Fair Trade Coffee in Peru: An Economist's Notebook

Travelogue of a social scientist studying Fair Trade on a Fulbright in Peru. Personal anecdotes and interviews with coffee growers, importers, and exporters, as well as Andean cultural leaders, Limeña intellectuals, business people, professors, writers, and anyone else I meet on the journey. Fair Trade as both an alternative to the dominant model of globalization and as a way of life that is practiced by an increasing number of people who testify to its great benefits.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

News and new experiences

Some news that I didn't have time to report last post: the JNC's accountant, Segundo Gonzales, passed away suddenly in his sleep last Saturday of a massive heart attack. He was only forty-five years old and appeared to be in perfect health. He was buried in a short ceremony on Monday morning. We (meaning I and my friends at the JNC) got the news late and went to visit his grave that afternoon. It was weird and sad - this guy who was bouncing around the office cracking jokes one day, was suddenly dead the next.

He used to practice his (very rudimentary) English on me - often times when I was right in the middle of something. Most of you know how much I enjoy being interrupted ... needless to say, I wish I had appreciated him a little more. I think everybody felt the same way. He was the office buffoon, a roly-poly guy with a simple soul and a tendency to make inappropriate comments. People made fun of him and talked about him behind his back. I felt sorry for the guy and tried to hide my irritation when he would interrupt me in the middle of some important e-mail to any one of the High Muckety-Mucks and Grand Poo-Bahs that I seem to have become very fond of interviewing. (Met a great one today, by the way, but that's another story.)

So that was Segundo. Here today, gone tomorrow, but not forgotten. Rest in Peace.

Some other news on a lighter note. I mentioned that I went and talked with José Rivera from COCLA. What I didn't mention is that his office is on the same property as their processing plant in Callao (the port of Lima). And that I got a tour of the plant from one of his managers, Juan Jordán (who told me he was Michael's uncle, of course.) The plant was amazing - a labyrinth of blue pipes and tanks stretching about twenty-five feet in the air and covering probably a thousand square feet of space. Next time I go I'll take pictures.

The coffee comes into the processing plant in "parchment" form, which means that everything has been removed from the bean except for a little shell the color of parchment. (Bean is actually a misnomer - coffee is a seed. When I found that out it made me think differently about what I was drinking. I don't know why.) The coffee sits in a big tank until it's ready to be husked. Then it gets picked up by an endless conveyor belt of little tubs and sent into a big husking machine. Once it emerges from the machine fully husked, it gets whisked up a vertical blue tube into another tank, where it awaits being processed. At this point it's green or raw coffee, but the good beans are mixed together with a bunch of bad beans and even rocks and twigs. The rocks and twigs get sorted out via one machine, and then the beans get sorted by size via another. This machine is electronically controlled to adjust for size. You walk up a staircase into a control room where you can see the processing speed. You can also see five pipes reaching down from the ceiling to below the floor. If you open a little trapdoor you can look down below these pipes and see five jetstreams of green coffee beans flying into five little tubs based on the size.

This whole contraption, I should mention, is really, really cool to look at. I felt sort of like Charlie Bucket being taken on the grand tour by Willy Wonka. It touched on that primordial part of me that still likes playing with Legos and blocks, and toy trucks of course (although the first two were a much bigger part of my life.)

Then Juan Jordán showed me the inventory. I am a coffee lover, as some of you probably are too. Imagine being surrounded by something like two thousand sacks of raw coffee beans, each of which weighs at least two hundred pounds. They were sorted into stacks, with labels like "Organic IMO Naturland." Juan Jordán pointed out their classifications and their destinations. COCLA ships all over the world - Belgium, the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, New Orleans, Oakland. In 2005 it shipped 213,969 kilos of coffee for $23,958,567 worth of revenue. (I am reading those figures off a sheet.) In 2005 it returned $4 million in profits to its 8,500 families, adding to their income by an average of 20% above what they would have made selling on the private market (not counting COCLA's price premiums from selling to Fair Trade, organic, and gourmet markets.) It is the biggest co-operative enterprise I have ever seen or even heard of. Heard of a bigger one?

Today I went back to COCLA for another visit and was treated to a cupping. Cupping is the coffee world's word for professional tasting. At COCLA, it is what happens every time they get a new shipment of beans, to test their viability on the extremely varied markets to which they sell. For instance, a coffee with no major defects but with no particular flavor profile will get sent to the conventional market. Most likely you'll find some COCLA coffee at Trader Joe's - that'll be the organic stuff with nothing special about it, mixed in with a bunch of other stuff from different origins. But some of these cups were delicious, full of flavor, and those will be sold to specialty coffee companies like Colorado's Allegro Coffee, which has a brand that comes entirely from COCLA. The efficiency of COCLA's operation is enhanced by this process: no sense in selling a top-quality organic coffee with a unique flavor profile to a transnational that'll mix it together with any number of average to poor-quality beans.

This was my first cupping. Shades of Roald Dahl again. I get to combine this kind of stuff with social justice work? ... Did I mention I love this project?

More to come, of course ...

13 Comments:

Anonymous Shonni Enelow said...

Mmm....cupping. I like the Willy Wonka imagery, I bet you could pull that out into a great allegory, Willie Wonka was such a British imperialist, all his tiny orange slave men running around...there is something scary and delicious about factory reproduction that really captures the imagination...just a strange thought from your way too Hegel-ified sister...
-Shonni

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Shonni Enelow said...

Mmm....cupping. I like the Willy Wonka imagery, I bet you could pull that out into a great allegory, Willy Wonka was such a British imperialist, all his tiny orange slave men running around...there is something scary and delicious about factory reproduction that really captures the imagination...just a strange thought from your way too Hegel-ified sister...
-Shonni

12:59 PM  
Anonymous Shonni Enelow said...

Mmm....cupping. I like the Willy Wonka imagery, I bet you could pull that out into a great allegory, Willy Wonka was such a British imperialist, all his tiny orange slave men running around...there is something scary and delicious about factory reproduction that really captures the imagination...just a strange thought from your way too Hegel-ified sister...
-Shonni

12:59 PM  
Blogger chrisverite said...

Shonni makes a good point. I, for one, really grok on your more metaphorical reflective writing. Maybe you could do shorter posts on single topics/events? Either that, or you could employ some handy-dandy headings for each section.

And as for Shonni's five identical posts, I've totally been there. First time I made a comment on a blog, I posted three times. Silly me thought I could go back in and edit my comment. No-can-do.

3:31 PM  
Blogger Noah H. Enelow said...

Hey, Shonni, that's cool ... something about a reversal of Willy Wonka b/c COCLA is a co-op ... but it's an incomplete reversal because there is still a hierarchy with managers making decisions at the top. Although these decisions are made with feedback from the peasants who can vote out their officials if they make the wrong decisions.

Scary and delicious is right! This is processing not pure production ... the cultivation of course takes place on small farms. Which I still have not visited, but which I look forward to visiting very much...

Keep going with the Hegel, Shonni, it seems to be bringing you in some good directions!

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