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Upon the Passing of Alexandre Fontana Beltrão, Words of Eternal Coffee Wisdom

Photo courtesy of the ICO.

Photo courtesy of the ICO.

Mr. Alexandre Fontana Beltrão, who served as executive director of the International Coffee Organization for 26 years from 1968 to 1994, passed away on Monday, April 4, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was 92.

The longest-serving ICO director, Beltrão had an amazing career in coffee, regularly working with agencies and professional organizations outside his home country of Brazil. Many of his professional travels took him to the United States, where he served as chief of the Brazilian Coffee Institute New York bureau, aided the Specialty Coffee Association of America in its early years, and was involved with launching Coffee Development Group, a U.S. marketing arm of the ICO.

The ICO has much more on Beltrão’s career here, and the group also shares the full text of the former executive director’s farewell speech, delivered at the 65th session of the International Coffee Council in London, England, on September 30, 1994.

Not only does the speech provide some valuable insight into the politics of coffee at the time — as viewed by a man who’d spent decades immersed in them — it also demonstrates remarkable prescience. After a career spent attempting to “de-commoditize” coffee in the minds of consumers and industry alike, Beltrão at times presents a vision for coffee that the international coffee community is clearly still struggling with today.

Here Beltrão recalls his first deep contact with the U.S. coffee industry in the mid 1960s:

My stay in the USA in the mid-1960s brought me into contact with the importers, the roasters, the retailers, the restaurateurs, the coffee drinking public — in effect what we call today “the consumers.” I emerged from this exhilarating period in my life with two fundamental beliefs — articles of faith that have colored much of my thinking as Executive Director:

  • The first was that there could be no solution to coffee’s troubles without the full and direct participation of the consumers. As the old saying went “it takes two to tango
  • The second was that it should never be forgotten that coffee is primarily a beverage — a drink to be savored and enjoyed. For too long, Governments and the industry had been treating it purely as a commodity — and a political one.

Here Beltrão shares his thoughts on the future of coffee, with particular emphasis on transparency, quality and investment throughout the supply chain in order to allow all parties from seed to cup to adequately respond to market forces. Remember, this is 1994, but are these not some of the same things we’re hearing today from many of coffee’s brightest luminaries?

Times change and new situations require new remedies. I have always made it my personal policy to be forward looking. So in reviewing the past I have tried to single out some of those areas where the tools for inter-action continue to be valid for the future. In very broad terms I would summarize them as follows:

  • Transparency: the centralized distribution to all concerned of information and knowledge of the many and various aspects of coffee so that both the public and private sectors have a firm basis to plan and take decisions on the future;
  • Quality: the taking of positive steps to help all sectors of the coffee industry to reinforce those policies which give priority to coffee as a beverage and enhance its quality and popularity;
  • Investment: the giving of encouragement to investment policies in consuming and producing countries alike which will result in a modernized industry equipped to respond to changing markets demands.

Shaping a new future for coffee might involve acceptance of a degree of vertical integration so that there is a greater sharing of the risks and rewards. It will certainly involve a significant element of the spirit of compromise which has characterized so much  of our work within the Organization. It may be necessary to sacrifice some immediate advantages for the rewards of a stronger, more stable economy. I continue to see an International Coffee Agreement with consumers and producers participating in an International Coffee Organization as a valid model for the years ahead. Indeed, I see the Organization as having an increasing international role. The more the nations of the world become inter-dependent the greater will be the need for international bodies like the ICO.

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