Coffee tastes bitter: education and the coffee economy in Colombia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

Authors: María José Fuentes-Vásquez and Irina España-Eljaiek

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The flip side of the story: agrarian commodity production and educational demand

Agrarian commodity production usually affects the supply of schooling since this economic structure facilitates the concentration of power in a minority elite that restricts the educational provision to preserve the status quo (see Galor, Moav, and Vollrath 2009; Wegenast 2010). However, what about the flip side of the educational coin? i.e., what happens when people have more urgent needs than to educate them? Fuentes-Vasquez and España-Eljaiek (2022) find that in contexts of rural societies and commodity activities intensive in labour, agrarian-commodity production also affects the demand for schooling.

The authors use historical evidence of the Colombian coffee economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At this time, Colombia began a process of specialisation in coffee production, passing this commodity from 16.9% of Colombian exports in the 1880s to 75% in the 1940s (GRECO 2004; Ocampo 2010). How does this fact affect schooling demand? The authors argue that the Colombian coffee economy has special characteristics that influence variables such as the primary enrollment rates. For example, the coffee export economy was carried out in a context of labour deficits, extreme poverty, cultural normalisation of child labour, and, in contrast to other forms of agrarian production that required strength or height in workers, the coffee economy involves cultivation and transformation processes suitable for children’s physical constitution. Therefore, the increasing coffee production led children to stop attending school to work on coffee crops.

A new database and two different empirical strategies support these claims. In this respect, the authors use new historical information at the municipal level at three points in time circa 1890, 1910, and 1930. With these data, they apply instrumental variable regressions (IV) and panel-data estimates. The dependent variable is gross enrolment rates (GER), that is, the number of pupils divided into children aged 7 to 14, moreover, the variable of interests is coffee trees per capita (coffee-tree density).

The IV regressions use as an instrument the variable geophysical conditions required for coffee cultivation which only affect education through coffee cultivation. The results indicate that an increase in a unit of coffee-tree density is associated with a decrease of 69.07 primary pupils per 1000 school-age population in 1890, 37.26 in 1910, and 111.6 in 1930. As for the second strategy, the panel regressions show that municipalities with greater coffee densities also present lower GER, e.g., an increase in a unit of coffee-tree density is associated with a decrease of 6.55 primary pupils per 1000 schooling-age population.

The research, therefore, shows that agrarian commodity production might depress educational demand. For example, in Colombia, the increasing coffee production led children to stop attending school negatively affecting enrollment rates and the demand for education. The overall conclusion of our analysis is that if, when studying schooling performance, we find that supply plays a part in educational outcomes, the scholarship also needs to analyse the flipside of the educational coin, that is, the demand side.