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Coffee: the view from the valley

United Kingdom
Fair Trade

Gregorio looks out over the Tambopata Valley.

What has changed in my lifetime?' Abraham chuckles with genuine amusement at the idea.

Abraham is 73 years old. His son is now the mayor of San Juan del Oro, the town where he lives on the lower eastern slopes of the Peruvian Andes, not far from the Amazon Basin. Another son was killed in an accident on the perilous road up to the Altiplano, the high mountainous plateau that dominates Peru. During the past ten years Abraham has lived through the crossfire of a civil war between Sendero Luminoso ('Shining Path') revolutionaries and the Peruvian Army. Peace is only just returning. I am curious to know what he makes of it all.

'I tell you this,' he says, his face taking on the gaze you see in the picture of him on the cover of this magazine. 'The cafeteleros, the coffee farmers, were poor when we came here 40 years ago, and we are just as poor now. That has not changed at all.'

Forty years ago I was eight years old. British cities were still black with the soot of the industrial revolution, pockmarked with slums and bomb-sites. There were no supermarkets, few televisions, no computers and few washing machines - things I now think of as commonplace. Everything I take for granted has changed during my lifetime. I take change itself for granted.

Abraham does not. Nor does Gregorio Gomez, a gentle, watchful cafetelero whose home is quite close to Abraham's, a few kilometres higher up the magnificent Tambopata Valley in southern Peru. I am to spend a lot of time with Gregorio in the coming weeks. [image, unknown]

'I was born in the Sierra, the mountains, near Sandia,' he says. 'When I was very young, less than a year old, my parents brought me here to the Tambopata Valley. They came here, according to what they tell me, because there was not much of a life to be had there in the Sierra, and there were a lot of people. Here in the valley, in those days, there were few people but plenty of land and things to produce, especially coffee. That would have been in about 1959. I am now 36 years old.

'My education was, I'm afraid, pretty inadequate. I went to primary school and finished that, but I was unable to continue with my secondary-school studies. For eight years I received no education at all and worked all the time on my parents' chacra, their farm. When a secondary college was established in San Juan del Oro, near my parents' chacra, I joined it. I spent three years there, still working on the chacra. Unfortunately the quality of the teaching was very poor, since the teachers were not professionals.

'So I took it upon myself to educate myself, what we call "auto-education". Many people here have to get an education in this way. I went to institutions in Juliaca and Puno, getting jobs where I could to earn my keep and pay the fees. All sorts of jobs, they were: for six months I worked as a clerk to a magistrate. But I still kept in touch with my parents here, and the chacra. In fact I built myself my own chacra slightly apart from my parents' one.'

Edi, his 12-year-old nephew, lives there with them. He's a bit of a handful for his grandparents, says Gregorio. Edi's mother (Gregorio's sister) died at the age of 20. She lived for a year in agony from an illness that crept untreated from her feet through her body until it killed her. They never knew its name. [image, unknown]

As well as Spanish Gregorio speaks the Quechua language of the Altiplano. This puts him in a minority - most people in the Valley speak the other indigenous language of Peru, Aymara. He has a daughter who now lives and goes to school in Juliaca, on the northern shores of Lake Titicaca. Her mother fell out with Gregorio's parents and left the chacra several years ago. Gregorio's two living sisters have returned to the Altiplano. So he is the only one who remains to care for his parents, Luis and Celestina, in their old age.

He is a member of the small San Isidro coffee-producers' co-operative that is based in a one-street village called Yanahuaya. This year he is also the elected vice-president of CECOVASA, the central union of nine co-operatives in the region which co-ordinates the marketing of almost all its coffee production. It was in this capacity, as a representative of some 5,000 cafeteleros and at the invitation of the NI, that he came to Britain to see what eventually happens to the coffee he produces in Peru.

And this is the story of the magazine. It is about how Gregorio and I followed the coffee bean along its incredible journey from the farmers of Peru to the drinkers of Britain. [image, unknown]

In Britain

Gregorio had never been out of Peru before. I said to him, as we drove along the winding lanes of rural Britain, that he should let me know if he wanted to stop and take photographs. One day we were in the Cotswolds, an area popular with tourists but not noted for the giant forests, deserts and snow-capped peaks that are familiar to Gregorio. We did, it is true, glimpse some captive llamas through a hedge in a nearby 'wildlife park'. But I expected him to want snaps of an idyllic, rural, English scene.

Eventually he asked me to stop. It was a dull, sunken spot in a field beneath a giant electricity pylon. He stood in front of the pylon and asked me to take a photograph of him on his own camera.

'What, here, Gregorio? With the pylon?' I asked.

'That's right,' he said. 'This photograph will show the people at home what it will be like when we, too, have electricity and can develop.'

I imagined the Tambopata Valley strung with electricity pylons, and I grieved - I would, of course, because I do not live there. Gregorio does, and he loves the Valley. There is nowhere else he can or would wish to live. He farms coffee because there is no other living he can earn. But as a coffee farmer he is not engaged in a romantic, 'traditional' rural activity. He is at one end of a massive, modern, international industry dedicated to satisfying the latest consuming passions of affluent, electrified, urban culture in the North.

That industry generates multi-million-dollar profits, which the people who actually produce the coffee never see. Unless things change, they never will. Although they - like some 20 million others in the tropical countries of the South - work all their lives for coffee, coffee has never worked for them. The power, the profits and the benefits all flow the other way. If the pylons ever appear, bringing with them light, healthcare and modern communications, they will be a potent symbol of change at last.

So we went in search of an explanation, any kind of justification, for a very simple and persistent injustice. At the price we pay for a cup of coffee in a smart cafe in London or Toronto or New York or Sydney or Wellington or Johannesburg, the sacks of wonderful coffee from the Tambopata Valley are worth something like $13,000 each. Yet, if they are lucky, the cafeteleros of Peru will receive just $70 for one of them.

While this injustice persists then so will the dreadful and quite unnecessary suffering it causes. I say 'unnecessary' suffering because, as Gregorio and I are to discover, the gulf of mutual ignorance that divides farmers from drinkers is now being bridged by a relatively young but vibrant and growing fair-trade movement that is changing the rules of the game. There is a way forward, across the bridge they have built. Gregorio and I know this because we crossed it together.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995

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