Percolating peace through illy's Colombian coffee farms
This story appears in the September issue of Hemispheres
Our van lurched and rocked back and forth as we ascended farther and farther into the remote hills of western Colombia. On either side of the narrow washboard road, dense jungle stretched for miles. People sitting outside a cluster of small homes smiled at us in disbelief as we passed. They were accustomed to seeing motorbikes and horses -- not big, top-heavy touring vans -- that far up the mountain, in an area that was too dangerous for visitors just a few years ago.
After nearly an hour of driving, we stopped at a promontory overlooking a humid, mist-covered valley and walked down to a cottage tucked away among plantain and papaya trees. We took a seat on the patio and waited for the arrival of Fernando, an ex-commander in the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the Marxist paramilitary organization that waged war against the Colombian government for more than fifty years. In his past life, he wouldn't have dreamed of talking to outsiders like us. But now he's part of a different kind of revolution, one in which coffee is at the center -- specifically, the illy coffee that United serves its customers every day, to the tune of more than 72 million cups a year.
When United announced its partnership with the Italian coffee giant this time last year, the news was met with excitement from the airline's customers and employees who had voiced their distaste for the previous brew. But there was more to the selection of illy than just great coffee.
For years, illy has had the reputation as a company that prioritizes people over profits. And while illy sources coffee from 25 countries across the globe, Colombia's Cauca departamento is a particularly interesting example of a place where that philosophy is making a difference.
Roughly a decade ago, Fernando negotiated a difficult and dangerous exit from the FARC. He was one of the fortunate ones; many of his comrades weren't allowed to walk away. Fernando's second in command was killed while attempting to leave the organization. Threats aside, there was also the looming question of how he would earn a living away from the only job he had known since he was a very young boy.
"When I was with the group, I began looking at the mountains and at the coffee growing on them, and it gave me the idea to change my life," he said. With backing from illy, he's been able to do just that, leading a farming cooperative made up of former guerillas who combine to produce more than 50,000 kilos of high-quality Arabica coffee each year, coffee that ends up at the illy roasting facility in Trieste, Italy, and, ultimately as a key component of the dark roast blend on board United's aircraft. But, as I had seen over the previous days in Colombia, Fernando's story was just one of many that illustrate the impact that United's choice of coffee has on the people who make up the front end of the supply chain.
On the first day of my week-long visit, I arrived in Cali, Colombia's third-largest city and the capital of Cauca, where I met Carlos Lopez and Oscar Lasso. Lopez is the director of ASCAFE (Colombian Small Coffee Growers Association), a cooperative in Cauca, and Lasso operates a tourism company based there. The two would act as guides for me and a group of foreign journalists as we visited small family farms where much of illy's Colombian coffee is grown. During the ride from the airport, Lasso and I passed the time by talking about the well-publicized troubles that have plagued his homeland for years, particularly narcotics.
To illustrate a point, he stretched his arms from his knees to his forehead. "Before, you could sell a bag of coffee this big for $10, and a one-pound bag of marijuana for $200. It was an easy choice for many people."
Among the goals of illy's business practices is to make that decision a harder one. An uncertain future in agriculture, due in part to falling coffee prices, forced many rural Colombians to cash in with illegal crops. Others took to the jungles to fight for the FARC, preferring an AK-47 and a steady paycheck to poverty. But with the guidance of local cooperatives like ASCAFE and the Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), a national growers' advocacy organization, illy is committed to building economic, social and environmental sustainability by paying above fair value for beans that meet illy's high standards, supporting independent family farms, teaching eco-friendly growing methods and helping to weave together the fabric of a nation torn by half a century of war.
A fourth generation coffee grower, Lopez founded ASCAFE in 2004 and has worked diligently with companies like illy to, as he said, "To put producers in a better position to earn a better rate by changing the way that coffee is grown and sold." By forming the cooperative with his neighbors, Lopez found that they could have an influential voice and establish standardized growing practices to achieve the highest-quality yields, an area in which illy's expertise has been particularly valuable thanks to guidance from the company's agronomist. "One of our main goals is to recruit the brands to come to Colombia and bring their knowledge," said Lopez. "We don't want to just sell coffee, we want to build relationships with the people who buy from us."
One of the keys to changing the outlook for Colombia's coffee growers is laying that foundation at an early age. La Venta, one of Cauca's tiny farming villages, is a place where options for young people are limited. Roughly three out of a hundred will have the chance to attend university. Some might elect to move to a city like Cali to look for work. Others, like many of their parents, might be forced to find more illicit means of earning a living.
Today, however, there are 55 schools in rural areas such as this that have adopted the so-called "Escuela y Café" curriculum, where students age 12 to 18 learn modern coffee production methods with assistance from illy, the FNC and ASCAFE. At La Venta's Efrain Orozco school, the children are mastering the art of growing thanks to a holistic approach. Each of their subjects -- Spanish, social studies, mathematics and natural sciences -- is tailored in such a way to teach them everything that a successful coffee farmer needs to know. In addition to their classroom work, they spend a portion of their days outdoors learning the different stages of cultivation, from planting the beans to harvesting them to preparing them for shipment to the end buyers. It's the kind of education that can enable them to bypass mere subsistence farming and build a viable, profitable business.
And as we witnessed with Fernando, illy is using its educational and purchasing power to do more than battle financial inequality; it is doing its part to further the cause of peace in war-torn Colombia. At a technological park we visited, 120 former FARC and other paramilitary commandos are learning to become independent coffee producers, growing beans that will eventually be sold to illy.
When we arrived, 30 of the ex-guerillas were in the middle of a three month long immersive introduction to coffee as a means of re-entering society. The park's open-air campus consisted of dormitories, classrooms and a microbiology lab where the men and women are studying the finer points of agronomy.
Several of the participants were barely a year or two removed from being teenagers. Each of them was in the midst of a critical moment in his or her life, living under constant threat of violent retaliation for abandoning their brigades. While they felt a sense of purpose and security at the learning center, there was still uneasiness.
One of the men spoke to me on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns. At age 23, he had spent 13-years as part of the FARC and had run away only 14 months prior.
When I asked him why he had joined up with the guerillas, his answer was the same as most of those whom we encountered: "Economico," he said with a shrug. He was soft spoken and shy, never looking me in the eyes as he talked. "My father left my mother and me and we needed money, so I had to do something to help. But after I saw the suffering, I regretted it. Now, I want a family, I want pride in my life and I want to have a future."
Each of them shared a similar desire to move on from the bloodshed of which they had been a part. Though physical and psychological scars are evident, they all expressed gratitude for the opportunity to live in peace. In many ways, they reminded me of the school children at Efrain Orozco, proud of their new skillsets and anxious to demonstrate what they had learned. They led us on a tour of the campus, showing us the processes for separating, sorting, washing and drying the coffee beans, and guided us through a quality test, with one of the men teaching us the proper way to use a glass pour-over brewer to sample the product. When I sipped from the mug he handed me, it was some of the best coffee I had ever tasted.
After departing the technology park we headed to a nearby farm where we met several victims of FARC land mines who had come together to create their own coffee growing association. The group's director was formerly a rancher who was seriously injured while tending to his cattle. Another member, a man named Wilmer, had been a coca farmer. It was while walking home after deciding to leave the drug trade behind that he lost part of his leg. At one point, as a woman named Naomi talked of her nephew who was killed, Lasso became too overcome with emotion to translate for us, excusing himself. Finally, a guitarist stood up and played for us a haunting rendition of "Sobreviviendo" – Surviving.
At the end of the week, we traveled to Medellín to attend the first-ever World Coffee Producers Forum. Growers from major coffee-producing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia descended upon the city to hear luminaries including former President Bill Clinton, current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs and illycaffè CEO Andrea Illy discuss the issues facing the coffee industry, such as climate change, stagnating prices and a volatile commodities market.
"It would have been inconceivable to have a meeting like this in this place even a few years ago," President Clinton said, while speaking about how economic development through fair trade agriculture has helped countries like Colombia overcome their violent pasts. For years, Medellín and its namesake cartel led by Pablo Escobar represented the worst of Colombia. Those memories still make it one of the most beautiful places most foreigners wouldn't dream of visiting.
After dinner on my last night in Medellín, I caught a cab back to the hotel. Winding through the city in silence, my driver suddenly arched an eyebrow and looked at me through the rearview mirror as though he had a secret to tell. "Want to see Pablo Escobar's house?" he asked. We passed rows of nondescript mid-rise apartment buildings and storefronts, then turned into a short cul-de-sac that dead-ended into one of the former drug lord's compounds.
It was more bunker than home, all concrete walls and concertina wire. The fortress that a wealthy and dangerous man constructed for himself, now sitting in shambles on a darkened street.
Escobar died nearly 25 years ago, and with him, a low hum of fear that hovered over Colombia. In the weeks prior to my visit, more than 7,000 FARC guerillas had handed over their weapons to the government as part of a new disarmament deal, choosing a path of peaceful political dissent to armed conflict. It would seem the country is waking up from a long, grim nightmare. After talking with people there, I walked away feeling optimistic. During one of our conversations earlier in the week, Lasso confided that he felt the same way. After living abroad for 12 years, he was back, anxious to see stability taking root.
If it's morning in Colombia, then coffee is helping to provide much-needed clarity. As President Clinton said during a panel discussion at the forum, "When given the chance, most people will do the right thing. But they'll also do whatever it takes to feed their children." By paying farmers a decent wage and protecting growing areas from environmental decimation, United's partners at illy are offering Colombians a fourth alternative to hardship, drugs and violence. So, as you relax and enjoy your flight, have a cup of illy. You'll be doing your part to drink to a better future.
Canada's largest city spreads out along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario, and it's a dynamic, multicultural and inclusive experience like almost no other place on earth. Not only is Toronto a thriving living city,it's also become one of the world's truly must-visit destinations. Regularly ranked as one of the greatest places to live, Toronto is the cultural center of the country and home to the biggest events, the most pro sports and the greatest concentration of theaters and restaurants.
Recent decades have seen regular multi-million-dollar upgrades to the city's public spaces, with a slew of great museums, iconic architecture and the redevelopment of the now glittering lakefront adding to the city's appeal.
Add in an ever-growing number of world-class hotels, upbeat nightlife that runs from dusk until dawn and a vibrant and diverse culinary scene influenced by the eclectic makeup of the city's people. Bright and bustling, cosmopolitan and cultured, unpredictable and energetic, Toronto has become one of the greatest cities on earth.
What you see and where you go will depend on the length of your stay. A week is good, longer is better. But even a long weekend will give you a taste of 'The Six' — one of the city's many nicknames, reworked recently as 'The 6ix' by one of its most famous sons, Drake.
However long you stay, you can't hope to see it all. So, consider what follows a starting point for your first visit…
City Hall, Toronto
The checklist sites
No visit to The Six can be considered complete without ticking off several of Toronto's true heavyweight sights. All of the following are in or within easy reach of the city's compact, walk-able and very vibrant center.
The CN Tower is unmissable in every sense, a vast freestanding spire that looks down upon the city and takes its place as one of the 'Seven Wonders of the Modern World'. Head up for the city's best 360-degree views, or get your heart racing on the EdgeWalk — a journey around the circumference of the tower's main pod, 116 stories high and tethered by a harness.
Back on solid ground, Ripley's Aquarium is almost right next door to the CN Tower and is home to 16,000 aquatic animals and the Dangerous Lagoon. A moving sidewalk that whisks you through a long tunnel surrounded by sharks and stingrays is guaranteed to make your heart race all over again.
Also close to the CN Tower is the Rogers Center, home to Canada's only baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays. Visit on game day for the full experience, or take the stadium tour to go behind the scenes and through closed doors.
In a city of so many museums and galleries, the Royal Ontario Museum stands out. Not just because it's home to a world-class collection of 13 million artworks, cultural objects and natural history specimens, but as much because it hosts exciting Friday night events that include dance, drink and top DJs.
Two other must ticks include the Art Gallery of Ontario, which houses 95,000 works of art and is free for visitors under 25, and the Hockey Hall of Fame, which taps into Canada's national obsession in stunning depth.
Art Gallery of Ontario
Casa Loma is a must-visit Gothic castle in the heart of the city. North America's only castle is filled with artworks and treasures from Canada and beyond, but its big pull is the network of hidden tunnels to explore as they stretch out beneath the city.
Toronto's multi-cultural makeup is visible all across the city but reflected best in its remarkable culinary scene (see Where to eat and drink). The city's 'fresh and local' mantra is perfectly showcased at St. Lawrence Market, one of the world's greatest food experiences. Pay it a visit and grab a peameal bacon sandwich — a Canadian staple invented in Toronto and now considered the city's signature dish.
St. Lawrence Market
Afterwards, walk off the calories by wandering the historic cobblestone and car-free Distillery District. Once a vast whiskey distillery and an important spot during prohibition, historians mention that even Al Capone would visit the Distillery to load alcohol destined for the States . This iconic landmark now distils creativity within the 19th century buildings now home to hip restaurants, bars, independent boutique stores, galleries and theaters. Visit in December for the Toronto Christmas Market.
Finally, don't even think about returning home without having had a picture taken with your head poking through an 'O' of the multicolored, 3D Toronto sign at City Hall — the most Insta-worthy location in a city of so many. You'll need to head there early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
If you stay long enough, take a ferry and hop across to Toronto Islands, a chain of 15 small islands in Lake Ontario just south of the mainland. They're home to beaches, a theme park and a breathtaking view of the city's skyline and will very happily fill a full day of your stay.
The bucket list
You absolutely cannot leave Toronto without having witnessed the power of the Niagara Falls and its hypnotic mist up close. Trying to visit the Falls from the States is a trip on its own, but it's almost non-optional when you're less than two hours away in Toronto. Take the trip, buy the T-shirt and tick off one of the world's must-see sights.
Explore like a local
Away from the sleek, gleaming towers of downtown lie many of Toronto's less obvious but no less essential attractions. West Queen West is Toronto's hippest neighborhood and artistic heart, a one-mile strip of very chic galleries, stores, restaurants and boutique hotels. Kensington Market is a fantastically chaotic neighborhood and perhaps the best example of the city's famous multiculturalism. It's not a market as the name implies, but a collection of independent shops, vintage boutiques, art spaces, cafés, bars and restaurants from every corner of the globe.
The Bata Shoe Museum is one of the city's quirkiest collections, an unexpectedly fascinating exhibit that retraces the 4,500-year history of footwear. And as you wander the city, you can't fail to notice that Toronto's walls are alive with graffiti. Take a free 90-minute walking tour through the back alleys of Queen Street West and down Graffiti Alley to gain a better understanding of the city's street art scene. If you visit during the sunnier months, escape the hustle by heading just east of the center to High Park, the green heart of the city where forests, walking trails, picnic spots and even a zoo await you. Ideal to unwind after a long day of urban adventures.
When to go With the sun shining, May through October is a great time to visit, but the city is alive through all four seasons. The Spring and Autumn months are ideal as the humidity and visitor numbers are lighter, while Toronto comes alive through the colder months through a wide array of winter celebrations. One of the most spectacular is the Aurora Winter Festival, a six-week celebration that sees the Ontario Place, West Island transformed into four mystical worlds. Whichever season you choose, plan to stay for at least five nights to get a true flavor of the city.
Toronto skyline view
Where to stay To be at the heart of most of the attractions you'll want to see, aim for downtown. One of the best options is the Marriott City Center, not only because it's located right next to the CN Tower but also because it's attached to the iconic Rogers Center where the Toronto Blue Jays play and countless concerts and popular events are held.
Toronto Blue Jay stadium
Opt for a Stadium room and you'll look out onto the field. If you want to experience Toronto's non-stop nightlife, the Entertainment District is the place to be. If you're looking for a luxury experience, discover Canada's first St. Regis hotel in the heart of downtown.
Where to eat and drink Nowhere is Toronto's incredible diversity more evident than in its food scene — taste Toronto and you're tasting the world. The city is brimming with restaurants and cafés serving everything from high-end fine dining to comfort food from an informal neighborhood joint — plus every option imaginable in between.
For fine dining, consider Alo, Canis and Edulis. Book a table at Canoe, Lavelle, The One Eighty or 360 at the CN Tower and you're guaranteeing a view as spectacular as the food. Or experience the city's remarkable fusion food at DaiLo (French-Cantonese), El Catrin (Mexican-French) and the unexpected mashup of Rasta Pasta (Jamaican-Italian).
The above suggestions don't even scratch the surface of a food scene to rival any city on earth, with options to suit every taste and any budget.
How to get around Toronto is perfect to explore on foot or via a growing network of cycle routes. For a quicker journey, buy a Presto card to use the TTC, Toronto's subway, streetcar and bus system.
How to get there Fly into Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) with United and you're around 15 miles west of the city center. The most comfortable route in is via the Union Pearson Express, which runs every 15 minutes and gets you downtown in 25 minutes ($13).The TTC is a cheaper option at under $5, but it can take an hour and a half and involves a number of transfers, while a taxi will take around 30 minutes and cost $45.
United flies to Toronto from numerous U.S. cities including our Hub city locations. Book your trip via united.com or by downloading the United app.
Around the web
Following the devastating wildfires in Australia and powerful earthquakes that shook Puerto Rico last week, we're taking action to make a global impact through our international partnerships as well as nonprofit organizations Afya Foundation and ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).
Helping Puerto Rico recover from earthquakes
Last week, Puerto Rico was hit with a 5.2 magnitude earthquake, following a 6.4 magnitude earthquake it experienced just days before. The island has been experiencing hundreds of smaller quakes during the past few weeks.
These earthquakes destroyed crucial infrastructure and left 4,000 people sleeping outside or in shelters after losing their homes. We've donated $50,000 to our partner charity organization Airlink and through them, we've helped transport disaster relief experts and medical supplies for residents, as well as tents and blankets for those who have lost their homes. Funding will go towards organizations within Airlink's partner network, which includes Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps and Americares, to help with relief efforts and long-term recovery.
Australian wildfire relief efforts
Our efforts to help Australia have inspired others to make their own positive impact. In addition to teaming up with Ellen DeGeneres to donate $250,000 and launching a fundraising campaign with GlobalGiving to benefit those impacted by the devastating wildfires in the country known for its open spaces and wildlife, our cargo team is helping to send more than 600 pounds of medical supplies to treat injured animals in the region.
Helping us send these supplies is the Afya Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve global health by collecting surplus medical supplies and delivering them to parts of the world where they are most needed. Through Airlink, the Afya Foundation will send more than $18,000 worth of materials that will be used to treat animals injured in the Australian fires.
These medical supplies will fly to Melbourne (MEL) and delivered to The Rescue Collective. This Australian organization is currently focused on treating the massive population of wildlife, such as koalas, kangaroos, and birds, that have had their habitats destroyed by the recent wildfires. The supplies being sent include wound dressings, gloves, catheters, syringes and other items that are unused but would otherwise be disposed of.
By working together, we can continue to make a global impact and help those affected by natural disasters to rebuild and restore their lives
Australia needs our help as wildfires continue to devastate the continent that's beloved by locals and travelers alike. In times like these, the world gets a little smaller and we all have a responsibility to do what we can.
On Monday, The Ellen DeGeneres Show announced a campaign to raise $5 million to aid in relief efforts. When we heard about Ellen's effort, we immediately reached out to see how we could help.
Today, we're committing $250,000 toward Ellen's campaign so we can offer support now and help with rebuilding. For more on The Ellen DeGeneres Show efforts and to donate yourself, you can visit www.gofundme.com/f/ellenaustraliafund
We're also matching donations made to the Australian Wildfire Relief Fund, created by GlobalGiving's Disaster Recovery Network. This fund will support immediate relief efforts for people impacted by the fires in the form of emergency supplies like food, water and medicine. Funds will also go toward long-term recovery assistance, helping residents recover and rebuild. United will match up to $50,000 USD in donations, and MileagePlus® members who donate $50 or more will receive up to 1,000 award miles from United. Donate to GlobalGiving.
Please note: Donations made toward GlobalGiving's fund are only eligible for the MileagePlus miles match.
In addition to helping with fundraising, we're staying in touch with our employees and customers in Australia. Together, we'll help keep Australia a beautiful place to live and visit in the years to come.