Bolivia, landlocked, high blown and so often overlooked and forgotten. And yet it is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary countries in the world.
Bolivia, landlocked, high blown and so often overlooked and forgotten. And yet it is undoubtedly one of the most extraordinary countries in the world. For starters it isn’t really a country in the European sense of a homogenous nation state at all. The long running president Evo Morales has re-named Bolivia a ‘Plurinational State’ in recognition of the region’s diverse ethnic identity. There are 36 different ethnic groups, each with their own language, that survived colonisation and more than 200 years of Spanish rule.
And the landscapes in Bolivia are as varied and rich as its people, ranging from high Andean peaks with vast salt flats in the south to dense Amazon jungle in the North. Our favourite shift in vistas is the transition from the Altiplano into the coffee growing Yungas region in the steppes of the Andes. To get there you have to climb out of La Paz and cross the Cumbre, a bone chilling, 4,650 metre high mountain pass in the Cordillera Real. The cloud is almost visceral up at these heights, accompanied only by silence as it pours across the road. From these giddy heights the road snakes down into the warmth and rich green sub-tropical Yungas.
Most of the coffee growing in the Yungas centres around the town of Caranavi, a typically Bolivian town with dirt roads and a vague sense of lawlessness. Barely a single car or truck has a licence plate because they have all been bought on the thriving black market for cars stolen in Chile. In the steep hills all around small holders are mainly growing a patchwork of coffee, coca and citrus trees in amongst the wild forest.
In 1952 Bolivia the political revolution and subsequent land reform resulted in all the big agricultural holdings being broken up. This means that each farming family typically has no more than two or three hectares of land. Small communities will often pool their resources to produce coffee together in a ‘colonia’ of several families. But beyond this informal collaboration there is no government agency or bigger body that is promoting and supporting coffee production in Bolivia.
This lack of central support hasn’t helped coffee production in the country which has been in steady decline in the past decade. Annual exports have dropped from around 70,000 bags in 2011 to just 22,000 in 2017. The reasons for this are complex and include poor infrastructure, climactic conditions and the spread of disease such as leaf rust and the logistical challenges of being a landlocked country. With little external help farmers have seen the productivity of their harvests fall to the point that they are only able to produce a few bags of green coffee per hectare, barely enough to scratch a meagre living.
Thanks to the local coffee exporters that Glen Lyon Coffee Roasters is working with, Agricafe Bolivia, this trend is hopefully set to change. Run by Pedro Rodriguez together with his daughter Daniela and son Pedro Pablo, Agricafe Bolivia has a long track record of working with farmers to bring coffee cherry to their wet mill to be processed and either sold on to the domestic market, or shipped all over the world. In 2015 the family were approached by a group of 15 producers who asked them to help put together a programme of support to improve productivity on their farm and the ‘Sol de Mañana’ programme was born.
The programme is focused primarily on educating farmers in simple agronomy practices to improve on the health of their coffee plants. Every week the farmers visit the wet mill to follow a curriculum of teaching on everything from how to develop a healthy nursery, planting in lines, pruning and the selective use of fertilisers.
The more systematic approach to coffee production is very quickly showing impressive results with the farmers in the programme seeing production more than double. In some cases they are now producing as much as 30 – 35 bags per hectare rather than just 10. Word is travelling fast through the network of small communities in the hills around Caranavi. The programme has already seen its numbers swell from 10 to over 50 producers and more and more farmers are now turning their land back to coffee.
I bumped along a muddy track for an hour around the steep sided valleys to meet the Mamani family in the community of Uchumachi. Juana and Juan Mamani are a young Aymara couple whose parents moved from La Paz in the 1970s to farm coffee in the region. They have learned through the Sol de Mañana programme to take much greater care of the coffee they grow on their land. Growing mainly caturra and typica Arabica from seed, they carefully select only the most mature fruit before sorting, depulping and drying it on their farm’s raised beds.
As a result the Mamani family’s coffee has a reputation for being some of the best in the region, commanding good prices in the international market. They are expanding their farm year on year and have been joined by Juana’s brother Rene and his family. Still young they all now see coffee providing a properly sustainable livelihood for them and their children. We are super excited to be buying coffee direct from both the Mamani families (pictured) and are paying them almost twice the Fairtrade price for coffee. A percentage of each kilo we buy is also going back to help keep funding the Sol de Mañana programme.
The Bolivian harvest is now over and the container with Glen Lyon’s coffees is about to be shipped. We are expecting these delicious coffees to arrive in the depths of our dark Highland winter. It is amazing just how long the supply train is in the world of coffee and that in some small way we can help support these families by drinking their harvest on the other side of the world. We will also be helping through the Sol de Mañana programme to encourage the comeback of a vibrant and sustainable coffee future in Bolivia.