Farm: Smallholders of Carmen del Atrato Choco
Varietal: Caturra & Castillo
Processing: Fully washed and dried on raised beds
Altitude: Approx. 1,500 to 1,800 metres above sea level
Owner: Various smallholder farmers
Town / City: El Carmen de Atrato
Carmen de Atrato (Choco) - Colombia
El Carmen de Atrato is a municipality and town in the Chocó Department of Colombia, separated from the fertile coffee-growing slopes of southwest Antioquia by only a steep ridge. Coffee is the main crop here, with 315 smallholders across the municipality growing the crop on a total area of 181 hectares (an average of .6 hectares per producer). An area of rich biodiversity, the region is also one of Colombia’s most remote and has, in the past, been plagued with violence and isolation due to FARC presence.
Up until the 19th century, both Chocó and Antioquia were in some ways the ‘wild west’ of the country and were settled almost entirely by gold miners. During the latter part of the 19th century, coffee was introduced in the mountainous, fertile borderlands of the departments, and Eastern Chocó and Antioquia became one of Colombia’s most important coffee producing areas. As of the 1980s, coffee was the most important export from the region.
Antioquia is, of course, still well-known (if often overlooked) as a coffee growing region today. Chocó – less so. Most of the department is covered in dense, nearly impenetrable rainforest that stretches east for 100km to the Pacific Ocean. Chocó’s coffee regions lie within the mountain ranges bordering Antioquia, however, and with no other viable route to transport coffee out of the department, almost all of the coffee from Chocó is milled in Antioquia and, subsequently, sold as Antioquian coffee.
In fact, the region for many years had reduced production considerably due to transport difficulties and low prices. However, many producers in El Carmen de Atrato are beginning, again, to focus on coffee due to several factors. Firstly, the region’s Hass avocado production (a second major crop and one that had been heavily promoted by commercial entities outside the department) has been hard hit by a plague that farmers in El Carmen de Atrato have struggled to combat. Many farmers are left looking to shore up their coffee production as a primary source of income. At the same time, government programs and successes recently celebrated by their neighbouring department (Antioquia) have inspired many producers in the region to rally their coffee producing efforts anew. Finally, the Cooperativa de Caficultores de Andes (Cooperandes), a Colombian cooperative that works in five communities - Andes, Betania, Jardín, Cuidad Bolivar, Hispania (all Antioquia) and El Carmen de Atrato – has been very active in promoting the production of high quality coffee in the region. It is from smallholder members of Cooperandes that Mercanta has sourced this coffee.
Founded in 1961, Cooperandes, receives coffee from more than 11,000 smallholders living at the foot of the Eastern Colombian Mountain range. Smallholder farmer members within the cooperative’s area of influence benefit from exceptional agro-ecological conditions that are ideal for growing coffee, and Cooperandes has funded multiple initiatives to improve lives and quality of production for their members – including ‘coffee stores’ to facilitate access to crop inputs such as fertiliser and pest controls. Through the cooperative’s technical assistance and support (for instance, an educational program to create opportunities for the youth that they have established in partnership with the University of Antioquia), Cooperandes is helping coffee from El Carmen de Atrato gain more visibility on the international market. It is the first time for any of the producers contributing to this lot to have their coffee bear the name of their actual home (rather than Antioquia), in fact!
Coffee from this lot is all produced and processed by smallholders from within El Carmen de Atrato municipality. Producers wet mill their coffee on their own farm on the same day that the coffee is picked. After depulping, the coffee is fermented for 12 to 14 hours (depending on weather conditions) and washed in cool, clean water. After washing, the coffee is sun dried on raised beds. After being fully dried, the parchment coffee is gathered and then delivered to Cooperandes’ warehouse and dry mill in Ciudad Bolivar.
More about El Carmen de Atrato:
Oral histories have it that El Carmen de Atrato was named by a late 19th century European explorer & entrepreneur, Luis Agudelo Arroyave, and his wife, who had come from Jericho Antioquia in search of rubber and Native American treasure stashes. While travelling through the area, their daughter was bitten by a poisonous snake and fell gravely ill. Don Luis made the pledge that if his daughter was saved he would found a town named in honour of the Virgin of Carmen. His daughter, we can only assume, indeed survived, and the town was named both for the Virgin and for the Atrato River, which originates in the area and passes through the base of the municipal head. As such, today the town is called EL Carmen De Atrato (not Carmen de Atrato as it is often mistakenly called).
El Carmen de Atrato is unusual for Colombia in its ethnic diversity. The motto of the municipality – "Diversidad de culturas" (Cultural diversity) – speaks to the high percentage of Afro-Colombians (80%) and Amerindians (12%) living within the department, and the municipality’s flag features a pair of white and black hands united (along with the coffee beans that, along with copper, form the municipality’s main sources of income).
The municipality of Lloró (which borders El Carmen to the southeast) holds the Highest Average Annual Precipitation record measured at 523.6 inches (13,300 mm) which makes it the wettest place in the world. Three large rivers drain the Chocó Department, the Atrato, the San Juan and the Baudó, each of which has countless tributaries. Most of the department is thick rainforest, and much of Colombia's internal consumption of wood come from the Chocó, with a small percentage harvested for export.