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Landmines, coffee and rehabilitation

Many of the top coffee producing countries are also among the most heavily affected by landmines (© Polus Center)
Many of the top coffee producing countries are also among the most heavily affected by landmines
© Polus Center

Some of Colombia's best coffee is produced at high elevations in the mountains. However, much of this steep terrain is made hazardous by landmines, a legacy of the ongoing unrest between the rebel group, known as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the government. Rebel groups (including FARC) and drug cartels also contribute to the problem by planting devices among the coca plants, which are often interspersed among the coffee. A strategic weapon where movement is limited to narrow mountain passes, these deadly devices not only kill and maim coffee farmers and their families, they have a significant negative impact on coffee production: landmines, or fear of them, result in good land left uncultivated as coffee farmers abandon their farms; and mined roads become inaccessible to transport coffee to markets.

Colombia is the second largest exporter of coffee and the second most landmine-affected country, after Afghanistan. The country has the highest number of casualties per year and 23 per cent of Colombia's mine-related accidents have occurred in Antioquia, the heart of the country's coffee growing region. However, working with local partners, the Coffeelands Trust* - a fund which provides direct support for coffee farmers and their families - has supported the physical and economic rehabilitation of over 150 landmine-affected victims and their families in Colombia since 2009.

A fresh start

The Coffeelands Trust, which operates in three countries in Latin America, works closely with the Colombian Coffee Federation (Federation Nacional De Cafeteros De Colombia) and its local coffee committees who identify coffee farmers who have been impacted by landmines, and provide agronomists to provide advice for improving coffee production. By using the Federation's existing infrastructure, which is well-established from the national to the local level, 'case managers' are able to access farmers in challenging rural areas that would be inaccessible to most organisations.

The Coffeelands Trust helps farmers get back to coffee farming (© Polus Center)
The Coffeelands Trust helps farmers get back to coffee farming
© Polus Center

Agronomists and case managers work with individuals to identify their specific needs and ways to help them. Survivors often identify the need for employment or a fear of losing their spouse, which, particularly for women, may be a more pressing concern than procuring an artificial limb. Landmine survivors face the additional burden of being labelled 'disabled', since social stigma and prejudice can be just as devastating as suffering limb loss: survivors are often viewed as objects of pity, a burden, or 'sick' and therefore unemployable.

Funds raised by the Coffeelands Trust pay for rehabilitation services, such as artificial limbs and physical therapy, access to vocational training, or the assistance needed to resume and improve coffee farming. Each grant is assessed according to an individual's needs. Jesus Jairo Cordoba, for example, stepped on a landmine in 2009. With funding, he bought land to grow coffee and received training in improved coffee growing techniques. "I was illiterate but learned to read and write after attending a literacy course," Cordoba explains. "Learning to read improved my self-esteem and made it easier to understand the explanations I was given about how to prepare fertiliser."

Francisco Leonardo Cuaichar experienced burns to his entire body, deep shrapnel wounds and constant pain as a result of a landmine accident in 2008. He received 2,200 coffee plants, fertiliser, and fruit and vegetable plants, which are providing him with an income to support his young family. Another man was given two prosthetic legs, cattle and a grant to help his niece go to college. He raises the cattle alongside his coffee and the artificial legs allow him to climb the hill three times a day to tend to his farm. Other grants have enabled landmine-affected coffee farmers to achieve organic certification, increasing their profits from coffee. Some farmers have been re-trained in other aspects of the coffee industry - such as by becoming 'baristas' - or are supported to start small businesses and access educational opportunities if they do not wish to return to coffee farming.

New opportunities

Some farmers have been re-trained in other aspects of the coffee industry (© Polus Center)
Some farmers have been re-trained in other aspects of the coffee industry
© Polus Center

"The rehabilitation of landmine survivors requires more than simply providing an artificial limb," explains Michael Lundquist, executive director of the Polus Center for Social & Economic Development. "It is a process that involves helping victims re-gain mobility, develop new job skills and once again live meaningful and productive lives within their communities." Anecdotal evidence suggests that most landmine victims earned almost no income after their accidents, and that after assistance from the Trust most earn at least double what they earned before their accidents.

The Trust currently works in Nicaragua, Peru and Colombia. To further improve the incomes of landmine-affected coffee farmers, the Coffeelands Trust is also planning to establish relationships with cooperatives and fair-trade wholesalers to increase farmers' customer base and develop sustainable and long-term opportunities for income generation.

* The Coffeelands Trust was established by The Polus Center for Social & Economic Development - a US NGO that aims to create opportunities for landmine victims and people with disabilities to become valued citizens within their communities. In partnership with the US Department of State's Department of Weapons Removal and Abatement, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and the Colombian Coffee Federation, the Coffeelands Trust addresses the impacts of landmines on coffee farmers and their families.

Date published: September 2013


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