In the early 2000s, the 500,000 smallholder farmers who collectively produced more than three-quarters of Colombia’s coffee gave little thought to the impact of their activities on the environment, as they struggled to earn a living. Many carelessly used dangerous chemicals and dumped contaminated water into rivers. Aiming to protect biodiversity in coffee-growing regions of Latin America, the Global Environment Facility, an intergovernmental environmental fund, granted US$12 million to a United Nations Development Programme project led by the Rainforest Alliance, a New York–based nongovernmental organization (NGO), to help farmers in Colombia and five other Latin American countries meet a certification standard designed to enforce good agricultural practices and protect the environment. Crucially, the funding also enabled the Rainforest Alliance to cultivate a global market for sustainably produced coffee by promoting the product to companies and consumers. By 2017, about 10,000 Colombian farms covering about 70,000 hectares had earned Rainforest Alliance certification, and about 5% of coffee production globally was Rainforest Alliance certified. Other NGOs and coffee companies had developed similar but less-demanding systems, and collectively, they covered more than one third of Colombia’s coffee production. By comparison to other countries that produced agricultural commodities, that rate of participation was high, and the inclusion of smallholders, who were usually hard to organize, was distinctive. However, many farmers did not participate in the voluntary systems, and Colombia’s water and forest resources remained under threat in some areas.
Blair Cameron drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in Bogotá, Manizales, Bucaramanga, and San Gil, Colombia, in June 2017. The British Academy-Department for International Development Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE) Program funded the development of this case study. Case published September 2017.