In Designer Coffee Age, Growers Go Hungry

Near MANIZALES, Colombia, Dec. 19, 2004 -- -- Jose Alerio grows some of the finest coffee beans in the world, which sell for premium prices in the United States and Europe.

But in Colombia, farmers like Alerio aren't seeing any of the profits.

"I think we're going to starve to death," he says. "I can't afford to keep this farm going."

Alerio's five children got just one meal the day ABC News visited -- beans and bananas.

Coffee Price Slump

It may be hard to understand how coffee growers are going hungry, when Americans willingly pay up to $4 for a steaming latte -- but not if you look at the economics.

"From that price, around one cent will go back to the grower," says Gabriel Silva of the National Federation of Colombian Coffee Growers.

There are two reasons: Vietnam has been flooding the market with low-quality beans, and the four companies that control the world market have been pushing prices lower.

In 1997, Colombian growers were paid $3.80 for a pound of coffee. This year, they've been getting 70 cents.

Coffee vs. Cocaine

In Colombia, the crisis is about much more than coffee. It threatens to undermine U.S. efforts in the South American country to combat guerrillas and the drug trade -- as guerrillas find willing recruits amongst unemployed farm hands and as desperately poor coffee growers switch to growing heroin and cocaine to keep their families fed.

Alerio concedes that with his family growing hungry, growing coca has crossed his mind. But he insists he'd never do it.

Alerio is hoping Colombia's coffee federation can help. Remember Juan Valdez, the mythical Colombian coffee grower? He's back with his burro. This fall, the Colombian Coffee Federation opened Juan Valdez coffee shops in New York and Washington.

"This is not the well-fed investors' coffee shop," Silva says. "This one, it goes back to the people."

But it will take more than a few stores to ease a worldwide crisis. If growers like Alerio got two cents for each cup of coffee sold, instead of getting just one, they say, it would make a world of difference.

ABC News' Jeffrey Kofman originally reported this story on Nov. 22 for World News Tonight.

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events