Bridging the gap with direct trade

From L-R: Lay Yong Tan, Fidel Palle, Walter Callisaya Michel, Mario Condori Palli, Anne Winship, me, Jean-François Leduc, Erin Cochrane and Alix Reid

From L-R: Lay Yong Tan, Fidel Palle, Walter Callisaya Michel, Mario Condori Palli, Anne Winship, me, Jean-François Leduc, Erin Cochrane and Alix Reid

Rounding off my Crossroads’ mandate with a week as inspiring and motivating as the one I have just experienced, is truly a gift.  From April 24th – May 1st, I hosted five Canadian micro-roasters (four invitees, one self-financed), with an objective of establishing direct trade relationships.  We braved Death Road, visited coffee plantations, met farmers and their families, toured facilities, cupped coffee, discussed potential partnerships and negotiated contracts.

Hailing from Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and Manitoba, the group was diverse – from one micro-roaster who was enjoying her first trip outside North America, to another who has 40 such coffee-origin trips under his belt.  Each had unique experiences and knowledge to offer, along with a shared passion for coffee and a commitment to direct trade.  I learnt a huge amount throughout the visit and am filled with respect and admiration for the individuals I had the pleasure of hosting.  

Meet the micro-roasters

Alix Reid, Green Bean Coffee Imports

Alix Reid, Green Bean Coffee Imports

Anne Winship, Bean Fair

Anne Winship, Bean Fair

Jean-François Leduc, Café Saint Henri

Jean-François Leduc, Café Saint Henri

Lay Yong Tan & Erin Cochrane, T.A.N. Coffee

Lay Yong Tan & Erin Cochrane, T.A.N. Coffee

"Caranavi province: Coffee capital of Bolivia"

“Caranavi province: Coffee capital of Bolivia”

Meet the producers

We visited coffee plantations at altitudes ranging from 1200m to 1700m, spending time with farmers and their families.  The fair trade premiums that COAINE receives are essential for the livelihoods of these families.  Beyond ensuring a fair wage, fair trade enables access to health services, education and other social services which would otherwise remain out of reach for these rural communities living in poverty.

Fidel Palle, coffee farmer

Fidel Palle, coffee farmer

Walter Callisaya Michel, COAINE's treasurer

Walter Callisaya Michel, COAINE’s treasurer

Mario Condori Palli, President of COAINE

Mario Condori Palli, President of COAINE

Mario and his wife Bertha

Mario and his wife Bertha

Genero Ramos, coffee farmer

Genero Ramos, coffee farmer

Genero Ramos with two of his daughters, Rebecca (12) and Noemi (11)

Genero Ramos with two of his daughters, Rebecca (12) and Noemi (11)

Genero with his son, Vladimir (2)

Genero with his son, Vladimir (2)

Genero`s wife Elizabeth with their other two daughters, Gilda Marilin (5) and Leonida (7)

Genero`s wife Elizabeth with their other two daughters, Gilda Marilin (5) and Leonida (7)

With the Ramos family

With the Ramos family

Dialogue and discussion

While visiting the coffee production zone around Caranavi, we connected with several members of COAINE in the community of Niño Jesus.  After an enormous lunch, lively discussion ensued and it was inspiring to see producers and micro-roasters learning from one other, and listening with respect and receptivity.  

A warm welcome in Niño Jesus

A warm welcome in Niño Jesus

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Esteban Bohórquez, founding member of COAINE, speaking to the cooperative's progress over the years

Esteban Bohórquez, founding member of COAINE, speaking to the cooperative’s progress over the years

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COAINE cooperative members

COAINE cooperative members

The little guy on the right is sporting a Justin Bieber T-shirt, especially for our Canadian cohort perhaps...

The little guy on the right is sporting a Justin Bieber T-shirt, especially for our Canadian cohort perhaps…

 

With Anastacio Mamaní Callisaya

With Anastacio Mamaní Callisaya

Micro-roasters and producers in Niño Jesus

Micro-roasters and producers in Niño Jesus

The coffee harvest

The cosecha (harvest) for coffee begins in April and continues through to August.  We were able to try our hand at picking coffee cherries, as well as observe the washing, pulping, fermenting and drying processes.  COAINE produces four main varietals of coffee : criollacaturracatuai rojo and catuai amarillo.

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Coffee plants, laden with cherries

Coffee plants, laden with cherries

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Bertha showing us how it's done

Bertha showing us how it’s done

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Coffee cherries (it took me a very long time to pick this small amount!)

Coffee cherries (it took me a very long time to pick this small amount!)

Washing the coffee cherries

Washing the coffee cherries

Erin, working the pulping machine

Erin, working the pulping machine

Vincente, coffee farmer, with pulped coffee beans

Vincente, coffee farmer, with pulped coffee beans

Picking out defective beans as the coffee dries

Picking out defective beans as the coffee dries

Visiting COAINE`s new wet mill facility in Muñecas (built with the aid of fair trade premiums)

Visiting COAINE`s new wet mill facility in Muñecas (built with the aid of fair trade premiums)

Coffee cupping

Our coffee cupping session took place up at FECAFEB`s facilities in El Alto.  FECAFEB (La Federación de Caficultores Exportadores de Bolivia) is the umbrella organization for all Bolivian coffee cooperatives.  Coffee cupping is the method of evaluating various characteristics of a particular coffee bean.  Much like wine tasting, coffee cupping is a complex process, determining taste, flavour, fragrance and aroma.  By sniffing and tasting the coffee at different stages, it is possible to evaluate attributes such as balance, body, acidity, sweetness, after-taste, clean cup and uniformity.

At this early stage in the harvest, fresh coffee beans from only the lower altitudes were available for tasting.  We cupped three batches of coffee beans all from the same farm: criollacatuai rojo and a combination of the two.  Extreme care was taken to treat the beans to the exact same process to produce the most accurate results.  Four cups of each batch were prepared in order to identify consistency or lack thereof.

Much sniffing, slurping and silent rumination later, the merits of the coffee were discussed and the varietals revealed.  Incredibly, Jean-François and Lay Yong (both certified coffee cupping judges) were able to identify which of the three batches was the mix of coffee varietals during a blind taste test.  Impressive!

Coffee cupping at FECAFEB (La Federación de Caficultores Exportadores de Bolivia)

Coffee cupping at FECAFEB (La Federación de Caficultores Exportadores de Bolivia)

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Firstly, the fragrance of the dry grains is evaluated

Firstly, the fragrance of the dry grains is evaluated

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Next, we tested the aroma of the grains once infused with hot water

Next, we tested the aroma of the grains once infused with hot water

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Testing the aroma again, while breaking the surface with a spoon

Testing the aroma again, while breaking the surface with a spoon

 With the crema removed, the coffee is slurped vigorously,(with obligatory accompanying noise!) allowing for the coffee to cover the palate evenly

With the crema removed, the coffee is slurped vigorously,(with obligatory accompanying noise!) allowing for the coffee to cover the palate evenly

Tasting several samples of the same batch enables any inconsistencies or defects to be identified

Tasting several samples of the same batch enables any inconsistencies or defects to be identified

At FECAFEB, after a successful cupping session

At FECAFEB, after a successful cupping session

Results and good news!

We concluded a productive week by visiting COAINE`s dry processing plant up in El Alto.  Each micro-roaster had an opportunity for some one-on-one time with cooperative members, with myself and another translator present.  I am thrilled to report that both T.A.N. Coffee and Café St Henri negotiated contracts with COAINE and will be sharing a container from this year`s harvest!  T.A.N. Coffee is importing 220 bags (at 70kg each) and Café St Henri, 60 bags.  Furthermore, both micro-roasters are collaborating with COAINE to produce high quality coffee with unique specifications, relative to their markets.

With this, I am more than delighted to realise that my Crossroads mandate has allowed things to come in a glorious full circle, that I could only dream of, seven months ago.  Since Cafe St Henri is based in Montreal – with three cafés and a number of wholesale customers – I will be able to drink COAINE’s fair trade coffee only a couple of blocks from my Montreal home.  Having a personal connection with the producers behind my morning coffee is a truly wonderful prospect!

Heartfelt thanks to everyone involved in the success of this visit and these partnerships.  I can say with confidence that Crossroads is bridging a much-needed gap with its international development projects such as this fair trade initiative.  Real change is happening.  Lives are being transformed.

Making a difference one cup at a time – Vancouver Sun article

My article in the Vancouver Sun – “Making a difference one cup at a time”:

http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Making+difference+time/8308418/story.html#ixzz2S2Hef96t

I write this having just waved off our visiting Canadian coffee roasters at the airport.  It was an incredible, inspiring week and a wonderful way to wrap up my volunteer mandate.  Stay tuned for a full report! 

Unbelievably, I now have a little over ONE WEEK remaining in Bolivia…these seven months have flown by!

Burning brakes and bat caves

Gruta de San Pedro

I escaped the hustle and bustle of La Paz for a weekend sojourn to Sorata just before New Year.  Sorata is a picturesque town perched in the valley beneath Mount llampu and Ancohuma, in the Las Yungas region (where Caranavi is also located).  Back in colonial days it provided access to the Amazon Basin, as well as the goldmines and rubber plantations of the Alto Beni.  These days, Sorata is a popular retreat for Bolivians and travellers alike, the idyllic setting acting as a base camp for hiking and mountain-biking trails.

The 3.5hr journey involved yet more hair-raising twisting trails with steep drops.  As we wound our way down the valley towards the town, the minibus I was travelling in began to emit a strong smell of burning (I suspect from overworked brakes) and I breathed a big sigh of relief when we arrived.

La Gruta de San Pedro (San Pedro cave) is a 5-6 hr round-trip hike from the town and is approximately 400m deep.  It houses bats as well as a large enclosed lagoon that can be crossed by pedal boat.  I`m quite fond of bats, and thus endured the oppressive humidity to watch them flitting and squeaking above, while unsuccessfully trying to photograph them.

The cave`s guide was 15 year old Janet, who explained she was taking her turn in the local community giving guided tours and that it was helpful she could add to her mother`s income.  In flip flops and armed with a small torch, she admitted to finding it spooky when alone in between visits, particularly when the string of electric lightbulbs fail, leaving her in complete darkness.  Children seem to be well and truly incorporated into family and community labour here.  During dinner in the town`s market-place, my waiter was 11 year old Imanol, who single-handedly served the restaurant in between watching cartoons.

Sorata

Sorata

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Janet, the cave`s 15yr old guide

Blurry bats

Blurry bats

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Hiking past the scene of a tragic accident. In November, a minibus plunged 300m, killing 6 and injuring 9. The shell of the vehicle was visible in the valley below.

Sorata in the distance

Sorata in the distance

Look out for Bolivia in the media over the next couple of days:

UK folks:
‘World`s Most Dangerous Roads’ – Wednesday 9th January, 9.30pm on BBC Two
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pw3yx

Canadian friends:
David Suzuki`s ‘The Nature of Things’- Thursday 10th January, 8pm on CBC-TV
http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/episode/david-suzukis-andean-adventure.html

Both shows feature the spectacular Salt Flats of Salar de Uyuni.  I just spent the weekend visiting the Salar – stay tuned for a full report!

Caranavi, coffee capital of Bolivia

Coffee, long before it ends up in your cup

My destination after braving Death Road was Caranavi, coffee capital of Bolivia.  This was to be my first trip to the coffee production zone and my objective was two-fold.  The first goal was to accompany a visiting Canadian coffee roaster, providing logistical support and translation throughout the trip.  The second was to meet coffee farmers and scope out the various coffee communities in order to better understand the producers` needs for the marketing aspect of my role.

Las Yungas

The town of Caranavi is located in Las Yungas, which is a transitional area between the highlands (La Paz) and the tropical lowlands of the Amazon basin.  An entirely different climate than in La Paz, it was steaming hot and humid.  Most of the coffee producers live within the surrounding jungle area, a bumpy, dusty ride up into the hills.

I found myself content to be in the tropics, far from the traffic and pollution of La Paz  and it was sensory overload of the best kind.  Incredible panoramas greeted us everytime we jolted to a halt (transporting up to 4 passengers in the car boot at any time).  Sprawling hills of lush green vegetation spread for miles.

Coffee colonies, coca fields and fruit trees abound, boasting bananas, mangoes, avocados, mandarins, limes, oranges and papayas.  Butterflies of electric blue, violet and yellow are bigger than birds.  The air is heavy and humid, smelling of fruit and earth, and filled with the constant buzzing and chirping of birds and insects.  It was worth the unnerving journey, without a doubt.

Las Yungas

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Death Road

El Camino de la Muerte/Death Road

I am happy to report that I survived the first of many trips on El Camino de la Muerte (Death Road).  I feel like the journey is worthy of its own blog post, given it was so epic unto itself.

El Camino de la Muerte connects La Paz with the region of Los Yungas, the Amazon rainforest where the coffee production zone is situated.  Prior to renovation, it was once labelled the `World`s Most Dangerous Road`.  Although it has since undergone construction, with a new road bypassing the most treacherous section, I can well understand why it remains renowned for its perilous nature.  It was disconcerting to see several crosses adorned with flowers at intervals along the roadside.  There are various google images and YouTube videos that frankly I did not need to see!  After my curiosity got the better of me, I confess I was incited to add `write will` to my to-do list (somewhere between `tattoo` and `yoga`, though like those it got neglected in my pre-departure preparations).

A milder stretch of Death Road, stretching far into the distance

A long way down

Winding through the valley, El Camino clings to mountain gorges with hairpins turns, a steep drop on one side to the river below and rocky cliff face on the other.  At its worst locations, the road is gravel and only wide enough for one vehicle, yet it is a fairly busy, two-way highway.  Consequently, when the many cars, buses, lorries and trucks meet, negotiation ensues to determine who will have to reverse (often around corners) until there is a spot wide enough for vehicles to inch by.

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