The Borderlands Project is one of the most exciting and innovative development programs being operated in coffee today. Its mission is relatively specific: to help improve the livelihoods of thousands of smallholder farmers living in the border regions of Southern Colombia and Northern Ecuador. Coffee was identified as the most appropriate vehicle to support this goal, as the area is blessed with advantageous climate conditions that create the potential for extraordinary coffee quality. Coffees from Nariño have long been recognized by the industry as special, yet few of them make it to the marketplace in traceable condition and growers there have rarely been able to reap much benefit from their work. This is largely a result of the ongoing conflict in the region that has made access to the farmlands difficult and discouraged investment in coffee development in the area. Over the past couple decades Colombia has made some tremendous forward progress with coffee quality in many of its remote highland growing regions; departments like Huila and Cauca have had much success in the last ten years penetrating the specialty market and connecting growers with premiums for added quality. By comparison, Nariño has remained largely untapped: fewer than 4% of the growers in the region have access to markets that pay for cup quality, and over 98% of the coffees produced there are bulked and sold as untraceable, undifferentiated lots into the mass market for a marginal premium.
Borderlands uses a very creative approach to helping farmers overcome some of the obstacles that have stood in the way of success, and its accomplishments thus far are powerful testaments to the value of collaboration and patience in the effort to solve complex problems. The first year (“year zero”) was spent studying the landscape and engaging with leading minds in the specialty coffee industry to brainstorm ideas. Rather than rushing in headfirst, Michael Sheridan and his team took the slow road to developing an action plan and wound up with something that is impressively comprehensive in scope and effective thus far in practice. Their program in Nariño attempts to enable lasting sustainability by fomenting the conditions in which growers can improve qualities, buyers can access traceable, consistent coffees and communities can work together to realize economies of scale. The plan includes systematic separation of coffee lots, technical support for community-based farmer organizations, construction of centralized wet mills for better post-harvest processing, and engagement with exporters and specialty coffee roasters to workshop ideas and facilitate farmer-buyer partnerships.
This limited edition lot comes from Fidencio Chamorro, one of the participants in the Borderlands program whose coffee finished at the top of our rankings for two consecutive years. His farm “La Loma” is located in the Linares, a small municipality in central Narinõ that is the site of one of the washing station projects slated for 2015. The local community has been especially active in assisting the project; the mayor donated municipal land for construction of the washing station, and the local public school has partnered with Borderlands to incorporate coffee seedling production into the existing applied agriculture curriculum. Fidencio himself is a young farmer—only 27—who represents the future of coffee in Nariño and is leading by example in Linares; his farm is meticulously managed and his enthusiasm for quality control has inspired others in his association to step up their game as well.