Piura, northern Peru: fair trade cacao and coffee

Santiago carefully picks his way through the scattered cacao beans laid out on the table, making selections with a trained eye and placing them in a customised folding tray in front of him. The tray has placeholders for the beans and he fills it row by row. But this is not a tray for display. After it is filled, he folds the tray over, sealing the beans in place. The tray is designed to check the quality of the cacao beans, and it comes with its own built-in guillotine blade. A quick swipe downwards from Santiago and the beans have been sliced in half. He opens the tray to expose the newly-decapitated beans and examines their insides.

Checking the bean quality is an intricate process and this is just one part. The final check is a taste test, but to get to that part requires another few steps. Santiago claims to look after ‘tourism’-related activities but he’s clearly steeped in cacao knowledge. Dressed in a CEPICAFE t-shirt and light waistcoat, he walks me through the process. From the same batch of beans we took some of the ones that had survived the guillotine and placed them in a mini roaster, separate from the ones that roast the coffee. After roasting the shells need to come off and the beans ground up. Grinding is non-technical – hand power is used. Out of that come the cacao nibs. However, the next stage uses white cylindrical tubs with numerous wires and plastic protruding skywards. Looking more like they should be in a hospital, these tubs turn the nibs into cacao liquor. Then it’s poured into small tasting trays and placed in the fridge until Santiago is ready to taste test.

Into Peru
The day before visiting CEPICAFE, the co-op that Santiago works for, I arrived in Piura, northern Peru, on an overnight bus from southern Ecuador. After several weeks in the cooler mountains I was now in the hot, parched flatlands of Piura.

Piura is the main town of the Piura region and was my base for a few days, offering an opportunity to visit a couple of different fair trade co-ops. In common with Ecuador and Colombia, my first sense of Peru was a mix of the relatively affluent and modern (gated houses, a private leisure club, cafes and hotels) together with the more chaotic hustle that characterised the markets, dusty streets and unfinished or rundown buildings of poorer areas. There is a very pleasant central square, an upmarket hotel facing onto it, and it even had a vegetarian restaurant.

It was hard to believe that Piura, a dusty, hot low-lying town, could be home to a coffee co-operative. But because it is the largest town in the region, it works well as a central base for coffee and cacao producers who live in the interior. This particular co-operative, CEPICAFE (coffee producers of central Piura) is large and has a diverse range of products – coffee, cacao, panela (sugar) and fruit juices and jams.

The co-op office is located just outside of the town centre and I arrived unannounced on a hot, sunny morning. Again, I wasn’t sure what might happen – and neither were they – but after an uncertain few minutes I was given the ok for a tour.

This co-op is particularly unique, given its office (and warehouse) location, size and its products. Most producers live quite a distance away up in the high hills but this location in Piura is a step forward. They have a modern operation here and my first glimpse of it was with a young lad called Ivan, who showed all the equipment they use to make batches of fruit pulp for jams and juice. Alas it was out of season so I didn’t get to see the operation running.

The main emphasis of the co-op is in cacao and coffee. It wasn’t coffee harvest season either, so when I first saw the massive warehouse it looked noticeably empty. Only four years old, it was the largest facility I’d seen on my trip; at harvest time they process a huge amount of coffee.

But when it’s not coffee season there is the cacao. The hub of the action, and the fun, is in the quality lab. The lab is at the upstairs in the warehouse and is used for coffee and cacao tasting; today it was cacao.

Very high quality cacao is produced within the co-op. According to Santiago Paz Lopez, the co-op Manager, “we have some of the best cacao in the world”. calls it the gold of Piura, such is its quality and value. One of their varieties of cacao won 1st in a national competition. Earlier in the day that I was there one of CEPICAFE’s US clients visited – a well-known fair trade chocolate producer who have exacting quality requirements.

The warehouse was on the other side of town, so I accompanied Martin there on a tuk-tuk ride from the office. He explained to me that the co-op handles a range of different standards of coffee. Most carry an organic standard as well as one or more fair trade certifications (e.g. FLO, CLAC). Martin had been with the co-op for 12 years and as we wandered around the warehouse he was happy to talk to me for a while about the co-op. However, because my visit was outside of coffee harvest season, the warehouse had an air of slumber about it, except for when we arrived at the quality lab, which was crowded and alive with activity.

Back in the lab, I watched intently as Santiago and his team put the cacao through its paces. As well as conducting the ‘guillotine’ test the cacao needs to be given clearly it’s most important test – tasting. Who could refuse?

Santiago was ready to give the liquor a try. The chilled liquor was softened (in the microwave) and after a few seconds he handed me a little tasting spoon and I dived into the softened cacao. We tasted two varities and I was surprised how easy it was to notice the difference. Despite that, I had to make sure and I was keen to repeat the process…several times.

-created in 1995, current Piura office opened in 2001
-approx 6,700 producers, all smallholders (1-2 hectares or less)
-four different cacao varieties, including one called cacao (gran) blanco and chulucanas, both highly valued
-producers live in the Amazonas, Tumbes, Cajamarca and Piura regions
-100% fair trade, 95% organic
-well-known clients include Equal Exchange, Theo chocolate, GEPA and Ethiquable

Fair Trade cacao, Panama: COCABO

“I’ve seen it all”, says Elma, in an accent that was both startling yet familiar. “In my 25 years here, I’ve seen the ups and downs. There are good years and bad years”, she says in Spanish, with a distinctly Caribbean lilt. I’d forgotten that I was right on the Caribbean coast. Elma, a tall, indomitable lady with a hearty laugh and friendly manner, was happy to give me an insight into the COCABO co-op.

A one-hour sweaty, undulating bicycle ride from Changuinola, the dusty town I was staying in, led me to Almirante, where COCABO is located. Almirante’s prime motive for existence seems to be its port. Squashed  together are the tourists and the traders; the traders look like they won. Tourists do their best to pass through quickly on their way to the idyllic islands of Bocas del Toro.

Ignoring the constant shouts from tourist touts I asked for directions to the co-op. Port smells (fish and diesel) filled the air and people (potentially smelling of fish and diesel as well) filled the streets, and a few minutes later, skirting the town and its shabby surroundings, I located the COCABO sign. Situated across the road from a container storage site, it was in keeping with the rest of Almirante – neither a glamorous nor picturesque location.

COCABO is predominantly a cacao co-op, though also trades coffee (which is grown in the highlands and comes here already dried) and bananas. The COCABO site contains a small office and warehouse for storing and checking the cacao to be exported overseas.

The office itself was peopled with friendly and helpful workers, right down to the lady who graciously gave me a sugar-fuelled cup of coffee. It had been brewed with the sugar built-in. A great time-saving yet unnecessary exercise.

Elma is in charge here and her presence was striking. Not only is she large, a loud speaker, and funny, but being a female “in charge” is unusual in itself. I’d almost always been introduced to men who were managing affairs at the co-ops I’d visited. Elma was an exception, no question.

Jose Howell, quiet and deliberate, showed me around the warehouse. The bright, laden, 50 kg bags of cacao beans, with their dominant Fair Trade logo, gave me a smile. Oved Millar, enthusiastic and sturdy, demonstrated the cacao quality checker, a kind of enclosed guillotine that cuts the beans placed inside it, allowing him to check the quality more easily by viewing the inside of several beans at once.

This season’s production has been average, but cacao prices on the world market have fallen, so the producers will receive less. Fair Trade helps by giving producers a minimum price and also providing a “social premium” that is invested directly back into the community of the co-op members. Typically, the cacao is separated into 1st and 2nd grade quality, but this year the co-op has mixed them together in order to get a better price. Mixing the cacao together gives a more consistent, higher quality.This year there is not much price difference between grades, and some buyers will pay the same price for both.

Not all farms are certified organic or Fair Trade. Elma is frustrated about it, but realises that for some farmers it is too much work. Another problem that many farmers in the co-op face is being surrounded by conventional banana plantations. The amount of chemicals and pesticides used in their production and the way they are applied (usually by helicopter or airplane) means that some farmers in neighbouring farms are at a high risk of having their products ‘contaminated’.

Elma told me that the price of cacao (paid to the farmer) was around $1.04 / lb*. Any price lower than $1 / lb would make it unprofitable for the producer. Even with Fair Trade, most producers only eke out a living. She would like to see a higher minimum price in order to make a real difference in the farmers’ lives. And she is yet to be convinced by the sustained benefits of Fair Trade. Some buyers make additional donations to the co-op (e.g. a Swiss buyer gives them $10,000 each year) though most pay solely the Fair Trade price. Caustic and funny, her quarter-century with the co-op has given her a philosophical view, even as we shook our heads at the irony of Panamanians eating chocolate made from cacao that comes from other countries. There are good years and bad years, and the producers somehow carry on.

COCABO have nice bags for their cacao
Elma at the COCABO office. Funny, open and caustic, she had a lot to say
A cacao grower takes a siesta. It’s tiring work, after all

Elma invited me back the following day in order to visit the farm of a producer. I declined, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had a plane to catch…

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Co-op Statistics: COCABO (Cooperativa de Servicios Multiples Cacao Bocatoreña)

Size: 1,400 producers. Hope to increase to 2,000 in future. Typical production area 3 hectares. Typical co-op production 1-1.2m lbs / year.

Age: 60 years – the oldest co-op I visited on my travels, and the oldest co-op in Panama.

Production: cacao (90% Fair Trade). Fair Trade certified since 2005. Organic bananas for Panama and Costa Rica markets.

*Fair Trade minimum price is $2 / kg (conventional) and $2.30 / kg (organic) with $0.20 / kg in addition, as the “social premium”

Fair Trade cacao, Costa Rica: APPTA

This looked like proper jungle. Steamy, hot, humid, with unfamiliar animals and noises, and a treasure trove of cacao and bananas. The unknown beckoned again on my second fair trade visit in Costa Rica as I came down from the highlands to the coast.

APPTA is an organic, Fair Trade cacao and banana co-op located in the remote northeast of the country, sandwiched between the Caribbean coast and the Panama border. Its main business is cacao for export and bananas for the national market. It also grows other fruit and vegetables for local  markets. On a damp, grey morning I visited the cacao processing facility and office, just outside the small town of Bribri. As I crested a small hill near the site, I saw the distant hills of Panama and in the foreground a green sea of banana plants stretching across the floodplain (the bananas we typically eat grow as a plant, not a tree). This was undeniably banana country.

Walter, the co-op gerente (manager), was too busy to show me around so I got a tour with Jairo, a young personable man who deals with exports. After seeing the fruit and vegetable nursery with Jairo, he handed me over to Leonila, a nursery worker, and we went off to look at the cacao trees. Despite the damp conditions, I was dressed in shorts and short sleeves, so I was unprepared for the stealthy attacks on my arms and legs by the mosquitoes. It was my first day out of the mountains for a while and I’d got used to being sting-free.

However, the upside was the cacao. There were several different ‘pod’ varieties and colours. Some were just ripening, so this was my chance to taste the pod contents right off the tree. Deliciously sweet, creamy white and fragrant, the pulp that contains the beans is good enough to eat in itself. But it takes a little more effort to get the cacao to the point where it can be used in making chocolate.

The cacao processing area is housed under a large, open shed. Due to the damp conditions, the beans were drying in racks under the shelter of the roof or in a large bath humidifier. When it’s sunny, these large racks, the size of a snooker table, are wheeled out to dry in the light and heat.

Cacao requires several days to ferment before drying. Whereas coffee is de-pulped and washed first, cacao is simply dumped into large wooden containers, covered and left for around 5-6 days. The smell coming from the bins told me all I needed to know – but I peered in anyway to check out the fermenting pods. Call it investigative curiosity…

After 5-6 days, the pulp has fermented and just the bean remains. From here, it’s a short, heavy haul by the co-op workers to place them on one of the racks or baths for drying.

The dried beans are bagged and stored in the small warehouse adjoining the office. All organic, a proportion of the APPTA cacao is Fair Trade. Typically their European buyers pay Fair Trade prices. Fair Trade pricing for cacao works in a similar way to coffee: there is a world minimum price, and Fair Trade pays above the market price when the market is higher than the minimum. A proportion of the price also goes back to the co-op itself.

Another important part of the co-op’s work is in producing banana pulp for export. The co-op is trying to establish export markets for export of fresh bananas and is currently working with an importer in Holland. If successful, this would be a major boost for the co-op. Other initiatives include producing various organic fruit and vegetables for local markets. These include passion fruit, cucumber, tomatoes, papaya.

The cultivation of bananas is important as it helps give the growers a consistent source of income. Cacao is harvested annually, so growers can focus on banana cultivation outside of cacao harvest time.

The nursery grows several plants to sell to local growers. The APPTA farm is certified organic, though not all the growers are certified. APPTA makes a great effort to help the local community through various projects, such as improving local biodiversity and sustainability, and product diversification.

Cycling back home, I was amazed that this little organic oasis existed. In the valley I cycled past vast stretches of conventional banana plantations. I saw several signposts warning people not to enter the fields during ‘pesticide delivery time’, which is done by helicopter. There are many stories of workers being treated harshly and the environmental impact of banana production, but that’s for another time…(however I do recommend taking a look at either of these two films, “Bananas!*” or “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*“).

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Co-op Statistics:

Founded: 1987, working in 30 local communities.

Size/No. of producers: 1200 (80% are indigenous Bribri or Cabécar; Women consist 38% of APPTA members).

Fair Trade/organic: All organic cacao, some Fair Trade.

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