Bonanza Or Bust


Zestful picking by a peon leaves Pamela in the shade.
or bust
Hard labour on the farm brings uncertain returns from growing, picking and processing the bean…

[image, unknown] ‘Welcome to my chacra!’ exclaims Pamela. She takes us by the hand and leads us inside her house to a table decked with mandarins, papaya, jugs of juices, flowers, fresh herbs, simmering cups of cocoa. The one thing that’s missing is coffee – if they drink it at all, the coffee farmers use it for relaxation in the afternoons.

‘This is my home,’ continues Pamela. ‘Look how wonderful it is! Look what we have done! Look what we have made here! Isn’t it beautiful? Don’t you think so? Sit down! Sit down everyone! Eat! Have breakfast! Have lunch! Eat what we have made! Welcome! Welcome!’

She bustles distractedly between us while her infant son stomps about in a woollen jump-suit with a large teddy bear emblazoned on the front, and blows raspberries at us. I, for one, am exhausted, drenched with sweat. To reach this place we have climbed steeply on foot for two hours. Only the mule that came with us still seems to be in reasonable shape.

Buenas tardes, good afternoon,’ says Pablo, Pamela’s husband, introducing himself to my tape recorder. His darting eyes, mobile mouth and high-pitched croak make him seem slightly roguish. But his laugh, like everyone’s here, comes straight from the soul.

‘This is Pablo Cahuana Flores speaking. Member of the San Ignacio Co-operative. In the valley of the Tambopata River. Sandia. Department of Puno. Peru,’ he shouts, as if reporting for duty. ‘It is Friday.’

He trembles faintly and is at a loss for words, transfixed by the machine. More to the point, no outsiders – and certainly no gringos like me – have ever visited him on his chacra before, let alone asked him to describe what he does. Where to start?

Well, while Pablo collects his thoughts let me slip in a very brief bit of history for you. Without it you cannot understand why Pamela and Pablo feel as passionately as they do about their home.

Pamela, Pablo and offspring with the raised drying platform for fair trade in front of them. Forty years ago Aymara- and Quechua-speaking peoples of the Peruvian Altiplano, who had lived for centuries around the desolate northern fringes of Lake Titicaca, were in urgent need of land. They began to make trouble, to form themselves into peasant unions. They were met with promises of reform from the Government. To relieve the pressure the Government built a road down into the forest that blankets the fragile, precipitous folds of the Andean escarpment to the east.

This was virgin territory, ‘uninhabited’ save for a few spectral ‘tribes’ retreating ever deeper into the forest as the road advanced. Here there was space, fertile soil and an escape from the relentless cold of the Altiplano. The prospect of a better life was pursued by landless people believing that a good living might eventually be made from growing coffee.

But the bounty of this majestic forest is not easily won, and it is won hardest of all by destitute ‘colonists’ such as these with nothing but their own labour to muster. From the road durable paths had to be fashioned up the sheer sides of the mountains. The sites for settlement had to be carefully selected. The cold at levels higher than 800 metres, the heat and humidity at levels lower than 200 metres above sea level would kill the coffee plant.

The forest itself, towers of timber pinned to the slopes like candles to a Christmas tree, had to be thinned, while still preserving the shade needed by the coffee bushes, over an area of perhaps three hectares for each chacra. A platform had to be levelled to provide a drying area for the coffee, the loose soil soaked and compacted to form adobe walls for the two stories of the farmhouse; a building wide enough for a bed at each end, a table and bench in between, and not much else. A source of pure water had to be found. Finally, after the planting – first of essential vegetables and fruit for survival, then of the coffee itself – came the long, long wait: three years at least, tending the growing coffee plants ‘like children’ until the first fruits appeared. The hardships, the back-breaking labour without reward of these early years are still vivid in the memory of this place. They have never really gone away.

Action being easier than words, Pablo offers to show me their coffee plants – Pamela having already gone on ahead. He sets off at speed up the mountainside behind his chacra.

‘There they are,’ he says, pointing to a clearing of felled trunks and solitary papaya trees. A wooden aqueduct, perched on stilts, carries a trickle of water purposefully across the clearing into the forest beyond. Then I see, nestling between two trunks, a bed of bright green coffee seedlings. ‘They will serve me for 15 years.’

‘Only 15?’ I ask. The standard productive life of a coffee bush is 30 to 40 years.

‘That’s right. Lower down they last a little longer. But they produce less coffee. Over there, those plants are two years old. Up there, three. When the flowers come out in September it is as if the mountains were covered in snow, just like the Altiplano. Very beautiful.’

We enter a grove of mature coffee bushes. They are planted about two metres apart. Dappled-grey, skeletal stems, several of them to a bush, fan outwards from firm ground, which is clear and smooth save for a litter of leaves. The ‘cherries’ growing amid dark, glossy leaves turn from green to yellow and finally to red as they mature. They do, indeed, resemble small and unappetizing cherries. Interspersed among the coffee bushes are mandarin orange trees, brilliant with fruit.

Ahead we hear voices and there is Pamela again, beckoning frantically. She has draped a shawl across her shoulders to form a pouch under her arm. Half-a-dozen people, the men wearing numbered soccer shirts of the latest design, emerge from the bushes.

These are peones, labourers. They come down from the Altiplano for about five months during harvest time. They live in a shed beside the farmhouse. Every chacra employs peones. Around the valley, at intervals through the forest, precious level ground has been cleared for them to play soccer on Sundays. They call Pamela and Pablo dueños, owners. There is, however, little to distinguish between them.

The pace of events begins to quicken. Coffee cherries fly in all directions. Mandarin oranges are plucked from the trees – a sack of 100 sells for less than one US dollar on local markets. There are bouts of hilarity as Pamela and her band of peones give an exuberant exhibition of their daily drudgery.

Pablo is keen nonetheless to impress upon me the seriousness of this task. ‘We also produce coffee here for the comercio alternativo, for fair trade. We are careful to select only the best cherries for them, the ones that are perfectly ripe. It is a risk for us. There is only one day when they are perfect. If it rains on that day then they fall from the bushes and are lost. But it is a risk we are happy to take to produce the best quality coffee.’

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The process (from top to bottom): peons pulping, washing and draining the bean under Pablo's watchful eye. [image, unknown]
The process (from top to bottom): peons pulping, washing and draining the bean under Pablo's watchful eye. [image, unknown]
The process (from top to bottom): peons pulping, washing and draining the bean under Pablo's watchful eye. [image, unknown]

The pouches are filled and we descend the slope again towards the chacra. To one side the wooden aqueduct pours crystal-clear water into a concrete tank. A vessel resembling a fat dugout canoe is filled with water. The cherries are unloaded into it and float on the surface. They will sink slowly to the bottom as they ferment. Again, Pablo stresses to me the importance of getting this process exactly right.

Beside this vessel is another similar one, filled previously, from which the cherries are now removed and spread out to dry for a few hours. These cherries, by now reeking of fermenting fruit, are passed through a crude but effective de-pulper. Pour the cherries into a hob at the top, rotate the handle and hey presto! the soft fruit pulp falls out to one side while the seeds – the hard coffee beans – clatter down a tin chute to the other. The pulp is returned to the soil as compost. The beans still have a thick and resistant mucus coating. They are passed through more fresh water at least five or six times and literally scrubbed by foot or by hand. It is an extremely laborious process.

The result – beans shining like polished peanuts – is called café lavado, washed coffee. These beans are spread out to dry beneath the sun for two or three days. Beans for the ‘normal’ market are placed on black synthetic material stretched directly over the ground. The comercio alternativo beans are spread over raised wooden platforms so that air can pass beneath them, making the drying process more effective. If rain threatens – and every night – the beans must be collected, brought in and kept dry.

After all this, a husk or ‘parchment’ still remains on the beans. Pamela and Pablo test them as the drying proceeds by rubbing them between their hands to remove the husk and inspect the colour and texture of the bean inside, until there is no sign of moisture and it has taken on a particular shade of grey-green. In this condition, still covered with the husk and known as café pergamino, ‘parchment coffee’, the beans can be preserved for long periods without deteriorating – a quality that allows coffee to be produced as a cash crop even in such isolated spots as this.

We convene in a small circle to consider the implications of what we have seen. Gregorio conducts the interviews. We have been joined by Octavio Morales, a thin, solemn neighbour immaculately dressed and wearing a flat cloth cap.

Señor periodista inglés,’ he begins slowly in a deep, resonant and mournful voice. ‘We send greetings to your compatriots so far away and ask them to keep drinking their coffee. We want to thank you for coming to visit us here, the first journalist we have ever seen. Now you know for yourself how we must live, what a labour it is to produce coffee. But on the New York Coffee Exchange this morning the price has fallen to just 143 US cents per pound.’ This morning? How can he possibly know that?

‘Yes,’ continues Pablo, before I have the chance to ask. ‘The price does not adequately reflect the work we put in, the costs we have to pay to maintain our families, employ peones and everything else. We produce coffee here of the highest quality, without using chemical fertilizers, herbicides or fungicides. Our coffee is completely organic and should receive a better price. That is all I, Pablo Cahuana Flores, have to say at the moment. Thank you.’

Well, let’s make a few simple calculations. Let’s assume that this year Pamela and Pablo will receive the equivalent of about $70 dollars, after the deduction of road transport and processing costs, for each 50-kilo sack of café pergamino they are eventually able to sell – a pretty good price. If their chacra totals about three hectares and two hectares actually produce coffee, and at a good average (for here) of 20 sacks per hectare, then they should be able sell a total of 40 sacks and receive an income of $2,800.

But they still have to pay the wages and keep of the peones and the cost of transport by mule to the nearest coffee store. More to the point, three years ago they sometimes received less than $20 per sack. Such prices were typical of the years between 1989 and 1993, when their income did not even cover the costs of production. Last year, after frost killed part of the coffee crop in Brazil, Pamela and Pablo had a bonanza. A sack might sell for as much as $200.

Partly as a consequence of this bonanza our leaving ceremony becomes extremely protracted – suddenly everyone is equipped with compact cameras. We line up by the chacra, by the drying coffee beans, the pulping machines, the coffee bushes and the papaya trees; we embrace different combinations of peones, dueños, families, friends, enemies, children and lovers. Strange that I should feel at all uneasy at having left my own image, my own ‘soul’, behind in this place, as well as taking theirs with me.

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