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.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Progress - Slow but Certain

Almost a month into this trip - my feeling is that the project is undeniably progressing, though slowly. From a casual list of four or five variables, my approach is expanding into a more comprehensive survey and interview format. These new developments are being heavily encouraged by my colleagues at the JNC and those I've met outside it. It appears that at least a significant number of the co-operatives I'll be working with are at significantly higher levels of organizational and management capacity than I had thought. They employ accountants and keep detailed records, to comply with the demands of their certifiers and NGO funders, as well as to analyze their costs and improve their productivity.

Yes, these are businesses, albeit ones unlike any most of us in the United States have ever encountered, in that they are made up of individual farmers instead of wage-workers, and these farmers are the struggling poor of the Peruvian high jungle, scratching out a living on tiny plots. Of course, anyone who lives in an agricultural zone of the U.S. will know that co-ops are not uncommon. Did you know that Sunkist, the orange producer, is a co-op, for example?

Growing up in Berkeley, I thought of a co-op as something progressive that came out of the 1960s and '70s and went out of fashion in the 1980s as the economy got leaner and meaner (okay, just meaner. Fatter and meaner, in fact.) That's not actually true. The co-op has been a viable form of agricultural organization for a long, long time. If anyone's got (lay readable) references for this, I'd love one.

What news? I've moved twice since the last post: first to a private home in Miraflores, Lima's international district, then last night to a hostel across the street from my office. Convenient and clean, with a private bathroom! Too bad the bed is uncomfortable. The housing saga continues.

New contacts:

- Alfonso Cotera Fretel, the director of Peru's Solidarity Economy Network (GRESP.) I met with him last Monday the 16th at his office. Cotera is interested in creating a Peruvian certification system for Fair Trade. It's currently in its early stages and it is not yet certain how it would interact with FLO. However, the idea is a good one: to create a system which is more directly accountable to its constituents, yet which is internationally accredited. Fulfilling both objectives is, of course, the big challenge. Last Friday was GRESP's first meeting, which I attended. The discussion was long and much of it went over my head, but I did record it and will be returning to it later.

- Gycs Gordon of gtz, the German development agency (their version of USAID). He was extremely excited about my project and wanted to connect me with a Peruvian college student doing her undergraduate thesis on Fair Trade. Thanks to Oscar Malca for making the connection.

- José Rivera of COCLA, Peru's biggest coffee co-op. Originally from a coffee growing family, Rivera studied business management and has gone on to manage COCLA's marketing division. COCLA is an extremely sophisticated business organization made up of, at last count, 8,500 families. They market to many, many channels, including Fair Trade, organic, and conventional, and produce at many levels of quality to meet specific importer demands. Rivera's opinion was that Fair Trade was an extremely useful development tool, but its best use was to teach producers how to compete in the specialty coffee market by producing high-quality products with specific attributes.

- Augusto Cavassa of Innovacciones, a network of agricultural development consultants. Cavassa is an amazing guy. I met him at the IEP (Institute of Peruvian Studies), who recently released the latest version of SEPIA, the yearly Peruvian agricultural economics journal. The latest version of SEPIA is full of relevant topics ranging from organic coffee production to globalization and social capital. (Note to UMass-ers and other alt-econ folk: the first person I met at this event was a man named Javier Escobal, a New School Econ Ph.D who had studied Bowles and Gintis's work!) At the SEPIA event, Cavassa told me the story of CECOVASA, a "central" or second-level co-operative made up of a consortium of peasants' associations based in the province (or "department") of Puno, near the shores of Lake Titicaca. Eighteen hours' drive from any major town, these growers worked out a complex system of quality control based on internal incentives provided to those groups that were most productive and delivered the highest-quality coffee. They live in one of the most remote regions of Peru - and in all of South America - yet have managed to become Peru's second-largest coffee co-operative. A couple days later, their general manager walked into the JNC's office. We met and exchanged a few words, including the question, "When are you coming to visit?" ... Good question, but the answer is a definite "Yes!"

I've met with Cavassa twice now, for two hours each, where he's provided me with enormous context and background for the development of my survey. Surveys are his specialty: he showed me one he was working on, a ten-page document aiming to provide a comprehensive profile of a rural organization (that's all I currently remember). He's encouraging me to take a closer look at the first-level producers' organizations. I am not currently sure how much time I will have to do this, especially since they are at different levels of formalization and overall economic development. We will see ...

More to come ... if you're reading this, please provide feedback on format and content - do you want more personal stories or are you more into the gory details of my topic? I'm aiming to provide a balance of both.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Alison said...

hey noah,

as for content, i like the combination of the research and the personal that you're giving. hehe, plus as a fellow coffee lover i appreciate hearing about the "cupping." i'm jealous, lol.

on the suject of the co-op history, the earliest example i can think of (but i'm sure you've considered) in the united states would be the grange movement. that might be a good place to start, especially for agricultural co-op information.

sounds like things are going well for you--we miss you up here though!

alison

8:29 AM  
Blogger chrisverite said...

Maybe you could start out with lighter, more personal stuff, then get into the nitty gritty policy networking stuff? That kind of format would allow people to quickly navigate to their interest. Just a thought...

3:24 PM  

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