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Trouble in paradise; O'Brazil.

O'Brazil was a fabulous island paradise found on the cartographic charts of old world mariners of pre-Colombian times. Though known to be a fiction for 100 years, it lingered on some map-maker's efforts until the 19th Century, when even the fools among that community wised-up. The fabulous myth of the "real" Brazil's coffee paradise is also vanishing.

Brazil's cultural link to coffee is clear. It is the politics and policies of coffee that have often been as murky as the cafezinho in Brazil. In the two years since the demise of the ICO quota system, July 1989, Brazil has suffered lost market share to other Arabica producers, notably Colombia and Central America, whose products maintain a consistency in quality, availability, and political attitude unknown in Brazil.

"Ordem e Progresso" (Order and Progress) is the national motto of Brazil. At five million bags, Brazil is still the world's largest producer, but Colombia now surpasses her in Arabica production, and in revenues from coffee exports. For the most part, the 20th Century has not been one of order and progress for Brazil's coffee economy, and the century appears to be ending with continued political uncertainty as to the future of the country's coffee culture.

Since the Black Frost of 1975, which devastated much of Brazil's Southern coffee producing districts, American importers and roasters have looked upon Brazil as being more and more the land of poorer grades of unwashed Arabicas, and the new world incubator for Conillon Robustas.

Each time Brazil announces an environmental disaster or an abrupt change in coffee policy, the world coffee market rocks. With over 30% of the world cup coming from her farms; when Brazil sneezes the coffee world catches cold. Cynics say, "Brazil has a disaster whenever she needs one."

The collapse of the ICO agreement during the 4th of July holiday in 1989, when American businesses were closed, was seen by some here as an attempt to catch the American trade napping. American roasters came to work the next business day to discover that prices had dropped 20 cents while they were away from their desks. There was a palpable sense, in the U.S., that somebody had tried to pull a fast one.

Brazil has suffered from the belief by some that all the world's coffee ills are her fault. In addition she has seen the value of her coffee fall from grace as her Robusta production has increased, and as the perception lingers that the quality of her Arabica coffees have not recovered on the 16 years since the Black Frost.

In contrast, an organized and sustained effort of over 30 years has borne fruit for Colombia. She has mobilized both the governmental and private sectors toward the goal of a better life for the cafetieros, a better product for world markets, and better acceptance within the consuming nations. Colombia has made a determination that come-what-may she will not withdraw from the world market even for one hour. Brazil has failed to adequately address these needs, and her coffee economy, the envy of the world a century ago, is in a shambles.

There is no consistent political or economic policy for coffee in Brazil, and it shows. Symptomatic of coffee's problems are the facts that the government coffee agency was shut down last year and that the government, as part of its economic reforms, has reduced the ability of farmers to get production financing. The perception (perhaps false) that is most hurting the nation's coffee economy is not that the nation's coffee policy is being mismanaged, but rather that there is no policy at all.

U.S. specialty roasters, for the most part, have stayed away from the Brazilian coffee until recently. Bandeirante, a specialty Arabica coffee, marketed by Alessie & Co., Amsterdam, Netherlands, was introduced in 1989. Knutsen Coffees, San Francisco, the American distributor, has had some success placing the 17/18 screen coffee with U.S. specialty roasters. There are other less heralded specialty ventures in Brazil today, also attempting to improve the image of Brazil coffee, and claim a piece of the growing U.S. specialty market for quality Brazil beans.

There was a time when to talk of coffee and Brazil was to talk of high adventure and entrepreneurial skill; of government certainty, and church participation in the economic goals of the nation. It is a long time ago, but it is a tale worth telling again, for we must remember that the coffee of Brazil has as noble a heritage as any. We will speak of that noble heritage in my next report.
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Title Annotation:Part 1
Author:Schoenholt, Donald N.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Aug 1, 1991
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