Violence, Loss and Coffee in Colombia: A letter from Maria Bercelia Martinez

Leer este articulo en español

Two things struck me when I met Maria Bercelia Martinez on her farm in Acevedo, Huila. Firstly, that she and her family approach coffee cultivation a little differently. Secondly, her family are especially close, even by Colombian standards. Curious to know more, I asked her to give me some background. So she wrote CCS this letter, which explains her unique perspective on coffee, and the joy her family exude just being together. It also tells a very sad story.   

This letter is not easy to read, certainly not for anyone who knows this woman’s generosity, warmth and determination. Unfortunately, it is a common story in Colombia and you will hear versions of it from almost everyone who lives in the countryside. That doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking, or any less important to read. 

I have translated this letter from Spanish, edited for brevity, and I have added some notes in brackets to give context where needed, but as much as possible, I have tried to keep Maria’s story in her own words. We are so honored she agreed to let us share it with you. 

Maria Bercelia on her farm, Finca Los Angeles, in Acevedo, Huila, Colombia. 

Maria Bercelia on her farm, Finca Los Angeles, in Acevedo, Huila, Colombia. 

Dear CCS, 

Thank you for this opportunity to tell you a little of my life and my beginnings with coffee.

In 1982 my parents separated, and I had to take care of my mother and my two younger siblings. In 1984 I married Jose Vianey Erazo, and together we brought into the world our three children, Andrea, Diego and Daniel. 

My husband and I began our own business with the few resources we had at the time. We began with a small hardware business in the town of El Tigre, in the department of Putomayo, and, thanks to God, we were able to buy a piece of land and build a house. With that home, our business and our children, we were so happy. We had realized our dreams, and we thought we would live there forever. 

Sadly, it was not to be. Suddenly, there was a great rush to grow illicit crops in our region (such as coca, the raw material for cocaine), those that have done such damage to my country. With those crops came the guerrillas and they took control of our area with the help of “milicianos” (guerrilla collaborators). It was a terrible time, people were killed daily, and for unjust reasons. There was no help from the government or military. They viewed anyone who lived in a guerrilla controlled area as guerrillas, even though most of us were merely hard working people living our lives, running businesses, raising families.

We lived as peacefully as we could, we didn’t put ourselves in trouble’s way and we dedicated ourselves to caring for our children and running our business. That was, until 1999. That was the year the paramilitaries arrived. These are mercenary armies created to combat the guerrillas, sometimes financed by narco-traffickers, sometimes financed by the government. One night they arrived in the early hours of the morning and took control of the town. That night they murdered 32 people in cold blood and without discrimination. In the following months many more people disappeared, families were left destroyed, mothers became widows, children were orphaned. 

We thank God nothing happened to us, or that at least we suffered no physical loss. But our hearts were broken and our sense of security was destroyed. We lost so many friends. It was a an era of such great sadness, one that marked our lives. 

We didn’t know what to do or where to go. We didn’t want to abandon everything we had achieved, our hard work, our life, but the paramilitaries threatened to return to kill all those who remained in the village, so we left. We stayed with my brother in the nieghboring village called La Hormiga, but it was not a safe place for our children. So, we gathered all our resources and bought a small plot of land in Pitalito, Huila and built a house. There was no mention of violence in that region. Our children could study in good schools. We we were happy to be safe.

However my husband and I couldn’t find jobs. We never received a good education which made it difficult, and the cost of living in that city was so high. We had an opportunity to open another hardware store in a town called Llorente, in the department of Nariño. It was a town caught between guerrillas, paramilitaries and narco-traffickers. We did not want to return to that violence, but running a hardware store was all we knew how to do. We made the difficult decision to leave our children alone in Pitalito, where they would be safe and could finish high school, and Jose and I moved to Llorente. 

Our business was successful. We had been very responsible towards our suppliers in the hardware business in Putomayo, and all of them opened their doors when we decided to start again. In a short period of time we were making a profit and our economic situation was once again stable.  

We were unhappy that our children lived alone. We only saw them once every six months when they could take a vacation. However it was worth the sacrifice. With the help of God, Andrea and Daniel finished high school. Andrea began studying a degree in accounting at the local university, and Daniel soon followed to study dentistry. 

Sadly the security situation in Llorente deteriorated. Armed groups imposed a nighttime curfew, and to ignore the curfew was to be killed. We lived like hostages in our own home. We opened the hardware store at 6am, and closed at 6pm, then we locked ourselves inside. Violence took over the town and the war for power between different armed groups gave no respite. We had no option but to stay, it was the only way we could afford to keep our children at university. That was, until the day the paramilitaries killed my cousin. 

We never learned why he was killed, because our family never got involved in the war or violence, but we were not surprised. The paramilitary contacted my husband and told him to come and pick up the truck my cousin had been driving, which belonged to us. When my husband arrived, a paramilitary soldier told him not to inform anyone of the place where they murdered and dismembered my cousin, because they did not plan to deliver the body to the family. But my cousin’s wife, and children did their own investigation and found the place where he was buried. They exhumed him, and gave him a burial according to his beliefs. 

Unfortunately this created problems for us. The paramilitaries thought we had told my cousin’s family about his murder, and they threatened to kill us. We had to leave Llorente immediately, so we walked away from our business. 

The only thing we wanted was to be close to our children and to live a peaceful life. This was how we came to be coffee producers. We liked the idea of working in the fields, cultivating the signature product of our country. So we bought the farm, Los Angeles and began cultivating coffee. 

Maria and her family hired a neighbor to teach them how to cultivate coffee. 

Maria and her family hired a neighbor to teach them how to cultivate coffee. 

In the beginning we didn’t know anything about coffee farming, we didn’t know how to grow coffee, how to pick it, ferment or wash it, we didn’t even know how to sell it. We didn’t understand Yield Factors and how they affect the price of coffee. We didn’t understand why sometimes we were paid less. Fortunately we are business people and hard workers. We hired a local coffee grower to teach us, and we learned about cup quality and how it affects the price we are paid. That’s when we decided to try and grow high quality coffee. We were able to support our family, and thanks to God and coffee, my daughter finished her degree, fulfilling my dreams for her to become an educated professional. 

However my heart still aches for Daniel. When he was in the fourth year of his degree (of five years), there was a crisis in coffee prices in Colombia. We had to borrow money to cover the wages of our pickers, or face letting the coffee cherries rot on the trees. We managed to hold on to our farm, but we couldn’t afford the university fees, and Daniel had to quit his studies. I dreamed he would become an educated professional, and I did everything I could to make this a reality, but I failed. To this day we are still paying off the loans we took to keep the farm running.  

This is the frustration of producing coffee. Prices for specialty coffee are linked to unstable commodities price, even though the product is different. Producing specialty coffee requires more money, more time, more attention and more determination. These days everything we earn goes to paying off our debts, and we don’t have the money to invest in the farm itself. We are seeing how detrimental this is, production is dropping and our beans have poorer density than they used to. 

I wish Jose and I could have continued our lives in Putomayo, raising our children and running our hardware business. We were doing well financially, and we had the means to educate our children, but we were surrounded by violence and I could not keep my family safe.

But, as the Colombian saying goes “there is no bad that doesn’t produce some good.”  Despite our difficulties we learned the value of life and of family. And, we discovered the world of coffee. It was so frustrating to see our children abandon their university studies, and change their books for scythes and collection buckets, but I feel lucky because we live far from violence.

I have fallen in love with coffee, and I am so happy to be with my children. It brings me such joy to work together with them to build a better life for ourselves. 

We have decided to sell half of our farm so we can pay our debts and begin reinvesting. We are looking for a partner who knows the world of coffee and who shares our dream to produce the best quality. I know my farm has great potential and without the pressure to meet our repayments, we could live a more relaxed life. 

But there are other things that motivate me, like working with you. With your support and experience and the way you value my work, I feel I can achieve my dreams. The experience of having you here in my house was one of the nicest moments of my life, and I eagerly await your return, so I can host you with happiness, love, a good piece of smoked steak and a beer. We can have a chat between friends, and I can show you all the effort we’ve invested in improving and producing great coffee.

This is a brief description of my family’s story, where I come from, the situations I’ve endured with my husband, that have shaped my character and my will to go forwards. I shed some tears writing this letter, but I did it with a lot of love for the team at Collaborative Coffee Source.

I want to thank you for your interest in my origins and my dreams. I hope you can visit us again soon.

With love

Maria with her husband Jose Erazo, and sons Diego and Daniel. 

Maria with her husband Jose Erazo, and sons Diego and Daniel.