Colombia Studio: Cooperativism and Citizens Empowerment

/Colombia Studio: Cooperativism and Citizens Empowerment
Colombia Studio: Cooperativism and Citizens Empowerment2018-09-01T17:25:57+00:00

Project Description

Country Context

Colombia is a ‘middle income’ country, but that status masks a marked inequality in income distribution and life circumstances across the different regions of the country. Beset by decades of internal conflict and a complex array of economic forces that constrain the capacity for action, Colombians have nevertheless had a long history of innovative problem solving when it comes to devising strategies to address rural well-being.

One example of this has been the coffee industry.  ChurchSunset_PacoraCaldasOver the last 90 years, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC) has provided leadership in all facets of the coffee industry, leading out Green Revolution development processes at the production end and shaping international markets at the consumption end.  While the FNC can be faulted for paternalism and sacrificing ecology for productivism, nevertheless it is undoubtedly the coffee regions that have experienced the highest rates of rural human development under the UN definition of that term.  But in the last 25 years, the FNC’s political-economic model has become destabilized through globalization and neoliberal policies.  What has emerged is a differentiated market in which producers strive to place their coffee in both commercial and specialty markets and companies large and small strive to secure access to the coffees that fit their preferred flavor profiles.  The challenge facing the country is how to sustain the gains that have been made in the coffee regions, adapt to the new market conditions, and strive to overcome the profound limits on well-being that have been the product of inequality and violence.

Partner Organizations

The Colombia IFP will work with Cooperative Central de Caficultores de Huila (COOCENTRAL) and Sustainable Harvest, a Portland, Oregon based green coffee import company.  COOCENTRAL has over 3800 members, mostly small farms who together produce over 35 million pounds of coffee in the south-central Department of Huila.  Through COOCOOCENTRAL farmers have access to conventional and specialty markets.  They’re able to take advantage of diverse certification initiatives (eg, Fair Trade) and the coop provides technical and social support services.  

Sustainable Harvest has developed a rigorous trading system that connects producers to roasters through transparent terms of trade.  Called Relationship Coffee, Sustainable Harvest creates venues for buyers and sellers to engage directly with each other, tracks and assembles data to measure the effect of these relations in producing communities, and works with producers to develop more effective organizations to improve the quality and marketability of their coffees but also for pursuing community well-being.

Project-Based Work

In this studio, we will explore strategies and challenges for building cooperative enterprises that facilitate both access to markets and decision making power for members. The context for this work is a new partnership between a green coffee import company based in Oregon and a coffee grower’s cooperative in Colombia. These companies have an economic relationship but are also engaged in a project to organize and build capacity among women farmers. The long-term goal is to strengthen organizational capacity and increase revenues of women, improve the visibility, marketability, and revenues of the coop, and strengthen the trading position and price setting capacity of the importer.
The Studio will: research cooperative models and assess the coop partner’s operations in light of these; research marketing of cooperative enterprises and marketing strategies for promoting the co-op partner’s products; research definitions and strategies for assessing “women’s empowerment” and develop tools to test these with the coop partner; research price setting in the coffee industry and design tools for improving price transparency so that partners have stronger negotiating positions. In addition to the above, Studio participants will have the opportunity to learn about the specialty coffee industry including cupping, grading, logistics, sales, and marketing as well as the “culture” of coffee.
While the focus is primarily on Colombia, other countries will be addressed and the work will be transferable to other contexts. Students, singly and/or in teams, are expected to produce finished or nearly finished products. These will form the building blocks for a Summer 2018 International Field Program in Colombia, and a Fall 2018 Studio II where the preceding work will be used as primary research for masters or undergraduate capstone projects whether these are theses or practicums.

Faculty Lead

Chris London grew up in the specialty coffee industry as his parents were coffee roasters. Over the last 30 years, he has been involved with Colombia and coffee in diverse ways.  Academically his masters and doctoral theses were based on fieldwork in Colombian coffee towns.  Even his undergraduate thesis was a study of coffee in Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea.  He worked as a policy activist in Washington DC with an organization promoting third-party certification and labeling of “sustainable coffee” (Fair Trade, Organic, Bird Friendly, etc).  This involved developing collaborative initiatives with NGOs, producer organizations, both large and small coffee businesses, and policy agencies such as The World Bank and USAID.  Finally, he is currently working on a documentary film about the new realities in the Colombian industry that have emerged as a result of globalization.  


Conversational competency in Spanish is needed for participation in this program. Students need to be able to read, with the occasional help of a dictionary, official documents such as development plans and program reports. Capacity to read academic texts is valuable. You also need to be able to verbally express yourself and convey basic ideas. Being able to order drinks and snacks or ask directions is not sufficient.

However, there is some potential for flexibility in the degree of Spanish competency required. Should a student bring a particularly deep experience, skill set and desire to work on these projects, some allowances could be made for what would otherwise be an insufficient grasp of the language. 

Living in Colombia11

The accommodations in Colombia are TBD.

Some work will be conducted in the coop offices but will also involve considerable time spent in the countryside. All necessary precautions will be taken to ensure a safe and rewarding experience in Colombia.


The Colombia program will approach the problems of theory and practice in an integrated fashion. Students participating in the program will conduct research and engage with the community and organizational practice in small urban and rural settings. The presumption is that good practice requires good theory and good theory is an outcome of good practice.

Program Info and Requirements