Coffee cultural landscape in Huila, making it officially not World Heritage, but pretty awesome anyway
Coffee cultural landscape in Huila, making it officially not World Heritage, but pretty awesome anyway

People become what you tell them they are, and if someone tells people that they live in the land of the Colombian Coffee Landscape World Heritage Site, they will turn around and tell you how great it is that they live in the land of the Colombian Coffee Landscape World Heritage Site, even if they’ve never seen a coffee plant themselves. Which, even in the land of the Colombian Coffee Lanscape World Heritage Site, is not uncommon. City people don’t usually do rural things. That’s a premise that is fairly universal.

Plenty of urban Colombians told me they’d love to read my coffee book so that, “I can learn something about coffee, because I really don’t know anything.” And yet when you give people a title to hold onto, they sometimes use it as a scapegoat for actually seeing or doing themselves what the title refers to.

In 2011 UNESCO declared Colombian Coffee Cultural Landscapes in 4 of the country’s coffee growing Departments as a collective World Heritage Site. This declaration is trickling down through Colombians in the form of some interesting sentiments.

The first is resentment. Because only 4 of the country’s 12 coffee growing Departments were included in the declaration, people who work just as hard growing coffee in the other 8 feel a little bit bitter. They feel like somehow their work has been slighted by being omitted. (I’m a little bit inclined to agree. The farms I saw in non-declaration Departments were just as impressive and with just as rich a cultural heritage as those that fall within the Heritage boundaries.)

The second is trickling sentiment is pride. Of course knowing a large part of your country was declared a World Heritage site will make you proud, considerably more so if you live within the site’s boundaries, but pride without knowing what you’re proud of can look a little funny.

People become what you tell them they are, and we all have an incredible capacity to be part of collective regurgitation. Groups also become what you tell them they are, and one by one people spit back out the labels you’ve applied to the groups they belong to, until you have the whole group enthusiastically claiming to be what you told them they are.

I found that people would repeatedly tell me, “this is part of the Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site!” and when I told them that I’d just spent the past few days hiking in the mud and the rain through the very cafetales that constitute the Site they’d then reply, “wow really? I’ve never actually been to a cafetal.”

The cycle of Colombian coffee narratives is a complex one, and the declaration of the World Heritage Site gave people who were not part of the long standing Juan Valdez narrative a way to suddenly be included in the Colombian coffee story. To be included as part of the Site the Departments had to meet a 10 point list of requirements including everything from preserving water sources to architecture styles (which seems a little arbitrary because even after looking at the list I really don’t see any marked differences between Departments that made the cut and those that didn’t). One of the requirements was to have an “Urban Heritage,” and it’s true that one cool feature of the Coffee Cultural Landscape is that its principal cities are on high hill tops above coffee growing land.

This simple inclusion of the word “urban” beckoned city dwellers to also include themselves the Colombian coffee family. So now you suddenly have city people excited about the Coffee Cultural Landscape, even though many of them have only seen it from the window of a passing bus.

A third cultural trickle down from the declaration is a cool nickname. The regions included in the Site are known as the “Eje Cafetero,” the Coffee Axis. This already cool nickname often gets cut to just the even cooler “the Axis,” making the Coffee Cultural Landscape sound like an important place to be just by referring to it.

I was sitting at the kitchen table (probably eating an arepa) when this conversation happened.

“Luis, you should take Raquel to the Coffee Axis!”

“But there’s lots of coffee here.”

“I know, but it’s the Axis!”

“But there’s actually still a lot of coffee she hasn’t seen in Antioquia.”

“Well, she should still go to the Axis.”

Because the Axis sounds important, it seems like it should be prioritized, even if it has no other superlative qualities (like Cup of Excellence winners or most volume of national production). How often do we do things because we’re collectively regurgitating their priority rather than actually thinking about whether or not they’re important to do? For me, all too often.

Just naming the landscape and talking up its coolness can let it become a scapegoat for actually going and getting to know the place behind the cool name and the crop behind the reason for the cool name in the first place.

If you’re Colombian I recommend going to see the coffee growing- maybe even as close as your own back yard, maybe as far as the Axis. I recommend walking through the tangled rows, feeling the waxy leaves, checking the berries for broca, and noticing if the air smells different.

If you’re not Colombian, I recommend considering Colombia for your next vacation and taking a trip that is not as empty as baking on the beach. Check out a cool crop grown by cool people. Whether the fincas and cafetales you visit are technically part of a World Heritage Site or not, it will be worth your trip and I promise you will never drink another cup of coffee the same way again.


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