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.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Lightning jungle adventure

Whew! Just returned from a whirlwind trip to the jungle, planned and executed at a moment's notice. I had been invited by my colleague Amilcar Buleje at the Junta Nacional del Café to attend an event somewhere in the jungle a couple weeks beforehand, and the day before we were supposed to leave, I canceled on him, given two facts: first, that I was in the midst of writing a proposal, and second, that I had been staying in a hostel so uncomfortable that I was feeling like roadkill. I've since moved to a MUCH more comfortable spot, with Internet in my room, above a restaurant with a killer espresso machine and a waitress who delivers the sacred beverage to my room on demand. I should also mention the Brazilian musicians who arrive every Saturday afternoon and play through the evening. Yes, they're playing right now - I just finished enjoying them up close over a Cusqueña, Peru's best beer, and am now enjoying them at a distance.

Well, cancelling on him was a mistake: on Tuesday evening, when we had been scheduled to leave, a feeling came over me that I'm sure some of you are familiar with. It was the feeling of missing something. What was it that I was missing? Well, at first I thought it was the fact that I didn't have dinner plans, which I remedied fairly quickly. Then on Wednesday afternoon, as I was laboring for twenty minutes over a couple sentences of the sample chapter I am scheduled to send away for another scholarship, I realized what it was: I was supposed to be in the jungle.

What happened was this: I presented the idea of going to the event to Lorenzo Castillo, the Junta del Café's director (title: Executive Secretary). I have probably stressed this point before, but I will stress it again: Lorenzo Castillo is an amazing person, among the wisest people I have encountered on Earth up to this point. This man has been largely responsible for the revival of Peru's coffee co-operative movement. And at this moment, he decided not to go to the event, and offered me his seat on the plane. Of course I resisted, until it became clear that this was what he wanted. So I went.

How it happened: woke up at 3:30 AM Thursday morning for my 5:30 AM flight to Ayacucho. Okay, my 5:30 AM flight to Huamanga. Everyone outside this region calls the city Ayacucho, but it is not called Ayacucho, it is called Huamanga, and it is the capital of the department of Ayacucho. The University of Ayacucho (at Huamanga) has a strong philosophy department, and one of its professors was a radical named Abimael Guzmán. Guzmán went a little (OK, a LOT) off the rails with his Maoism, and the result was the Sendero Luminoso, which terrorized Perú during the 1980s and 1990s. They are largely nonexistent today, and Huamanga is a beautiful, bustling colonial mountain town replete with churches and the famous "retablas," or dioramas featuring religious themes and scenes of peasant life. These dioramas, to me at least, look quaint and folksy, even kitschy, outside their context; in the context of the reddish-brown mountains, intoxicating elevation, and stately Spanish colonial architecture of Huamanga, they are beautiful and not to be missed.

From Huamanga I caught a combi (microbus) to Sivia, where the cooperative El Quinacho is located. Sivia is in the jungle at, my guess, 2000-3000 feet elevation. Huamanga is at 9000 feet or so. From Huamanga, you scale two passes, each of which is around 12,000 feet elevation. Yes, that's a lot of elevation change, isn't it? This kind of journey is what Peru is all about, and what makes it both beautiful and a uniquely difficult place to travel, live and work. I don't know of a lot of countries with that type of geography, and not to be a geographical determinist here, but, to me, this is a big obstacle to an integral Peruvian development strategy. The country is three regions: "costa, sierra, y selva," or coast, mountains, and jungle. It is a source of national pride, but also a source of difficulty: traveling between one and the next is time-consuming, and the three regions possess distinct cultures.

We got to Sivia around 6 PM, or rather, I should say, Pichanari, at which point I hopped a canoe across the Rio Apurimac. This was the second crossing, the first of which occurred in the microbus, balanced atop a platform steered by a guy with an outboard motor. Sivia is a sleepy little jungle town where the co-op El Quinacho plays an important role. They occupy a block of the town, with a large warehouse at one end and an office at the other. I had initially told the manager I couldn't make it to his event; Wednesday, the day before I left, I told him I had changed my plans and would be arriving the following day. However, he had been so involved in the event that he hadn't checked his e-mail, and so was startled when I showed up. From his reaction, I guessed that he was thinking of me in a similar category to the inspectors and financiers who periodically show up around the co-op and instigate various forms of rigorous group processes, requiring serious preparation. He relaxed a bit when he realized I was just there to hang out and chat, which I think took a while. Really, that was all I was there to do - and, of course, schedule a time for a rigorous and participative process somewhere down the line. Can you see the tightrope I am walking here? Don't get me wrong, it is fun.

I spent the evening chatting with the co-op's elected officials about their organization, its history and its current state of affairs. El Quinacho was founded in 1970 as part of the national cooperative program started by the populist leader Juan Velasco. In the 1980s, however, terrorism and drug trafficking rocked the Valle del Rio Apurimac (VRAE) where the co-op is based. It had to shut down in the late 1980s, as military took over the building and used it as a base of operations against the terrorists and traffickers. In the 1990s, when the violence subsided, the co-op started up again and is currently in a period of expansion. The leaders were proud of the number of new members that were signing up to join its ranks, and were equally proud of its 100% organic orientation. They took me to dinner, and for a walk around the town, which ended at the Quinacho tree, the co-op's namesake, planted when the organization was founded. That was a nice moment. The paradox of co-ops is that they are at once business enterprises and social institutions: meant to generate profits and create meaning at the same time. This is a reason why neoclassical economists hate them. You're supposed to do your business 9 to 5 and create meaning somewhere else. That is what economic efficiency means. Organizations are supposed to exist for single purposes: schools, for the production of knowledge; firms, for the pursuit of profits; families, for the reproduction of the species. Et cetera.

The critique of this point of view could be of book length. Steve Marglin of Harvard is in fact writing a book of this nature entitled _Economic Myths_. I'll leave it with one question: suppose the notion of efficiency were re-construed such that an organization which served more than one purpose was considered to be efficient, since it fulfilled more than one human need at the same time?

The next morning I attended the second day of the event, dedicated to fostering sustainability and competitiveness among the coffee growers in the VRAE region. Unfortunately, attendance was poor. Perhaps the meaning invested in the co-op by its leaders had apparently not penetrated down to its base. Or perhaps it was simply a question of logistics. From one man in the audience I heard a scathing critique: the socios (members) would only show up if there was alcohol. From Lorenzo I heard a kinder response: the members live far away from the town, and to attend the meeting is a huge sacrifice of time and effort. To foster member participation, the co-op must bring its message out to the members' homes. I will not take a position at this time on which factor is more important for participation, culture or logistics. My hypothesis is that each feeds on the other in a vicious circle.

It was unfortunate that most (though not all) of the members missed out, because the presentations were very good: Lucila Quintana, a fiscal manager at the second-level cooperative CECANOR and the director of CONAMUC, the national organization of female coffee growers, spoke on gender equity in the coffee cooperative movement, and Israel Pisetsky, general manager of CACVRA, the neighboring (and larger) coffee co-op, gave an excellent talk on trends in the global coffee market and the importance of Fair Trade and other certifications. (Note to all MOT: it did not escape me that the chances of this man being of Jewish origin, judging by both name and face, are about 98%, however, I didn't have a private moment to ask him.)

At that point, it was time to go. Quick trip! The route back had the advantage that I was accompanied by Sra. Quintana, Carlos Huaroc of the Naranjillo co-op, and organic inspector Enrique Hacker. Carlos and Enrique were both excellent guys, who had presented the first day and whose work I had missed. The disadvantages: remember that enormous descent? Think about it in reverse. Also, imagine the second 12,000-foot pass in the rain, on a dirt road at night. We arrived in Huamanga at 9 PM or so, in time to eat a delicious pizza and pack Carlos and Enrique off to Lima on the night bus. Lucila and I rested our weary bones in a nice hotel just off the plaza, and caught the 6:45 and 7 AM planes back to Lima. And so it was.

The issues raised during this trip were much more than I have addressed here: it is Saturday evening and I am in the mood to write about personal experiences. I will save the political economy for the next post.


Anonymous Alison said...

what an adventure! :)

8:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I lived in the area you visited for two years in the early 70's. It was early days for 'El Cooperativa El Quinacho' for whom I worked for a little more than a year. If it is of any interest or value to you to hear some tales from those days let me know. I have never been back, stayed in touch somewhat until the major upheavals..... I have many memories that are burnt indelibly in my psyche....and a few slides.

s t e v e at e x e g e n i x dot com

12:54 PM  

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