Fondo Paez and The Politics of Castillo

The department of Cauca, Colombia reflects the spirit of The Paez people. It is mountainous and beautiful with high peaks and lush green valleys. Cauca is one of Colombia’s premiere coffee regions and its reputation for excellent coffee is exemplified by Fondo Paez– one of JCC’s highest quality partners with excellent coffee year in and year out.

During my 3 days with Fondo Paez I took away a lot. Over the next few days I will be writing about some of the things that I learned and that stuck with me after my visit. This first dispatch touches on Castillo– a coffee plant developed with diverse genetics and that is largely resistant to the Roya fungus.

The south of Colombia has been hit hard by Roya (the coffee rust fungus) and farmers have struggled to continue in the face of dying heirloom coffee and decreasing yields. The most common answer to this plague in Colombia has been to plant Castillo and other types of coffee that have been engineered with a cross of arabica and robusta genetics making them less susceptible to Roya. While the results of this massive project– run by the good folks at the Colombian National Coffee Grower Federation (FNC)– have produced differences of opinion in terms of cup quality, these plants have proven to be much more resistant to disease and have perhaps exceeded expectations in the cup– depending on who you ask, of course. Fondo Paez has a very interesting take on the Castillo project that is well worth sharing.

The indigenous Paez people have a very intense connection to nature and see their organic production of coffee as an expression of this relationship. They view Castillo as an attempt of people outside their communities to gain control of their coffee plants because the plants are not coming from seeds that they have produced in their own fields. Their take is that Castillo– while being more resistant to Roya and more quick to produce than their own varietals– exhausts the soil more quickly and has a shorter lifespan than their traditional coffees. One farmer who has experimented with it claims that Castillo plants have a more shallow root system that makes it necessary to fertilize more intensively. He also said that it is genetically designed to require a “packet of inputs” that must be purchased from outside the Paez communities. This they see as something of a Mansanto-ization (a new term!?!?) of their fields that will eventually pressure them to use chemicals to extend the life of the Castillo plants thus threatening their organic commitment and their own autonomy as indigenous people. Because of this belief we found the amount of Castillo on the farms we visited much, much lower than I expected.

The response of Fondo Paez is to re-commit to creating incredibly rich and fertile organic soils that will protect the plants. While organic coffee has had a difficult time resisting Roya in general, there have been cases of farmers using intensive organic composted fertilizer, micro-organism treatments, concoctions of certain potent minerals, a healthy shade canopy, and careful pruning to ensure their plants survive. FP is now taking this approach and farmers are working to build up their soils, save what heirloom coffee they can, and to replant traditional varietals that they feel are more naturally resistant like Typica. They also have been planting and experimenting with a varietal called “Colombia” that they say was introduced in the seventies and that they feel is a better alternative than Castillo.

I am not an expert on Castillo, how it tastes, how it produces, or the politics that surround it in Colombia. I don’t have a strong opinion on Castillo (yet) and I cannot vouch for the science behind what I have written. However, I do think that it is important to get the Fondo Paez opinion of Castillo out into the world so that people understand it is still controversial in Colombian coffee communities and that the Castillo debate extends well beyond how it tastes on the cupping table. The commitment of Fondo Paez to rebuild their production with a good percentage of traditional heirloom varietals is admirable and I hope that they can be successful. From their position this approach is in harmony with their values and– if it works– it will give them a good leg up in the coffee scene as organic heirloom coffee yields continue to decline all over Central and South America.