A group of Colombian coffee growers has a bitter taste in its mouth after discovering coffees from Malawi, Hawaii and Panama in their local Starbucks shops.
Dignidad Cafetera, an influential coffee-workers association, is accusing the international coffee chain of reneging on its promise to sell only local brew in its Colombia stores.
“Starbucks came here like demagogues, lying and saying that they would sell only Colombian coffee,” association spokesman Oscar Gutierrez said in a phone interview. “But the facts show that they are not serious; they are selling coffee from all over the world.”
Starbucks acknowledged it promised to brew only locally produced coffees and espresso drinks in its Colombia stores, but said it never promised to sell only local coffee products.
“Our stores in Colombia also sell a limited selection of packaged coffees from around the world. If a customer wants to try one of these coffees in our stores, they are welcome to ask their barista to brew a cup,” the company said in a statement.
Though Starbucks is famous in the U.S. for selling a wide variety of international roasts, foreign competition is a touchy subject in Colombia, where local producers are struggling, and coffee is an important part of the national fabric.
“Starbucks is not the only one importing coffee,” Gutierrez said. “Each year more than one million bags of coffee are unloaded in this country, and it hurts the national labor force.”
Colombia is one of the world’s leading coffee exporters. It sold 11 million bags of coffee abroad between March 2013 and February 2014, up from 8 million bags during the same period the previous year. The increase in sales assures work for coffee growers and pickers in the Andean nation.
But Colombia also imports 1.5 million bags of lower-quality coffee each year from countries such as Brazil.
Gutierrez thinks those imports should be taxed and restricted to protect local producers, and give them a bigger share of the local market.
“Many growers are producing at a loss right now, because prices are low,” Gutierrez said.
Starbucks, which operates only five coffee stores in Colombia, is not a major importer of foreign coffee. Local producers, however, are concerned the company will ramp up its imports in the coming years to stock the shelves of the 50 stores its plans to open by 2020.
Starbucks says Colombia has no reason to doubt the company's commitment to the country. The coffee giant notes it's been purchasing and exporting Colombian coffee since 1971, and recently invested $3 million in a USAID project to support producers.
“We have an unwavering commitment to the farming community in Colombia and we are proud to bring Colombian coffee to Starbucks customers in more than 60 countries worldwide,” Craig Russell, Starbuck’s executive vice president for global coffee, told Fusion in an email.
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.