Mysterious and beautiful Peru holds many secrets of ancient civilizations. Looking upon the artfully terraced hillsides and expertly designed architecture left behind by the Incas you can see the great cultural knowledge.
Getting a glimpse of what this area has to offer was life changing for me. I was fortunate enough to travel to Peru with Equal Exchange, a Fair Trade Coop, to visit coffee cooperatives and family farms. From the cultural cooperative work ethic to the love of the arts, the lessons go far beyond coffee. But since coffee is what I was there for, that is what I will focus on.
Twenty four hours after leaving Salem I found myself in Cuzco, Peru. At over 11,000 feet above sea level with soaring mountains on all sides and glacier capped peaks beyond, Cuzco is a unique and inspiring city originally built in the shape of a puma.
Our group consists of Tom Wilde and Peter Mark from Equal Exchange, as well as four other natural foods retailers. After the long flight we are all in need of a good cup of coffee so we head over to the COCLA cafe. COCLA is one of the main coffee cooperatives that Equal Exchange buys from. They have 22 co-ops with 8,000 members. The members have small plots of family run farms averaging 6 acres each. COCLA’s main job is to get a fair, stable price for the small farmers and to improve their living conditions. They do this is many ways including education, sanitation and crop diversity.
Once we finished our coffee we piled into vans and were off to Quillabamba. Down we drove through the Sacred Valley with beautiful views of terraced mountain sides so steep it was hard to imaging anyone being able to harvest the crops! We passed small farms and rural villages as we made the 6 hour trip over the Abra Malaga Pass. At 14,000 ft. the zig zags are both breathtaking and nauseating.
Quillabamba, the city of eternal summer (as it is known) is the home to the COCLA processing facility and a true agricultural market town. The surrounding hillsides grow much of the regions coffee and other crops. Far off the tourists map, Quillabamba offers more of a glimpse of Peruvian life. Now it is well after dark and we are thoroughly drained. Our party checks into our hostel and sleep like the dead.
The next morning we are off to visit COCLA. First on the agenda is a meeting with the head representatives of the Co-op. They talked of the social and economic problems in Peru that COCLA is addressing through the education of farmers. The government’s main focus is on large scale agriculture that generates revenue but does little to help the majority of citizens living in rural areas. The farmers must join together and work cooperatively for sustainability. Education provided by COCLA includes agricultural skills for producing high quality coffee, ways to improve everyday living and a communal work ethic.
Vast improvements in sanitation have cut down on illness and disease. Advanced skills in animal husbandry have aided in the health of the farmers and the farm. Through COCLA’s education, banana trees have been added to the farms as shade trees. By selling bananas at the markets, farmers earn a daily income as well as their yearly income from coffee.
Caring for coffee plants is a year round job. New coffee plants and shade trees need to be planted yearly. Pruning and de-berrying is also critical for insuring yield and disease control. Another important factor is the processing and drying. After de-pulping, the beans must be dried to 12-13% humidity. Once the beans are dry they are transported in burlap bags to the processing facility in covered trucks.
Last, but not least, the communal work ethic plays an important role on the farm. The three principles of communal work are Anai, Maquipura and Laimi. Anai is the tradition of families going from farm to farm working together to help with the harvest. Maquipura is a principle for developing a payment plan so that the Anai system works out fairly for everyone. Laimi is a community reforestation program to help create micro-climates to improve the environment for coffee and people of future generations. By recapturing this ancestral knowledge of the Incas, COCLA is building stronger communities.
After our meeting it was time for some more coffee! Off to the cupping room where each batch of coffee is tasted for acidity, body and flavor by two tasters who have been at it for 20 years! We all got a chance to break the crust (stirring in the grounds), sniff and slurp coffee from five different farms using International Cupping Standards.
Next it was off to the processing plant where the beans are trucked to from the surrounding farms. The coffee is sorted for rocks and contaminants by large (and loud!) machinery. Once bagged, men carry the bags, weighing over 100 lbs, up to the storage area in the warehouse. It was impressive watching the strength and agility of the men hauling the bagged coffee.
Now it was time to see the farms. We drove up an old dirt road for an hour and a half to a group of farms Equal Exchange had visited 10 years ago. We ate lunch with one of the families that hosted visitors that very first year Equal Exchange had come to Peru. We had an excellent meal then walked up to the Aguilayoc Coop where the berries are delivered, weighed, de-pulped and dried before being trucked into COCLA.
Local farmers were dropping off bag loads of berries and getting them weighed on a giant digital scale. After being weighed the berries go into a gravity and water fed de-pulper where the berry is separated from the bean. The beans then sit in a tub of water overnight to ferment. The next day the beans are raked down a water way to clean off the husks and remove the unripe beans that float. At that point they reach the large cement pad where they will dry. The beans are raked out “zen garden style” for about three days. Once the beans have reached 12-13% humidity they are bagged and trucked down the mountain.
Back to Quillabamba worn out from another long exciting day. We made a short stop on the way down to gaze at the upside down big dipper and the southern star. Another reminder that we are south of the equator.
The next two days were spent picking coffee, meeting farmers and learning about planting and pruning techniques. All the farms we visited had things in common but also had a unique feel and layout. Some of the most memorable times were shared meals of chicken, duck and trout. Always with Aji sauce and Chicha (purple corn drink). All meals were prepared in wood fired clay ovens. The portions and flavors were always very generous! At Juana’s farm we had a chance to grind freshly roasted coffee with a half moon shaped stone. It really brings you back to ancient times.
Being welcomed into a family’s home, eating together and sharing stories builds a larger community and understanding between people from different cultures. I feel extremely fortunate to have had this opportunity to experience first hand the impact fair trade has had on the small coffee farmers of Peru.