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Commons in Action

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Colombian growers protecting their coffee reputation

Article: Xiomara Fernanda Quiñones -Ruiz, Doctoral candidate, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Boku, Vienna
Type of resources involved: Protected Geographical Indication coffee.

What change happened to: Coffee producers associated to the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia founded in 1927. Geographical names have been used as hallmarks of artisans associations (guilds) since the Middle Ages to attest the geographical area a certain product comes from and to avoid misuse. Hence, Geographical Indications (GIs) are understood as a delimitated geographical space where a human community has constructed through history an intellectual and collective know-how of production, based on a system of interactions between people and the physical and biological environment following agreed rules (e.g. Product Specifications).
GIs as collectively established and managed intellectual property rights are comparable to common-pool resources as they refer to natural and/or human systems with limited benefits also challenged by over-exploitation and free-riding. Clear institutions (rules of the game), monitoring and sanctioning efforts are needed to preserve the identity and specific quality of the GI products, to develop its reputation and to effectively exclude illegitimate users (only producers which are located in the defined GI area and comply with the Product Specifications are allowed to benefit from the reputation). Furthermore, growers and industrial processors shall not over-produce and flood the market with GI products due to the limited number of consumers willing to pay a price premium for the GI products.
Colombian coffee growers have been able to protect their coffee production, tradition and quality through a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) under the European Union (EU) legislation. Federated growers saw in the GIs an opportunity to define the rules for governing the GI use by them, whereas other coffee quality standards and their rules of the game are defined by international players normally based in the global North.

The Café de Colombia PGI is a producer-led effort without direct influence of international roasters, donors or government authorities. The design principles were helpful for explaining the local/national producers’ collective action for protecting the reputation of Café de Colombia in the EU highlighting the relevance of self-organisation, robust and context-sensitive institutions, clear geographical and social boundaries and supportive national GI legislations as pre-conditions for the GI registration. However, one must not forget the gatekeepers’ role of international supply chain actors who can prevent consumers from learning about the coffee origin. Colombia exports green coffee which explains the dependence on international roasters or brand owners who normally blend Colombian coffee with other origins.Therefore, the design principles show challenges in the interaction with international roasters and brand owners (e.g. no collective choice arrangements, no clear boundaries) as they were not involved in the GI initiative and registration process. This implies that a pure focus on the local/national producers’ collective action for establishing and managing coffee origin protection would not provide a whole picture. Other conditions are needed when the PGI coffee is exported, such as the level of trust built between coffee growers and the international roasters and awareness building (e.g. from the consumers’ side to appreciate and buy high-quality origin coffee). Up to August 2014, a total of 230 brands belonging to 62 roasters have signed agreements framed by the Federación and have become authorised PGI users. Colombia was the first non-European country that registered a GI in the EU followed by nations such as Brazil, China, India, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Thailand or Vietnam.

When did this happen (over what period)? The GI project was approved in 2004, the Colombian government recognised the national GI in 2005 and the EU granted the PGI in September 2007.

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What were key factors that made this happen? The almost 90 years of the experienced federated coffee growers producing high quality coffee with backing institutions and organisations as well as the well-educated staff supporting the growers. Moreover, there is a need to avoid free-riding and misuse of the Colombian coffee reputation gained in the past decades.

Who was involved (what organisations or key individuals)? The Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia, the associated coffee growers and their coffee representatives, the municipal and state coffee committees and the coffee nested organisations such as the coffee cooperatives, Cenicafé (coffee research center), Almacafé (quality control, inspection offices at harbors), Cafecert (certification office).
Who benefitted from these changes? More than 500,000 federated growers that produce coffee according to the quality standards (e.g. Product Specifications). The PGI registration process fostered the knowledge of regional coffees causing the identification and registration of regional GIs in Colombia for coffee from Nariño, Cauca or Huila. These regional denominations are a remarkable achievement for coffee growers located in poor and remote mountain areas, characterised by small production structures and often affected by armed conflicts, as these happen to be the regions distinguished by the highest coffee qualities.
What was the connection with IASC that facilitated this change? No IASC connection, however, the work promoted by the IASC and Elinor Ostrom inspired the study of GIs as commons.
Were you personally involved? Only as a witness to their success (the GI recognition) and challenges (getting GI users such as international roasters or brand owners). During the field work from June 15 through September 12 in 2012, I could truly realise the efforts invested behind drinking a high quality cup of coffee. My entry point to the field was the supportive staff of the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia based in Bogotá. I could visit farmers located along the Andes mountain range: Pasto, La Unión, Buesaco, Sandoná, Santa Marta, Valledupar, Pueblobello, Yerwura, La Marina (Tuluá), Riofrío, Andes, Ciudad Bolívar and Concordia; also visited some of their respective cooperatives and coffee committees; the coffee inspection offices at the harbors of Buenaventura and Santa Marta; and could also have the valuable opportunity to talk to a coffee roaster and coffee experts.

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For more information:
Quiñones-Ruiz, X. F., Penker, M., Vogl, C. R. and Samper-Gartner, L. F. (2015). Can origin labels re-shape relationships along international supply chains? – The case of Café de Colombia. International Journal of the Commons 9(1): 416-439.

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