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Collaboration in Peru

Collaboration in Peru Image

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lee Wallace, Peace Coffee Queen Bean

It started with a simple idea really: if our goal as fair traders is to benefit farmers, shouldn’t farmers be involved in that conversation?  Just over two years ago, we expanded our structure to take what seemed like the next logical step:  formally including coffee producers in the structure of our importing cooperative structure, guaranteeing that they have a voice at the table. I was in Peru in January, attending the general meeting of our importing cooperative, Co-op Coffees, visiting with our producer partners at Cenfrocafe, and engaging in rousing and thought-provoking conversations.

What does it sound like when coffee producers have a voice at the table? Well, rowdy for one. Pull together representatives from 8 coffee roasters and 12 producer cooperatives and seat them in a room in the middle of summer in Lima: That’s a recipe for long, sweaty meetings and boundless new ideas.

This collaboration has been behind several of our projects this year: Keith’s roasting workshops in Oaxaca and my work in Peru (don’t tell them, but Meagan and Stacy were guinea pigs for Pangoa’s ecotourism project). We anticipate partnering more in the future, both on roasting and quality development workshops and on various income diversification projects. I think I'm also getting used to the idea that if our goal is to continue to evolve the conversation about just what a Fair Trade is, it's not a short sound bite.

After several days of meetings in Lima, our group divided:  I went north through the Andes to Cenfrocafe and Keith, our head roaster, headed east into the Amazon to visit Pangoa. So often when traveling, I plan for exhaustion in terms of time zones crossed, but Peru is another story: Traveling for untold hours in bus, wobbly truck, or even by airplane. By the time zone map, I'm not far from home when I groggily sit up to wonder, "why so sleepy?" We shaved off a few hours this trip by hopping a plane to Piura, a sparse desert landscape that I don’t expect to see when traveling for coffee. From there, we boarded a bus bound for Jaén, where Cenfrocafe is headquartered and, suddenly, somewhere in the 14 hour drive, we crossed through a curtain of clouds and into the lush forest I think of as coffee country.

Despite the distance from Lima, the region is bustling and the local economy feels robust. Cenfrocafe is a hardworking, big dreaming co-op. It's only been a few years since they got their import license and started selling directly; when we started buying from them, they were working with another local coffee co-op, Cepicafe, to export their coffee. The two continue to have an excellent relationship, and both of their accomplishments suggest just how much can be achieved in cooperation.

We've been putting a lot of effort lately into assisting coffee farmers in taking the next steps up the supply chain, learning to roast and evaluate their own coffee in hopes of fostering a better understanding of their beans. Cenfrocafe has recently gone leaps and bounds beyond -- they've taken their own domestic roasting project one step further and opened their own café. In a small storefront in Jaén, they’re working on building a domestic coffee culture, introducing lattes to an area where, historically, drinks of fermented corn have been far more popular than coffee, primarily seen as an export crop. Something good is happening -- it's bustling in their sunny, golden café and curious visitors can buy packets of beans labeled with pride as the coffee of Jaén or the "Amigo de la tierra."  We can't wait to see how these talented baristas help spur the farmers of the area to grow even more delicious beans!

Further up the road, we were inspired by several of Cepicafe’s projects: in addition to the work through which we know them (they’re a large coffee co-op who helped our partners at Cenfrocafe grow to export their own coffee), they've diversified their operations to include other products from their area, including several unusual ones.  I've often seen coffee growing under orange or banana trees, but mangoes? Pineapples? Limes? Those grow in the same region and Cepicafe has built a state-of-the-art plant to dice those fruit and turn them into Fair Trade marmalade! Keith brought us back some from a trip a few years ago and, delicious as it was then, I’d say it’s even tastier now. They also have a project buying sugar cane from their members.  Traditionally not a crop for which farmers have been able to make much money since it’s so processing intense, they’ve changed that by building their own plant and producing panela, a rich, unrefined sweetener made of evaporated cane juice (it’s very similar to the little cones of piloncillo that you may see in the Mexican grocery store).

As we return to business meetings to reflect on what our next steps will look like and how we will continue to improve the coffee trade, it's inspiring to see the work of our producer partners. Their initiatives and their enthusiasm remind me yet again that when we're talking about Fair Trade, we're not trying to come up with a way to help farmers, we're trying to create an alternative trading system reflecting a mutual vision, not hindering their efforts as the majority of trade has for so long. It's not a sound bite, but a conversation.

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