Coffee has played complex and diverse roles in shaping livelihoods and landscapes in Latin America. This tropical understory tree has been profitably cultivated on large estates, on peasant smallholdings, and at many scales in between. Coffee exports have fueled the economies of many parts of Latin America. At first, coffee farmers cleared and burned tropical forests to make way for their farms and increase production. Early farms benefited from the humus accumulated over centuries. In Brazil, farmers treated these tropical soils as nonrenewable resources and abandoned their farms once the soils were exhausted. In smaller coffee farms along the Cordillera—from Peru up to Mexico—coffee farming was not quite as wasteful of forests and soils. In the mid-20th century, scientific innovation in coffee farming became more widespread, especially in established coffee zones that were struggling with decreasing soil fertility, increasing soil erosion, and new diseases and pests. In the 1970s, national and international organizations promoted large-scale programs to “renovate” coffee production. These programs sought to dramatically increase productivity on coffee farms by eliminating shade, cultivating high-yielding coffee cultivars, and using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Renovation brought tremendous gains in productivity over the short term, but at the cost of added economic and environmental vulnerability over the longer term. Since the end of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, the global coffee market has become much more volatile. New coffee pioneer fronts are opening up in Brazil, Peru, and Honduras, while elsewhere coffee production is shrinking. NGOs and coffee farmers have promoted new forms of coffee production, especially Fair Trade and certified organic coffee. Still, most coffee farms in Latin America remain “conventional” farms, using a hybrid of modern and traditional tools. Economic and environmental sustainability remain elusive goals for many coffee farmers, and the threat is likely to increase as they grapple with the effects of climate change.
Coffee pickers, East Java, early twentieth century. Postcards also show the prominent role of women (and children) in coffee picking. Often, the images show people in idealized poses, wearing formal, traditional garb. While this image is clearly posed, otherwise it looks like the photographer simply found some people picking coffee and asked them to pose where they were. This group appears to a mother with her three daughters.
The coffee plants in the photograph are also of interest. Another card from this series indicates that this is Quillou coffee. This is another variety of C. canephora; the best-known variety of this species is Robusta coffee. My source books disagree on the origin of this variety; some have it coming from Uganda, while others suggest the Gabon or Cameroon. It was introduced to the Dutch East Indies around 1900; breeders there developed improved selections. The Quillou variety was not as widely planted in the Dutch East Indies as the better-known robusta. But it was later introduced to Brazil, where it is known as Conilon.
This is a lovely map published in 1952, by the United States Office of Foreign Agricultural Relations. At the most basic level, it is a snapshot of a slow-moving global crop epidemic. The coffee leaf rust (caused by the fungus Hemileia vastatrix) had first appeared in epidemic form in Ceylon in 1869. From there, it had spread through the Indian Ocean Basin and the Pacific. In the face of the Coffee Leaf Rust, coffee planters in Ceylon abandoned coffee cultivation in favour of tea, for which the island is now famous. The disease also devastated the coffee farms of Java, then another of the world’s major exporters of arabica coffee. Planters there switched to other crops, or (in some places) began cultivating robusta coffee (C. canephora, var. Robusta), a rust-resistant coffee that had recently been discovered in the Belgian Congo. Robusta helped in the recovery of many rust-wracked coffee zones, especially in the humid lowlands of the Indian Ocean Basin and Africa. But this rust-resistance came at the expense of quality; robustas did not have the same cupping quality as arabica. Robustas were usually used as cheap fillers in blended coffees. So this map shows not only the distribution of the rust, but also (approximately) the global distribution of arabica and robusta coffee in the mid-twentieth century. A few enclaves of arabica production in the Eastern Hemisphere did survive — especially in Kenya, Ethiopia, India, and Sumatra. But virtually everywhere else in the East, robusta prevailed.
In the early twentieth century, the rust gradually began to move across Africa, from east to west. And it became apparent that the vast fields of arabica coffee in the Americas were at risk from the coffee rust. It is also a warning to the coffee growers of the americas. The rust finally did appear in Brazil in 1970; by 1985 it had reached almost every coffee-growing region in the Americas. While it was seldom as catastrophic in the Americas as it had been in Ceylon or Java, it has been a chronic problem for coffee farmers in the Americas ever since.
Stamp issued in Brazil, 1938, celebrating the country’s position at the world’s largest coffee producer. It depicts a branch of a coffee tree with ripe red coffee fruit in the foreground, a sack spilling green (processed) coffee in the background, and of course the “Cafe do Brasil” on another sack. Ironically, perhaps, at the moment this stamp was issued Brazilian coffee production was a problem. It was producing more coffee than the world markets could absorb, and so in the 1930s the country began burning surplus production in order to keep prices up.
The Brasiliana digital library of the University of São Paulo has just published a new site that links to digital editions of a number of key primary sources for the history of coffee in Brazil. Many of these are, of course, in Portuguese, although there the site also includes links to digitized primary sources in English, French, and even a Latin edition of Dufour’s 1696 study of the history of coffee, tea, and chocolate. For those of us interested in the environmental history of Brazilian coffee, it is a pleasure to see a link to Franz Dafert’s Principes de culture rationelle du café en Brésil. The website also contains links to digital editions of Thurber’s classic Coffee, From Plantation to Cup (whose cover graces this blog), and William Ukers’ encyclopedic All About Coffee, the starting point for almost every history of coffee. In short, this is a nicely curated collection. I hope that the site continues to develop, and include more primary sources on Brazilian coffee since the 1930s. The historical literature on Brazilian coffee after the Great Depression is not nearly as extensive as the literature studying the booms and busts of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is an area that needs more development.