Coffee Rots as Farm Workers Quit to Build Colombian Highways

  • Record-low unemployment creates a shortage of pickers
  • Labor squeeze causing higher levels of insect infestation

Colombian coffee growers face soaring labor costs and harvesting delays as pickers leave for better-paid construction jobs.

Producers of the famed arabica beans brewed by companies including Starbucks Corp. are paying workers twice what they received two years ago. Still, the labor shortages are leaving coffee beans on trees longer, allowing them to fall to the ground, where beetles can bore into the cherries.

“For every three workers we need, we have two,” said Juan David Rendon, head of the Andes Coffee Cooperative, whose members have about 35,000 hectares (86,000 acres). “Infrastructure in Colombia has been demanding a lot of manpower.”

Farmers are now paying laborers as much as 600 pesos (21 cents) a kilo that they pick, Rendon said in a telephone interview.

Construction has replaced oil and mining as the main motor of economic growth in the Andean nation. Farm labor may become even more scarce when work begins on President Juan Manuel Santos’ $17 billion highway program known as 4G, which aims to build 1,300 kilometers of new roads by 2018 and cut travel time between industrial centers and ports.

‘Broca’ Hotbed

Colombia ranked 126th out of 140 economies for the quality of its roads on the World Economic Forum’s 2015-2016 global competitiveness index. The economy grew 3 percent in the second quarter from a year earlier, led by 8.7 percent growth in construction.

The National Federation of Coffee Growers didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Pedro Echavarria, a coffee farmer in the northwestern province of Antioquia, cited the construction of tunnels on a highway project near the town of Bolombolo in the difficulty he’s having finding workers to collect his harvest. Coffee that can’t be picked increases the risks of infestation by the fly-like insect known in Spanish as broca, he said, which bores into the coffee cherries during their late stage of maturity.

“The highways have taken a lot of people,” Echavarria said in a phone interview. “It’s a very serious problem. Coffee that falls on the ground is a hotbed for broca.”

The national unemployment rate has averaged 8.9 percent over the last year, the lowest level in decades, making it harder to persuade anyone to stay on farms to do the poorly-paid work of picking coffee.

“The pay is higher, and it’s less work,” in construction, said Juan Arboleda, another coffee farmer in Antioquia. “This is a problem we’re going to have while they’re building the public works projects.”