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Falling prices rock coffee growers in Colombia

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Colombian coffee grower Ramon Jimenez (left), with his son and grandson, says the industry is on its last legs here. "We never stop thinking that soon we may no longer exist as coffee growers."

Santuario, Colombia

HIGH in the lush green mountains of western Colombia where they grow the soft beans from which the world's finest coffee is cultivated, growers are up in arms over the giveaway prices being fixed a world away on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Producers here say they are selling at a loss, blaming the crash devastating their industry on stock market speculators who have forced prices down to an all-time low.

"We are paid a pittance," says Gustavo Echeverry, 50, expressing the frustration of many of the 15,000 or so inhabitants of this coffee-growing center nestled in the mountains.

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It's a far cry, they say, from the "Fair Trade" coffee globally certified to ensure it is grown under equitable conditions, so that farmers aren't exploited.

Some growers around the village of Santuario have been forced to rip up their crops to grow something - anything - else.

The coffee growers' lot worsened with the last harvest, which produced beans pitted by a plague of beetles. Quality suffered, adding to an international price slump that has forced growers to sell below cost.

Producing a 12.5-kilogram (27.5-pound) bag of coffee costs the equivalent of US$22. But wholesalers pay Mr Echeverry an average US$21 a bag. "It's an unfair trade," he quips bitterly.

Ramon Jimenez has spent his life growing coffee on his San Antonio plantation nearby, but says the industry is on its last legs here. "We never stop thinking that soon we may no longer exist as coffee growers," says Mr Jimenez.

The Jimenez family has been growing coffee here for three generations. Ramon's 19-year-old grandson Javier says he grew up among the coffee trees on the plantation. "I dream of taking over the farm, of succeeding my father and my grandfather, but if the crisis continues like this . . . I will have to look elsewhere, maybe even leave for the United States."

Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world, after Brazil and Vietnam, and the number one producer of high-quality soft beans.

In Colombia, 540,000 families owe their livelihoods to the coffee sector. It's the country's top export, ahead of oil and minerals.

But, in Santuario, "Coffee plantation for sale" signs posted up at the local offices of the National Federation of Coffee Growers (NFC) have sent a chill through the local industry.

Others, like Mr Echeverry, have opened their farms up to tourism as a way to keep afloat.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced from these mountains over the tumultuous half century of Colombia's armed conflict. Santuario's mayor, Everardo Ochoa, says the exodus starts again every time coffee hits a crisis.

The international reference price for coffee has dropped from a high of US$1.50 per pound in 2016 to less than a dollar - a historic low.

The only reason coffee production still exists to any extent in Santuario is because many producers have "coffee in their veins," and can't do anything else, says Mr Echeverry.

The "Coffee Cultural Landscape of Colombia" is recognized on the UNESCO world heritage list, but there are fewer and fewer coffee trees.

Up in the hills of Santuario, the next harvest comes in October-November. If nothing changes by then, more farms will go on sale. AFP