Marxist principles and the Cuban Revolution) were formed in pursuit of political power and land reform. The guerillas have used the widespread tactics of killings, threats, forced displacement, kidnappings, landmines and indiscriminate weapons, and recruitment/use of child soldiers.
The Colombian military has been fighting these rebel groups for decades though has itself been associated with human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, and ‘false positives’ (cases of civilians murdered, but then officially reported as combatants killed in action).
In response to the rise of left-wing guerilla groups, paramilitary groups were formed – a sort of vigilante justice effort, which has also used widespread killings, threats, forced displacement, and human rights abuses. Though the AUC (an umbrella organization for paramilitary groups) disbanded in the early 2000s, successor groups broke off and have continued to fight for power and control.
For decades, left-wing guerrillas fought against right-wing paramilitaries and the state, but in the 1980s, a new player entered the scene – cocaine. As the drug trade expanded in Colombia, a new wave of violence struck the country and a ‘war on drugs’ emerged.
The state was now engaged in two conflicts – one against left-wing guerilla groups, another against the drug cartels. Yet, both conflicts became inextricably linked. Guerillas, paramilitary groups and drug lords were all tied together in a web of money, drugs and weapons.
The Drug Trade
Conflict and violence in Colombia did not begin with cocaine, but there is now a symbiotic relationship so powerful that it is hard to imagine one diminishing without the other.
The presence of the drug trade brought billions of dollars and expensive weaponry into a country ravaged by civil war. This influx of resources has arguably allowed the conflict to rage on much longer that would have otherwise been possible.
Guerilla groups and paramilitary groups have fought for control of the coca-growing regions of the country, making the violence even more widespread and weakening the presence of a stable government. In addition, the drug trade has served as an economic engine for the conflict, financing both factions and delivering expensive arms and weapons to a conflict-ridden region.
And with that, a few simple ingredients became the source of a violent drug war, lucrative illicit trade business and devastating addictions.
While drug trafficking generates a whopping $320 million every year (UNODC), the average Colombian coca farmer’s profits are unimpressive.
For example, in Colombia a gram of coca paste can be sold for 1,000 pesos (equivalent to 53 cents), while on the streets of DC, a gram of cocaine will go for about $120 (UNODC).
As the product moves through the supply chain, there is a substantial mark-up. Enough coca leaf to make a kilogram of cocaine base can sell for between $585-$780. The kilo of cocaine base will then be processed, refined and converted into cocaine, selling in Colombia for $2,200 (inland) and $5,000-$7,000 (from its ports). That same kilo of cocaine will sell to distributors in Central America or Mexico for $10,000-$12,000 and can then be purchased by consumers/users for $24,000-$27,000 in the US and $53,000-$55,000 in Europe.
If coca farmers (known as cocaleros) are not actually reaping the massive profits of the illicit drug trade, then why continue to grow coca at all? The answer is ironic: stability. Even if profits for the farmers are minimal, coca production still yields income in a land where economic opportunity is scarce.
Many peasant farmers turned to coca farming because it seemed their only option – a way to subsist, to make enough money to provide for their families. Other farmers lack the knowledge and skills to grow anything else or have struggled to gain access to viable markets for the other crops they wish to grow. In some cases, guerillas actually forced peasant farmers to plant and harvest coca.
But the cocaleros, whatever their situation, are often bear a heavy cost. Farmers (and sometimes entire farming communities) are controlled by local drug lords, guerillas and/or paramilitary groups all trying to reap the profits of lucrative cocaine exports. As a result, local coca growers have lived under the constant threat of violence from warring parties and under the fear of being accused of collaborating with the guerillas or drug lords controlling their regions.
The drug trade has fueled and sustained the ongoing conflict in Colombia, and tragically, millions of citizens (non-militants) have become victims of the violence and instability.
An official report by the Colombian National Centre of Historical Memory estimated that 220,000 people have been killed as a result of the war. Of those, 81 percent were civilians.
An additional 61,600 people are reported missing. Many of the ‘disappeared’ may be buried in unmarked graves or thrown into rivers, but for their loved ones the suffering is magnified by the uncertainty.
According to the Congressional Research Service, at least four million people have been displaced by the conflict. This accounts for 9 percent of the country’s population and is the third largest population of internally displaced people in the world.
The situation is further complicated by the problem of landmines, which have been widely used throughout the conflict. There have been an estimated 10,000 injuries or deaths from landmines since 1990. This casualty rate is second only to Afghanistan, and if Colombia’s conflict ended today, it would take a decade to clear the estimated 100,000 landmines in the region (Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines.)
Yet, despite the violence and suffering, Colombians have shown themselves to be a resilient people, and in recent years, there have been promising signs for the future. Real alternatives are creating economic opportunity for local farmers. And as some cocaleros find coffee, they are also finding ways to transform their surrounding communities.
From Coca to Coffee
Redeeming Grounds partners with farmers in Colombia who have courageously cut down their coca plants to grow coffee. Politely exiting the drug economy though is just as difficult as you’d imagine it to be. By providing direct access to international markets and equipping their partner farmers with valuable tools and resources, Redeeming Grounds helps to ensure livable wages and bright futures in a land entrenched in a decades-long conflict.
You need only order a bag of coffee to be introduced to one of the farmers—Pablo, Christian or Richard—right there on the label.
Your purchase of Redeeming Grounds truly brings hope to courageous, hard-working Colombian farmers (and their families!) in pursuit of a vision for a restored community and a peaceful Colombia.
Pablo was only 9 years old when his father was killed.
“I remember everything. Everything. I remember that he lay face up. I thought he had just fallen because he was drunk, but it wasn't because of that. My sister picked him up. When she grabbed him by the head, her hand filled with blood. That is when we realized that it was not because he was drunk that he had fallen. He had been shot.
After the assassination, I stopped going to school. My father was the one who took care of us. There was no one else to provide for us, so I was forced to look for work. I saw that cocaine was selling at a good price. The majority of young kids started planting it, so I began planting as well.”
Cocaine is practically a weed and therefore fairly easy to cultivate, but as he farmed he was quickly introduced to the violence and destruction of the coca economy.
“As time went on, many of my friends started using their money to do things that were not good. They started killing each other. I began to see how I was contributing to all these things, how I was contributing to all the violence. And I said, ‘It's time for this to change. The day I have a wife and children, I want things to be different for me than what happened to my father.’”
We have to take risks for this to change. If we don't decide to change, others are not going to do it. So we know that with what we are doing, one day this is going to change. Others will also follow this same path.
And so he cut down (and set fire to) his coca plants, replacing them with coffee plants. And now, he dreams of a day when his country will be known for its beauty and culture, not cocaine and violence.
“The changes that we have initiated are doing good [in our community], and what we hope to see as a result is for our region, our families, to be able to live with dignity. Violence will no longer be what lingers in our communities. That is what we want – for all of this to change.”
It is not without risk. Drug traffickers and armed groups depend on cocaine profits to finance and arm themselves.
“The illegal cultivation [of coca] is what finances the different armed regions. Once we eradicate the cocaine and plant coffee, [drug traffickers] won't have ways to finance themselves. That is not convenient for them, so that is the risk that we take.”
But for Pablo, the risk is worth the reward.
Like Pablo, Christian never dreamed of being a coca farmer, but it seemed like the only available economic opportunity.
“I had group of people that I hung out with – it was about five of us. My cousin was part of that group, and we saw that he had money because he sold coca. One day though they killed my cousin and they began threatening me and my friends because we were hanging out with him.
We used to have 15,000 coca trees. We grew coca because we did not have many options. Here in Colombia if you grow coffee the government buys it, but at a very low price… My dream was to export coffee… But you cannot sustain a coffee plantation with the money the government pays for coffee.”
Yet, his dream of growing and exporting coffee was soon realized through a new partnership that has enabled him to eradicate all of his coca trees and plant 7,000 coffee trees in their place.
“Then we met Redeeming Grounds. They could help us sell the coffee at a better price, so that motivated us to grow more coffee because [they] were opening a new door for us… This way, we are not solely dependent on the Colombian government. We have another means to sell coffee.”
Richard started out as a farmer, growing tomatoes, beans and fruit, but when he moved to new property, the land was growing coca trees.
“We got to the farm, and there was already coca planted there. And so, I took a production of about 1,000 kilos [of coca] up to a production of 2,500 kilos." He then began working as a ‘buyer’ of coca leaves and became part of the cocaine production chain.
“The cocaine business works like this: You have the person who plants it and grows it. Once it starts to produce, he benefits from the leaves. Then there is the person who buys it—that was me, the buyer of the leaves. And then there's the person who starts to process it. This person gets a certain amount of money, and it’s the least because the person who works the hardest makes the least. Then I would make a certain amount, and the person who would work it and process it makes another portion, a bit higher. Then from here, you send it to the city, and the person in the city is the one who makes the most money. That’s the person who practically makes it all. But to get from here to there is a long process. It’s not just one hand it passes through, but many hands as it goes up the chain.”
But the trade took a toll on him.
“I remember on one occasion my son asked me, ‘Father, what is that leaf used for?’ I couldn't give him an answer. I ran liquor shops and clubs. It’s hard to talk about… I had full-time employees with homes, and I paid them a salary of 80,000-90,000 pesos. Then I got them to drink 70,000- 80,000 pesos of it in my businesses. Can you imagine the way that destroyed their households?”
And so Richard walked away from coca in pursuit of something better…and he found coffee.
As he began growing coffee, it was not without fear. His cousin, whom Richard began working alongside, was killed after an encounter with some locals tied to the drug trade.
“It was just the two of us. My cousin lived in Cali with me and planted 5,000 coffee trees some time ago. When he went to do the first harvest he was killed."
But Richard pressed on, farming coffee and thankful for the opportunity to support his family without participating in the drug economy.
"Now I am a coffee farmer because it is something that I learned very young when I was a kid from my parents. It is legal. I have been trying to support my family with it. I left the drug trade, and now I am a coffee farmer… I enjoy agriculture. I enjoy coffee. I really enjoy coffee."
And he hopes that his life will now serve as an example to others, so that they might also choose to give up their coca fields and give back to their communities.
"God willing, those in the coca industry will see the harm they can cause to others. We make some money, some good money, our children get well fed and well dressed, but others are left starving with broken shoes."
Santiago and Steve were so inspired by the farmers—their courage and commitment—they decided to do whatever was necessary to make this crop-switch financially sustainable.
Redeeming the Ground
Through its first product line – Viva Colombia! – Redeeming Grounds offers the harvest of coffee farmers from the mountains of the Cauca region in southern Colombia. These beans in the hands of roasters, coffee houses and coffee drinkers means less coca, more role models and vital change in economically distressed communities.
High-quality coffee beans (92 Q Grade, if that means anything to you) bought directly from farmers in highly distressed areas who are taking risks to restore their communities through coffee cultivation and faith.
Redeeming Grounds helps by purchasing coffee at prices that enable farmers to provide for their families, fund their children’s education, invest in their communities and thus become agents of change.
And then there’s the intangible: From day one, farmers know it’s about more than coffee. These relationships are built on love, trust, loyalty and faith. The stakes are high because of the conflict and violence they encounter. But the sense of hope and encouragement they give to each other is worth more than the richest coffee bean.
Redeeming Grounds believes that by building relationships and empowering the courageous individuals working to restore their own communities, it can support efforts from a local level that will have a global impact.
Turn your coffee purchase into an investment and become a part of the Redeeming Grounds story—restoring hope to communities plagued by violence and poverty.
There have been only a few times in my life this has happened—when someone shares an idea, vision, passion, dream, conviction, and it resonates in my soul. My internal echo is a resounding, “Yes.” Everything clicks. A faint rhythm emerges, bass line pulling us all together for a time, for a season, for a something.
Logically it seems impossible—the idea, the dream, that is. It makes no sense. In this instance, Steve doesn’t even like coffee, and Santiago has never run a retail business or a non-profit before. The odds are stacked, but the beat remains and cannot be ignored.
Only those preferring the safe over the miraculous would not try.
“We want to create a coffee brand that sources high-quality beans from farmers in conflict zones with limited economic opportunity and a vision to restore their communities…” And the deep place in my spirit echoed, “Yes. This needs to happen. Let’s go.”
The purpose of Bittersweet Monthly is to share stories like this—life-giving, transforming initiatives—and encourage others to join in and participate. Too often, our culture dignifies evil while neglecting the Good. We believe there is good at work in this world, and this is evidence of it: that we see people seek justice, care for the sick, defend the defenseless, serve and give generously.
And that is a story worth telling – one that I am excited to be a part of.
Editor, Bittersweet Monthly