Lloyd, Paul and I left Vancouver for our first origin trip as a trio, heading toward deepest darkest. Peru. A trip that was to take over 24 hours beginning on a flight from Vancouver to Toronto, Toronto to Lima, Lima to Juliaca, and ending with a harrowing drive to reach our first destination: Inambari Coffee Coop.
Clinging to the eastern slopes of the Andes in the dark of night, we journeyed up from Juliaca to Sandia on a single lane switchback.
The road was — lets just say — scary as sh*t.
At clutching speed and with just a foot or two between the truck tires and a sheer 3,000 foot drop, we lurched into each corner as our driver Elvis flashed his high beams to warn oncoming traffic. A nice touch for the newbies.
The distance we had traveled and just what we were doing there was a huge eye opener for me — as someone in the Fair Trade and Organic Coffee business for the past six years. I recognized, firsthand, that the ultimate destination for the green coffee is a long, long way away from the steep slopes of Sandia, Peru, where Cecovasa is based.
The green coffee beans begin a kind of long march, through a complex chain of custody to their destination. To our roastery, to your cafe, to a retailer or to your kitchen. Now I too have travelled the same crazy, steep roads as our coffee, and will remember the sharp, dark corners and steep drop offs for a long, long time.
Elvis parked the truck on a little switchback pullout that looked a lot like every other corner we had negotiated over the last nine or ten hours. Waiting for us was Javier, with a big smile on his face. He waved us over and we worked through the greetings with the help of our translator. Although we could never really tell if 100% of what we were saying was getting through, the smile was genuine and the handshake was solid. All in all, we received a very warm reception. We followed him up a path towards his small farm and home.
His three kids gave us a few shy smiles and I thought I saw a wave from the balcony. The dog, Michael, was much braver and came down to check us out and make sure we were okay.
We walked around his farm for an hour or so, checking the coffee and a few other crops he was growing, and learned about his plans to expand his farm in the coming year. He was happy to show us where the coffee we roasted originated. It was really cool to see how proud he was to give us the details on his farm and the processes he used. From the top of that mountain, looking down, the view was the perfect snapshot of the first step in the coffee’s journey.
While I’ve sung the praises of the Fair Trade Certified business model, knowing it delivers more dollars to coffee farmers, what I did not realize is that for the farmers, coffee is not the only source of income. Farmers also grow papaya, bananas, oranges and in Peru, inevitably, coca.
We could not really get a straight answer as to the ratio between the two largest cash crops, coffee and coca. It’s not a secret, and it’s not illegal to grow coca in Peru. It’s simply a case of small-scale farmers growing two crops for export, two very valuable and sought after crops.
Now, some weeks later, as I sip a cup of coffee in my kitchen or at the cafe here at the Ethical Bean Office, it again seems a long way away.
How can we stay connected? How can we convey how incredibly hard people work at small 1-4 hectare farms to grow specialty grade coffee? Honestly, I’m not sure. I was lucky enough to be able to visit by way of my work. Most people won’t get there.
You can do a solid for the farmers by supporting Fair Trade products as much as possible. Trust me — they deserve it. You can listen in when advocates of Fair Trade are talking about the merits of the business model. The farmers we met and the managers of the Co-op were very gracious hosts and very happy to have us visit. Without fail, they asked us to buy more coffee from their group of farmers, something I would very much like to do.