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 Costa Rica: CoopeAgri

“I’d be happy to sell 50% of our coffee as Fair Trade”, says Enrique. “I’m trying really hard to increase our sales, but it’s really frustrating. I’m knocking on doors, but nobody is answering”. Enrique is a big fan of Fair Trade, but he can’t understand why CoopeAgri sells so little of its coffee at Fair Trade prices. Currently it is around 35% of their total production.

CoopeAgri is located about three hours’ south of San Jose, the capital. The co-operative is 100% certified as Fair Trade, but the problem is having a sufficient number of buyers willing to pay Fair Trade prices. It’s a huge challenge and Enrique, young, enthusiastic and passionate, was practically screaming at me to show his frustration. He recently transferred from another department, and he has that newcomer’s awareness of “why are things the way they are?”.

We spoke at length in English, and there was much to be positive about. CoopeAgri is a very successful co-op. The town of Perez Zeledon (also known as San Isidro de El General) is dominated by the presence of CoopeAgri. Over its near 50-year existence it has ingrained itself into the town in many ways I had never seen in other places. This included supermarkets, a financial co-op, hardware store and recently they opened a cafe in the town. They even run a petrol station.

At the CoopeAgri beneficio. This is outside the coffee lab. There is a huge coffee processing facility and offices here too
The new CoopeAgri coffee shop in San Isidro centre

Having such an influence within the local community requires a large number of employees and producers. The co-op has more than 500 employees (e.g. in supermarkets, offices etc) and 12,000 producers. Approximately 2,500 are sugar cane producers. All the producers are small-scale, with around 1-1.5 hectares under cultivation.

CoopeAgri got involved in Fair Trade in 2004, starting with a small amount of coffee under harvest (~100,000 lbs). Now they sell ~3.5m lbs as Fair Trade. However, they have a capacity for ~25m lbs of coffee each year.

The co-op has survived many problems over the years, including the time of the coffee ‘crisis’ (around 10-11 years ago, when prices hit an all-time record low and farmers were unable to cover production costs). As a direct result of the ‘crisis’, many farmers removed their coffee plants, so over the last few years production levels have fallen. Now, because prices have risen significantly, farmers are replanting coffee. But it will take at least 2-3 years for those plants to bear coffee fruit. And by that time who knows what the prices will be like? This boom-bust cycle is typical in the coffee world, and a real reason why Fair Trade, in the long-term, has the ability to give farmers a minimum standard of living.

With prices relatively high at the moment, Enrique told me that many of the farmers are being approached directly by international buyers. They promise to pay farmers on the spot. Fair Trade typically pays farmers at set times of the year, often several months after the harvest. This is a big problem for the co-op, as it is very difficult to dissuade farmers from selling to these buyers. Despite the size of CoopeAgri, they are unable to pay farmers ‘on the spot’ to try to stave off the direct buyers. If they did, the co-op would run into credit problems, because it gets paid several months after the harvest. Also, prices fluctuate in those intervening months, which can cause additional credit problems. “Fair Trade” requires that buyers offer advance payments to the co-op (up to 60% of the contract), but even this does not alleviate the problem.

Another source of frustration for Enrique (really, he does support Fair Trade!) was the lack of opportunity to sell the co-op’s own roasted coffee in international markets. If you buy a bag of Fair Trade coffee at your local shop, almost always it will be from a company that roasts the coffee in the country you buy it from. CoopeAgri roasts its own coffee and sells it within Costa Rica. However, Enrique would love to sell this in other countries. In contrast to other co-ops that do this, CoopeAgri roasted coffee is the same quality as the beans it exports. Typically the import taxes are higher for a ‘product’ than a ‘raw material’, so it is very difficult to access North American and European markets.

The amazing thing, for me, was that Perez Zeledon is a Fair Trade Town. There are hundreds of these in Europe, and North America is catching up. But it was a huge undertaking for the town to get this status, because the criteria was the same as for any other town or city (e.g. a certain number of shops/cafes have to sell Fair Trade products; local council commits to buying Fair Trade products for internal use, wherever possible). The difficulties were many: lack of awareness of Fair Trade within the town, few products available, Fair Trade products are more expensive. They succeeded and it was refreshing for me to see that. It also challenged my assumption that Fair Trade Towns were a ‘northern’ thing, solely for us in the northen, developed world. With each visit, I learn a little more.

CoopeAgri is a great example of a successful co-op. Although Fair Trade can do a lot more for CoopeAgri, it has already done a lot or the community and is continuing to do so. There are many social programs, a Family Commitee (the only one in Costa Rica), which helps women in various projects, they co-ordinated with a Spanish NGO (non-governmental organisation) to bring $30,000 worth of computers for local children, and they have a sizeable number of female producers (around 35%). Over the last few years, the co-op has developed good relationships with their buyers. It is important that these relationships continue to develop, emphasising the ‘personal’ nature of Fair Trade. In a world of impersonal commerce, Fair Trade acts as an antidote to ‘the way things are’. And everyone can play a part.

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