Percolating Peace through Illy's Colombian Coffee Farms - United Hub

Percolating peace through illy's Colombian coffee farms

By Matt Adams , April 30, 2018

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.

Fernando spent years fighting for the FARC. Today, he is a successful coffee farmer and advocate for peace.

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.

Landscape of the coffee fields in Colombia.

"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.

Coffee beans in a workers hands after being harvested from the fields.

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.

Worker drying the coffee in Colombia

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.

One of the workers showing the proper way to sample the coffee

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.

…While someone
Proposes death on this earth
And makes weapons for war
I will tread these fields surviving
All against the danger, surviving
Sad and wandering men, 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.

illycaff\u00e8 CEO Andrea Illy speaking at the World Coffee Producers Forum

"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.

How to change your flight, or cancel and rebook later

By The Hub team , April 04, 2020

We know people are taking a second look at their travel plans right now. If you're scheduled to travel March 10 – May 31, 2020 and would like to change your plans, there is no fee to do so, regardless of when you purchased your ticket or where you're traveling. This is in addition to our previous waiver, which waives all change fees – domestic and international – for tickets purchased March 3 – April 30, 2020. This is available for any of United's published nonrefundable fares. If you decide to cancel your flight, you can retain the value of your ticket to be applied to a new ticket without a fee. These electronic travel certificates are now valid for 24 months from the date they were issued. This includes all currently valid electronic certificates and all new ones issued on or after April 1, 2020. You might not see this policy change reflected everywhere right away – we appreciate your patience as we work to make that happen.

Eligible travelers on domestic flights and international tickets can request a refund on united.com or may call our contact centers if their flights have been severely adjusted or service to their destination suspended either due to government mandates or United schedule reductions related to COVID-19.

Certain tickets cannot be changed on united.com or the mobile app, including tickets booked through another airline (if the ticket receipt does not begin with 016). Please contact the original ticketing airline for changes.

Follow the steps below to stay up to date, change or cancel your flight.

Change your current flight:

  1. On the united.com homepage, select "My Trips" and enter your flight information to retrieve your flight.
  2. Select "Change flight" and then "Edit" to make the following changes:
    • Date of travel or destination
    • Add a flight
    • Remove a flight
  3. Select "Continue" and choose a new flight option
  4. Continue through booking to confirm your new flight

Note: The change fee will display as waived, but any difference in fare may apply.

Cancel your flight and rebook later:

  1. On the united.com homepage, select "My Trips" and enter your reservation information to retrieve your flight
  2. Select "Cancel flight"
  3. Confirm flight cancellation
  4. If you have future flight credit, when you return to the reservation, select "Use Future Flight Credit" to shop for new flights and apply the credit towards a new flight.

Canceling or changing an award flight:

When you select "Cancel flight," you will have the option to cancel your award reservation and redeposit the miles or to cancel your award reservation and use those miles for another trip in the future.

*We're currently experiencing heavy traffic to united.com. If you experience an error while trying to change or cancel your flight, please try again later.

Click through the slideshow below for more detailed instructions:

​Start on the United homepage: ​

User can select 'My Trips' on the homepage widget to find and retrieve their reservation.

  • If you're not signed in or you're a guest user, enter your confirmation number and last name.
  • If you are signed in, you can select a trip from your current trips or select the 'Find another trip' link.

Working to bring people home – repatriation flights underway

By The Hub team , April 03, 2020

When and where possible, we are working to repatriate travelers who are stranded abroad in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Our teams are working closely with government officials here in the U.S. as well as in other countries where flying has been restricted to gain the necessary approvals to operate service. In regions where government actions have barred international flying, we have coordinated with the the U.S. State Department and local government officials to re-instate some flights. Additionally, we have been operating several extra flights to countries in Central America and South America as we continue to play a role in connecting people and uniting the world.

We have operated more than 68 repatriation flights from Panama City, Guatemala City, Quito, Lima, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa and Roatan, bringing nearly 9,200 people home. We will continue working with government officials to operate extra flights to Houston from Quito, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa and from Lima to Washington Dulles and beginning April 5, we will begin operating multiple charter flights between Delhi and San Francisco. We continue to review more opportunities for flights between the United States and other countries to bring citizens home.

Video provided by the U.S. Embassy Ecuador of Americans returning home on United.

Additionally, our Customer Solutions and Recovery team is working with customers in the following markets to rebook them on flights back to the United States as capacity allows, either on our aircraft or on one of our airline partners' planes:

  • Quito, Ecuador
  • Managua, Nicaragua
  • Roatan, Honduras
  • San Pedro Sula, Honduras
  • Amsterdam
  • Brussels
  • Munich
  • Singapore
  • Tokyo-Haneda
  • Seoul, South Korea
  • Melbourne, Australia

We also recently reinstated several international flights back into our schedule to support customers and essential businesses which depend on these routes. As a result, we will be the only airline to offer service between Newark/New York and London, San Francisco and Sydney, as well as Houston and São Paulo, Brazil.

United Zoom backgrounds for AvGeeks

By The Hub team , April 02, 2020

Calling all AvGeeks and travelers! Here's a fun way to take your next video call….from a United Polaris® seat, the cockpit or cruising altitude. We're introducing United-themed backgrounds for use on Zoom, a video conferencing tool that many people are using to stay connected.

So for your next meeting or catch up with friends and family, download the app to either your computer or mobile device to get started. If you've already downloaded Zoom you can skip ahead to updating your background image (see instructions below).

  1. Start here by downloading your favorite United image to your computer or mobile device. Just click "download" in the bottom left corner of the image.
  2. Next go to your Zoom app (you'll need to download the app to access backgrounds) and click on the arrow to the right of your video camera icon in the bottom of the screen.
  3. From here select, "choose virtual background" to upload your uniquely United photo.







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