Coffee Connections: Challenges for Bolivian Producers

["Coffee Connections" was originally published in the Summer/Fall 2013 edition of Fair Trade Magazine.]


El Camino de la Muerte, or Death Road, winds through mountain gorges filled with hairpin turns where crosses are a common, sobering sight.

Visibility is poor as we barrel along, shrouded in thick fog and dust stirred up by vehicles ahead. On one side of us is an 800-metre ravine—a vertical cliff face on the other. At its worst, the gravel road is wide enough for only one vehicle, though it operates as a fairly busy, two-way highway. Cars, buses, and trucks must negotiate encounters—often blindly around corners—until there is a spot wide enough for oncoming vehicles to inch perilously by. Drivers begin their journeys by muttering prayers and spilling drops of beer on the ground as a sacrificial offering, a plea for protection from Pachamama, or Mother Earth.

A lack of infrastructure
The treacherous road is a prime example of the lack of infrastructure in Bolivia, a contributing factor to issues such as poverty, and limited access to education and health care. As one of the least developed nations in Latin America, Bolivia has some of the greatest income inequality in the world. According to a 2001 census, 64 percent of the population doesn’t earn enough to meet their basic needs. And the Canadian International Development Agency reports that one in eight Bolivians earn less than US$1.25 per day, with women and children living in rural areas being among the most vulnerable.

My work in Bolivia was arranged by Crossroads International, which began working with the country’s producers in 2006. The organization has contributed to a fair trade certification guide, established trade partnerships for farmers, and created the means for vital cash injections in the form of Fair Loans.

Joni Ward visits Bolivian coffee producers, fair tradeLife on the farm
During my time there, I worked with coffee producers at altitudes ranging from 1,200 to 1,700 metres, spending time with farmers such as Genero Ramos and his family. Like other producers in the area, he lives surrounded by jungle, up a bumpy, dusty road in the isolated Quilla Quillani hill community, with his wife Elizabeth and their five children. We toured their land, scrambling up and down steep slopes through the jungle terrain. It was clear that planting and harvesting over several hectares of land is an immense undertaking. With the resources provided by Crossroads International, Fair Loans have helped rural communities in Bolivia develop their coffee growing industry and have consequently improved their own living conditions. They have better access to health care and education, clean drinking water, and communication and transportation services. However, successful coffee production represents only one aspect in reaching their potential; the challenge of market access still remains.

Challenges for producers
The United Nations has identified the lack of market access in this coffee-rich area as a key factor in keeping the majority of rural Bolivians below the poverty line. Even if farmers ensure they operate according to Fairtrade certification standards, it doesn’t mean that they’re able to find buyers who are willing to pay fair trade prices. Often, due to a lack of demand for fair trade products, farmers are forced to sell their product for well-below Fairtrade minimums, and even below market price. This is where I came in. My role was to connect Canadian micro-roasters who support fair trade practices with local coffee producers. Ramos and other farmers in the region belong to an organization called Cooperative North East Integrated Agricultural Cooperative (COAINE). Members of COAINE produce shade-grown, washed arabica coffee grown organically at high altitudes. The co-operative includes 180 coffee-growing members. Beyond ensuring a fair wage and access to Fairtrade premiums, the financial stability provided by the co-operative gives these families access to health services, education, and other social services that would otherwise remain out of reach for these rural communities.

While more than 22,000 families produce coffee in Bolivia, only a few of these producers are able to enter international markets. Despite abundant coffee production, these families are challenged by language barriers, a landlocked location, and limited access to technology and other resources—all of which makes for an uphill struggle in promoting their product among international buyers and establishing lasting trade partnerships.

Joni Ward, coffee cherriesMaking connections
Roasters from Canada had an opportunity to connect with several members of COAINE at a community meeting arranged by Crossroads International. They engaged in lively discussion, learning from one another, sharing and listening with respect and receptivity. The roasters were able to observe the washing, pulping, fermenting, and drying processes, and also try their hands at picking coffee cherries.

Two of the micro-roasters negotiated contracts with COAINE, agreeing to share a container from this year’s harvest. In the fall of 2013, 19,600 kilograms of coffee beans will be shipped to Canada. When it arrives, I will be delighted to see the project come full circle—and to take those first sips only a couple of blocks from my home. Making a personal connection with the producers was a truly wonderful experience. It’s important that we recognize the efforts of others in earning a living as they provide us with so many of the luxuries we enjoy.

The distance between buyers on this end of the supply chain and the producers on the other can be vast, with long and bumpy roads between them, but we can improve these connections by creating lasting, mutually beneficial relationships.

Joni Ward recently returned from Bolivia, where she volunteered with Crossroads International as a fair trade and marketing specialist. Previously, she managed a Ten Thousand Villages store in Montreal.