In the northern hemisphere consuming countries, it is easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to many of the issues confronting growers in the coffeelands without understanding the context. It is natural to wish that others enjoyed the same privileges and resources we have. Sometimes however, that simply is not reality or a possibility. This is often disturbing to travelers from developed countries, and many seek to fix things.
Some things are just not easily fixed.
For years in editorials and articles, we at CoffeeTalk have railed against the often unethical, deceptive, and corrupt practices of many coyotes. This word is always used derogatorily…we may be wrong.
A coyote is a slang name, in this case, for a coffee buyer who approaches and purchases coffee “over the farm gate” from individual farmers. Often these buyers represent the interests of much bigger buyers who wish to remain anonymous. The reputation of coyotes is often well earned. They have been known to lie about current pricing, quality, and crop value. They have been known to intentionally play one farmer off another to negotiate a lower price. Not a savory bunch, generally.
So imagine my surprise when, during my visit to Peru this month, I happened to talk with several people directly associated with the handling and exportation of coffee from there. Casey O’Keefe, co-owner of Cafe Verde in Lima and an ex-pat coffee exporter to some of the most socially sensitive cafes and roasters in the US explained that without coyotes, it simply would not be possible to bring Peruvian coffee to market.
Every week during harvest, these intrepid buyers brave the hundreds of miles into the Andes over impossible roads (coffee in Peru is grown on the Amazonian, eastern, slope of the Andes) to dusty village markets. These buyers purchase coffee in parchment from growers who emerge from the mountains with their bags of coffee strapped to pack animals. To put this into perspective, imagine driving a giant truck over nasty and dangerous roads lined with thieves, corrupt officials, and hijackers while carrying thousands of Peruvian soles, the Peruvian currency, in your pocket and then if you make it to your destination, turning around and driving back with thousands of dollars worth of coffee in parchment just ripe for the taking. Not an easy gig under the best of circumstances.
And what about the deceptive practices? Those have been seriously mitigated by the rapid growth of cellular and Internet coverage throughout Latin America. It would be a poor village indeed if not a single person had a cell phone or access to the Internet. Growers now often know more about the price of their coffee than the buyers with which they are negotiating.
With most of the dry mills in Peru located on the western ‘Ocean’ side of the Andes and little or no transportation infrastructure in the mountains, these buyers are the only economical way to get the coffee to market. The coyotes are a key piece of Peruvian coffee growers’ livelihoods.
How much is this enormous risk burden worth? How many of us in the North would be willing to risk not just our fortunes, but also our lives, on this enterprise. How many of the so-called ‘direct traders’ would be willing to make this journey with a satchel full of cash and a truck full of coffee?
This is not meant to condone unethical and deceptive practices. That should never be acceptable. However, the small growers in the Amazonian Andes could not otherwise find a market. Removing the coyotes as an element of the supply chain would terribly disrupt the flow of coffee out of Peru, the sixth largest producer of Arabica coffee in the world.
And this exposes the flaw in many of the ‘good work’ intentions of people in consuming countries. We try to place a program to improve the lives of others, but often fail to consider the context into which the program is placed. In-country limitations have to be accepted and understood.
Like many developing and emergent economies, Peru is faced with a rapidly accelerating demand for key infrastructure to support a growing and expectant population. Much that we take for granted – waste and water treatment, efficient ports and airports, predictable and stable local government, rural electrification, and good roads for example, are pressing, immediate, and expensive demands that often cannot be funded and so are put for future consideration. In developing countries if a system works it is definitely a B Priority to another system that is in complete collapse. Peru simply cannot yet afford to establish a sophisticated transportation infrastructure throughout the mountains. Therefore, the coyote system works – because it has to.
Kerri & Miles