A kind of violence
Into the depths of isolation and out over the high Andes…
An hour or so along the road from Punta de la Carretera is a rare sight – a large area of gently sloping ground and an expanse of tin roofs shining in the sun. This is Putina Punco, the first settlement of any real size and the centre for the coffee farmers of the Tambopata Valley. From here we visit chacras belonging to all four co-operatives based in the town: two big ones, San Jorge and Charuyo, with more than a thousand members each; two small ones, San Ignacio and Union Azata.
Near the river is a concrete square surrounded by warehouses. The co-op members bring their sacks here by mule or on their backs – sometimes walking for as long as two days – to be weighed, tested for quality, registered, stored and dispatched in large Volvo trucks. From an office to one side comes the sound of a short-wave radio powered by a solar cell linked to a car battery. The cafeteleros can talk directly to Lima and learn the price of coffee that very moment on the New York Coffee Exchange – down again to 140 US cents per pound. This, of course, is where Octavio Morales got his information that morning, before we met him on Pablo’s chacra.
One small co-op, the Union Azata, has lost a large chunk of its membership, which once stood at 800 and is now no more than 120. Chacras have been abandoned, the investment lost, during the lean years between 1989 and 1993. Gregorio tells me that Putina Punco was then a ghost town, losing 70 per cent of its population. For the past two years they have been slowly returning.
‘Tell your readers, David, so far away on other continents,’ says Hugo, a young and very bright official of Union Azata, ‘that thousands of people here in this valley depend on the coffee they buy. You have seen how things are; how hard, how very hard we try to produce coffee of good quality for them. Tell them that we receive minimal payment for all our efforts. And tell all those ecologists, those very distinguished professionals, tell them to come and visit us here. Tell them that our forests are being extinguished and that we urgently, urgently need their help.’
‘What we faced before the co-ops were founded,’ adds Gregorio, ‘was having to sell all our coffee to a few powerful comerciantes, intermediaries. They committed a kind of violence against us. They treated coffee just like anything else, with ruthless self-interest and indifference to its quality, and the price they paid was very low.
‘That didn’t suit us. It didn’t suit us at all. It was a very difficult struggle and we had to make many sacrifices, building our own warehouses, our own communications, transport and so on. However low the price of coffee may fall we shall maintain our Co-op to the last, after all the sacrifices we made to set it up.’
I find the sheer isolation of this place intimidating. Sometimes I lie awake at night and it plays on my mind. There is no electricity, no medicine, not a single doctor. If your children become sick they either get better by themselves or they die – it is as simple as that. Yellow Fever stalks the houses.
So it is with some initial relief that I set off along the road out of Putina Punco taken by the coffee trucks. Abdon ‘Maestro’ Martínez is the chofer, the driver of the Nissan 4x4 (well, 4x3 in practice, because one of the drives is broken) pickup in which we travel. Abdon is called ‘Maestro’ because driving this road is more an art than a skill. When it rains the road can become impassable for weeks. In places it would look daunting to a mule.
It winds its way along the valley, climbing all the while. We stop off at San Juan del Oro, a slightly larger and older version of Putina Punco, with a gold mine in the hills where Gregorio has sometimes worked when times are bad with coffee. We fill the pickup with petrol siphoned from barrels piled high in a store.
Further along the road we call in at the San Isidro co-op in Yanahuaya, then leave Gregorio at his parents’ chacra, where he has work to do on the coffee harvest.
And so, eventually, we set off for the heights of the Altiplano. Slowly, as we climb, the forest gives way to scrub. The higher we climb the more the mountains seem to loom over us, the more precipitous becomes the fall to the river far below. It’s wise not to look over the edge.
The sun dips behind the mountains. The cold becomes intense, penetrating, as the darkness deepens. With the altitude my breathing begins to labour, my head to ache, the pain amplified by violent blows against the side and roof of the lurching vehicle, which I am helpless to prevent. We can see nothing except the dusty track ahead, illuminated in the headlamps. It is like being suffocated, frozen and beaten up inside one of those fibre-optic cameras surgeons use to explore our internal organs. I envy the inanimate coffee bean that comes this way too.
The Maestro stops at what at first appears to be a bright doorway in space. Slowly, as my eyes adjust to the radiant starlight, I see a line of dark buildings and, behind them, snow peaks near enough to touch. It is the summit. We have climbed from 800 to 5,000 metres (more than 16,000 feet) above sea level. It has taken us ten hours.
The journey is still far from over, though we climb no more. I recall dreaming fitfully in the freezing, turbulent darkness. I recall a reflection of stars dancing on the surface of Lake Titicaca. And I recall a bright strip of orange light in the distance – Juliaca, our destination and the end of the stars. After a day and a night on the road, dawn is not far away.
Juliaca is built from the flat earth on which it stands and it is not always easy to tell whether the buildings are rising up or falling down. The streets are jammed with rickshaws and markets. The town has two great attractions for the coffee producers: electricity and banks. The electricity is needed to drive a processing plant; the banks for the export business.
So it is here that the Central Office of Agrarian Coffee-producing Co-operatives of the Valleys of Sandia (CECOVASA) has its base. The coffee trucks from Putina Punco arrive in the yard and unload their cargo into a warehouse. At the end of the warehouse is a line of green machines from Brazil and Colombia. The first shakes out the crudest impurities in the café pergamino: stones, wood and other relics of the valleys. From here the bean passes into a cylindrical mill which removes its husk. Finally we are left with the naked bean; a small, grey-green, unprepossessing lozenge in two fused segments known as ‘green’ coffee.
A stack of four more sieves, shaking violently, grades the green coffee beans by size. Only the largest are considered suitable for export – as in most coffee-exporting countries, inferior beans are sold for domestic consumption. Something like 20 per cent of the beans fail to pass muster for export. Finally they run the gauntlet of a conveyor belt set between a line of hired workers who pick out bad beans by hand.
Last year CECOVASA exported almost 22,000 sacks of green coffee in all, valued at some $3.5 million. Until the early 1980s all coffee exports went through Government agencies, which traditionally relied on the US market. Since then, and particularly in the last few years, new markets have been developed in Japan and Europe, which now buy 80 per cent of their coffee.
‘We have good news,’ says Pablo, the manager. ‘The price is rising. Over 150 US cents per pound on the New York Exchange today. Rumours of a poor harvest in Brazil. An announcement is expected from the Brazilian Government shortly. This is a relief for us. We have been holding on, waiting to make sales because we thought the price would rise. But instead it fell.’
The green coffee now has to travel in rented 20-ton trucks for two days across a mountainous desert down to the coast, then north to Callao, Lima’s seaport. Shortage of time, luckily, means that I fly by plane from Juliaca.
In Callao an official in a sharp black uniform, searching for illegal coca, plunges a stiletto blade into some of the sacks as they arrive. A gang of labourers lines a container with brown paper and fills it with 250 sacks to make up the standard ‘lot’. The doors are sealed. The beans will not see the light of day again until they reach their destinations: North America; through the Panama Canal to Europe; or across the Pacific to Japan and Australasia. I give them a friendly pat, a fond farewell, to see them on their way. As they leave, the price rises again, to 160 US cents per pound.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995
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