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Jamaica’s shades of blue

From the August 2020 issue.

Despite a world-renowned coffee and support from various local and global coffee organisations, the small island of Jamaica struggles to stay afloat.

Travelling 8000 kilometers from the Sahara Desert, a massive dust cloud moved across the Atlantic Ocean toward the United States. Before reaching the East Coast at the end of June, it passed over the Caribbean Islands, including Jamaica. The dust cloud coated buildings, cars, and trees, and stung the eyes.

As the island’s only certified organic coffee farmer, Dorienne Rowan-Cambell wondered how the dust would affect the delicate coffee blossoms on her two-hectare coffee plantation in the infamous Blue Mountains, which were shrouded in a light brown haze. As the second Vice President of the Jamaica Coffee Growers Association (JCGA), she wondered how it would affect the nearly 5000 smallholder coffee farmers her organisation supports.

Although the record-setting dust cloud was a real threat to the country and local coffee growers in late June, it eventually passed. It was only a relatively small challenge among many bigger ones, it seems, that Jamaica’s coffee industry is currently facing. From the global industry challenges, like climate change and historically low coffee prices, to Jamaica’s local challenges, like its prohibitive colonial system and drought, coffee farmers have a mountain of odds stacked against them.

Archaic structure stifles
Depending on who you ask and their placement in the value change, though, the relevance or gravity of those challenges varies widely. Exporters and even large producers, for example, may see no issues with the local industry’s current operational structure. Meanwhile, the team at the JCGA says the “colonial” system is the industry’s biggest challenge.

“These colonial regulations are weighted in favour of large producers,” says JCGA President Donald Salmon, while being extremely restrictive to small farmers, who produce more than 80 per cent of Jamaica’s coffee.

Because of Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee’s strong reputation and high price on the global market, local regulators understandably set meticulous standards for growing, harvesting, and processing Jamaican coffee. But in a world where coffee growers are having to think outside the box to stay afloat amid historically low green coffee prices, these regulations end up restricting small farmers from value-add activities.

Blue Mountain farmers who once leased their land from the government are now under a sublease from a private entity, reducing them to sharecroppers. This arrangement means shorter leases and limits on farming practices. For instance, farmers are prohibited from intercropping to expand and diversify their incomes or planting shade trees for climate change mitigation.

“It’s also illegal for farmers to process their own coffee without getting a license from the government,” says Andrea Johnson, President of Jamaican Women in Coffee (JAWIC), which became the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) Jamaican chapter in spring 2019.

According to the Jamaica Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA), any person or organisation that wants to sell processed or roasted coffee must obtain a Coffee Dealers License. The main prerequisite for this type of license is farm or production capacity of at least 6000 boxes of coffee cherries per crop year.

“It’s near impossible for [most] farmers to attain this license because they are not producing the quantities required,” adds Johnson. “Most of our women are producing fewer than 30 boxes a year on less than one hectare of land. [So the only option is] to work with one of the 13 processors that are licensed to process the cherry to green bean.”

Despite Jamaica’s strict standards and resulting high-quality reputation, Johnson sees quality being sacrificed across the local industry due to the colonial structure. As one of five current initiatives, JAWIC conducted a field survey that, among other things, indicated quality control is one of the biggest hurdles Jamaican coffee faces.

“Poor coffee quality is a symptom of the larger systemic issues – the restrictions put in place by the government and the bottleneck of processors that are not committed to quality or paying farmers a fair price for their product,” she explains. “Farmers are then unable to afford the requisite agricultural inputs to produce a quality, high-yielding crop. It’s the worst kind of trickle down economics.”

In addition to hampering quality, restrictive regulation ends up exacerbating current low coffee prices. Not unlike in other producing countries, producer Rowan-Campbell says farmers are being pushed out of the industry because they can’t survive on current prices.

“For only US$17 a box, you have no money to buy inputs, you have no money to invest,” she says. “When farmers hear that they’ll only get US$17 per box, a lot are saying: ‘Forget it, I’m not putting anything on my farm’ and walking away. ‘I can’t live on that.’”

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