Getting through Peru in a short time-frame required some long, gruelling bus rides. Travelling south from Trujillo, I made a quick stopover in Lima before heading south-east where my destination was Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian altiplano, where I wanted to sample something a little different. A brief visit to the shores of Lake Titicaca, more than 3,000 m above sea level, was a place I’d long been intrigued by. It felt like a good place to round things off. With its claim of housing a ship that took 6+ years to make the journey there from sea level made it unconventional to say the least. Not much coffee grows at this altitude but there was an office of a coffee co-operative and also the area was renowned for its artisan and local crafts. Plus a little cool-down from the desert heat was welcome.
Lake Titicaca straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia. Indigenous communities are prevalent throughout the region on both sides of the border. This includes communities who live on Lake Titicaca itself, on floating beds of reeds. The Uros people pre-date Inca civilization. The floating islands are continuously managed by adding more reeds as ones underneath rot away naturally, so the size of each one can change easily. They are a popular tourist draw with regular boat trips from Puno.
The fair trade coffee co-op (CECOVASA) was located in the neighbouring town, Juliaca. Not a logical location for such a co-operative, but my curiosity was piqued enough to try to find out the reason why it was located so high up here on the altiplano. I knew that CECOVASA wouldn’t have any coffee farmers nearby, but I took the 30-minute bus ride from Puno, passing isolated houses and quinoa plots as we trundled across the windswept plain.
Set back from the main road and just outside the town centre, CECOVASA looked drab and dispiriting from the outside. Even a mural on the wall of the various fair trade co-op members within CECOVASA did little to brighten things up, though at least I knew I was in the right place.
As usual I had turned up unannounced and so had no idea what I’d actually get to see, but Jaime, the manager, was on hand to show me around. At least for a little while…I think he soon got bored of that and later left me to my own devices.
The CECOVASA story was somewhat familiar. As with many other coffee co-ops I’d visited, a historic price collapse of coffee (around 2001-02, which had devastated coffee farmers worldwide and led many to simply abandon their farms) subsequently led to an interest and setting up as a fair trade co-op. The co-op collective had started in 1970 with five separate smaller co-ops. Since 2003 it was fair trade and had grown to eight co-ops (10 now) comprising more than 5,000 producers. The Juliaca part of their story was more recent, and looked to be ongoing, given the state of the facility I was visiting.
This office and warehouse, opened in 2010, was an attempt to get a little closer to the farmers. Although we were more than 3,000 metres up on the plain, we were a lot closer to the producers than before, when these facilities were in Lima. But even today the farmers would pick, wash and bag their coffee at their farms before bringing to Juliaca. Most of the coffee is exported but some high quality coffee is roasted and packaged here for the domestic market. It is this coffee (Tunki) that wins awards – an unusual scenario in fair trade coffee when most of the higher quality is exported abroad.
I was shown around by Jaime, the general manager. But I was often distracted by his big, bushy hair and capped, rabbit-like front teeth. His dishevelled appearance was a reflection of the co-op itself – a mish-mash of progress and neglect. It was hard to tell if construction had stopped midway through or if it was just slow progress. Despite the new cupping lab and warehouse, many other areas were showing signs of wear and tear, paint flaking off the concrete facades. Perhaps it came down to costs; Jaime was worried about new fair trade certifications. He felt they were needed but the costs added up.
I left with mixed feelings. Many of my fair trade visits left me wondering just much good fair trade was doing. CECOVASA encompassed everything for me, both the positive and negative. I hoped they would succeed but it was difficult to say. I took a bus back to Puno and went to a local cafe to try some award-winning Tunki coffee for myself, hoping I might find an answer.
- Over 5,000 producers; 20% are women
- All fair trade; 60% is organic
- Currently eight co-ops with more expected to join
- Each co-op has a women’s committee
- Winner of Peru coffee competitions