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March 8, 2023  



8 Minute    10:49 Minute 

We Belong: An Anthology of Colombian Women Coffee Farmers

 

Lucia Bawot

Specialty Coffee Photografer & Filmmaker

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Welcome back to our Guest Blogpost! For International Women Day, we had the pleasure of chatting with Lucia Bawot on her debut photography book, “We Belong: An Anthology of Colombian Women Coffee Farmers.” Lucia shares what motivated her to start this journey to shed a light on women coffee producers across Colombia – making them protagonists of their own stories.

Caravela Coffee: What inspired you to start this project of We Belong?

Lucia: In my nine years working in coffee, I constantly felt like an outsider, continuously looking for my place and voice within the industry. I got the impression that, as a photographer and filmmaker specializing in coffee, I would not be granted the key to open the door to belonging in the coffee industry.

One day in 2019, while flipping through my portfolio, it dawned on me: there was not a single photo or video where a woman coffee farmer was the protagonist. When a woman did appear, it was almost always in family portraits. Right then, I became aware of how invisible and underrepresented women were and still are in the industry. So, if I wanted a voice in the industry, and to help female coffee farmers find their voice, I figured why not try to do something about it?

I’ve always believed the most effective way to make a difference and shine a light onto an issue is to create from your own craft or expertise, in my case: photography. Thus, at the end of 2019, I decided to embark on the project of “We Belong”.  I had to pause this project for a year due to the pandemic but re-started it in mid-2021 and it has been the most remarkable professional and artistic experience of my career so far.

“We Belong: An Anthology of Colombian Women Coffee Farmers” is my debut photography book. It is an artistic declaration, a tangible record, that I hope prompts further discussions and shifts in the existing paradigm of Colombian women coffee producers. Across the 200 pages, you would find a collection of intimate photography accompanied by short vignettes that unveil the life stories of 25 Colombian women coffee farmers.

Through my lens, I explored their lives with a human approach, breaking down the common depiction of female coffee producers as women toiling in coffee fields and vividly revealing each woman’s unique story. Ultimately, the goal is to lift their voices and allow readers to better see the broad and glorious spectrum of their life experiences.

Caravela Coffee: After this time visiting farms in Colombia, what do you think is the role of women in coffee farms?

Lucia: When I began this project, I was unaware of my own unconscious bias relating to Colombian women coffee farmers and pickers. Without realizing it, I had various unfounded assumptions regarding the roles—and lives in general—of these women. However, this journey has forced me to reappraise my expectations and question my own biases.

Before I give my opinion, I want to make clear that I visited only a very small sample of Colombian female coffee farmers. I visited a total of 62 women; the FNC estimates that there are about 162,000 Colombian women farmers country-wide. (1) That small sample, however, was diverse in the age of the women, the region & size of the farm, and their entry into coffee farming.

With that disclaimer, those visits led me to a simple conclusion: the role of Colombian women coffee farmers should be the same as that of Colombian male coffee farmers:  to produce and commercialize coffee, while hopefully making a good living from doing so. What I saw—and as you will see in the book—is that women’s roles are diverse, but none ranks better than another. In other words, I do not think there is value in trying to define a female role in coffee farming. Simply, we ought to be advocating for gender equity, which fundamentally will result in access to the same education; shared, recognized, and paid labor; as well as, joint decision-making, and joint ownership of coffee farms.

From my perspective, a lot of those 162,000 Colombian women coffee farmers are indeed playing numerous critical roles, but they’re playing them in a hidden and unrecognized place. They’re playing with fewer opportunities, less knowledge, and unfair pay for their work. Above all, they are playing those roles without having their voices and opinions heard.

Caravela Coffee: Why do you think is important to involve women in coffee production activities? What are the advantages?

Lucia: It is vital to get women involved in ALL coffee production activities, not only in harvesting or processing. This would likely have the potential to improve quality, increase productivity, and alleviate poverty at the farm level, as statistics have shown that when women have the opportunity and knowledge to be decision-makers, plus be involved in the management of the farm’s finances, they are more likely to invest back in the farm, in their education, and in the education of their children.(2)

But with that said, it’s worth mentioning that based on the ITC survey which included 15 coffee-producing countries, women coffee farmers and workers do an average of 70% of fieldwork. (3) Given this finding, we could say most coffee is produced by women.

So where is the gap? what are we missing? Equity! They might be carrying out 70% of the work, but a lot of that work is not recognized or, perhaps more importantly, paid. On top of that, most of the time it is the male coffee farmers that are participating in training, workshops, courses, etc. Besides, they are the ones more exposed to getting the required knowledge and experience, while a lot of the women coffee farmers have to stay on the farms not only doing labor-intensive activities, but taking care of the children, cleaning the house, and cooking for the family and workers.

In the end, knowledge is power, giving freedom, and most importantly knowledge doesn’t expire.

Caravela Coffee: What was your biggest “aha moment” during your journey of We Belong?

Lucia: I had so many “aha moments” during the creation of “We Belong”—it’s difficult to mention just one. First, I can say many of my “aha moments” were realizations that challenged my own beliefs, insecurities, and thoughts about what it means to be a woman. It turned out that, despite having lived a vastly different life, I had a lot more in common with these women coffee farmers than I had expected. And I suspect that female readers of We Belong may feel the same. In the end, these women’s struggles and expectations about life are universal.

During my visits, I heard many times, how some of these women experienced childhood trauma, low self-esteem, body image issues, domestic abuse, grief, and pain. Equally, I heard about their dreams, ambitions, goals, and how they want to rise above their current selves. So, I guess the more vulnerable one is willing to be, the more one realizes those unspoken topics are the most universal. In the end, we are humans living the same human experiences.

Another big “aha moment” for me was realizing that a lot of the women I visited had never been listened to. Visit after visit, I received a tearful thank you like this: “Thank you for listening to me. No one has ever shown interest in anything I had to say, let alone hearing about my life experiences, dreams, and opinions.” Every time I heard that comment, I was speechless. My first reaction was to think how can the coffee industry expect to be helping women rise up when it seems it has not even taken the time to listen? But then I realized, this urge to be listened to is a basic human need and is one that perhaps most of us—in all walks of life—don’t sufficiently receive.

Lastly, perhaps the key “aha moment” for me was one close to my heart, which was realizing that for my entire life, I had not really seen that my grandmother was a coffee farmer. I’m sad to admit that, growing up, I saw her as only the wife of a coffee farmer. And more importantly that her life experiences and the many stories she had told me, undoubtedly resemble the triumphs and struggles of many of the women coffee farmers I had visited myself.

Caravela Coffee: What do you consider is the barrier or gap for women in coffee production?

Lucia: A general lack of recognition, less access to education, exclusion from the conversation, receiving an unfair distribution of labor, and poor pay for that labor, among many other farm-level related problems.

After having more than 140 hours of long and deep conversations with these 62 women coffee farmers and pickers, I’ve come to realize that, as women, we have been programmed, generation to generation, to have a mindset of feeling inferior: we’re not capable, not worth it, not talented enough to be the leaders.  It is here where we as women—not only women farmers— should start questioning, re-defining, and re-learning. And unfortunately, we find ourselves in a world designed by men for men; not only in coffee but in almost every aspect of our daily life. So, there’s not a simple answer, it is a constant process of working towards creating our own space in this world, one that represents who we are, what we want, and how we want it.

Learn more about Lucia’s work and order her debut book We Belong: An Anthology of Colombian Women Coffee Farmers”

 

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and consistency.

Photo credits: Lucia Bawot

References
(1) “FNC Lanza línea de comercialización de café producción por mujeres.” Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia. Accessed April 2022. https://federaciondecafeteros.org/wp/listado-noticias/elementor-21078/
(2) FAO. Closing the Gender Gap in Agriculture. Mar 7, 2011. http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/52011/icode/
(3) ITC, International Trade Forum – Issue 3-4/2008 Women in Coffee. 2008, http://www.tradeforum.org/Women-in-Coffee/

Lucia Bawot  is a Colombian photographer & storyteller. She is based in the US, and she has spent 9 years working for more than 12 leading companies in the coffee industry to help them form supply chain narratives and communicate value for their coffee farm-level and sustainability projects. Lastly, Bawot has just published her debut book We Belong: An Anthology of Colombian Women Coffee Farmers.  Learn more

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