Thursday, September 16, 2010

Can Peruvian Coffee Gain a Foothold at Home?

Spurred by questions from readers, I've expanded the coffee series to include two additional posts on this caffeinated drink that will run this week. If this is your first visit to AiP, you can review our coffee discussions here. Monday's post asked, how can we explain the popularity of instant coffee in coffee producing countries? As a follow-up, today we will look at the future of Peruvian coffee among native Peruvian coffee drinkers. As always, thanks for stopping by—and for your questions!


The question of what happens to local culture in the face of globalization is not a new one to anthropology. One view has held that capitalism is a great cultural steamroller, creating homogeneous responses to global markets. But our discussion last time explored an example of cultural contact in which there was a dialogue, and this represents the other side of the coin: the argument that the conditions that permit and encourage international trade, also offers a means maintaining cultural distinction and identity.

In the last post, we discussed the way Lithuania was able to wield a memory of Soviet sausage to comment on the state of their newly formed capitalist state, and create an identity for the nation—this identity seems more domestic the more I think about this issue because the identity really allowed Lithuanians to distinguish themselves from the capitalist processes that were unfolding. Remember that "Soviet" sausages were good, natural, and tasty, while Western-style sausages like salami (that lacked the tasty bits of fat Lithuanians liked) were not as popular and viewed as an inferior product in many ways. I argue that Lithuanians owned sausages in a way that allowed their preferences to hold a majority of the market against Western sausage products. Peruvians have not had a similar relationship with coffee and that has allowed foreign products to dominate general coffee consumption,

But this does not have to necessarily have to be the case. There is a chance for Peruvians to claim their coffee. It will require more than establishing a "Coffee Day." Changes will have to be made at the grower's level—which will certainly not be a simple process. But I found a great case study that suggests that getting growers involved can boost brand awareness locally.

The lives of Peruvian coffee growers and their families are not easy. Coffee growers outside of cooperatives often don't get paid very much for their product. Often they sell beans at market to a middleman, who may sell the beans again to another contact, who may then get the beans to a known roaster and wholesaler. The beans often change hands several times—and for the local grower this means low prices for his product. And that leads to other problems, like the issue of malnutrition:
The basic diet in the indigenous communities and for nearly the entire rural population is based on subsistence products like plantains, manioc and maize. Few can afford a more balanced diet, or meat and milk every day.
And on the heels of this is a lack of educational resources. Schools are spread out over great distances, which makes it a hardship to attend. They are inadequately funded and are overlooked for supplies. And malnutrition keeps many students at home. So it all seems to come full circle.

These challenges are not limited to Peruvian growers. Researchers Castillo and Nigh (1998) paint a similar picture among the Mayan growers (Mam) in Chiapas, Mexico, who seem to have followed a similar path as Peruvian growers, first with cacao and then with coffee. The Mam are a Maya-speaking group that is geographically centered in Guatemala with a small group located on the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, also known as the Soconusco. Geography has played a large role in the ways the identities of these groups, which share a heritage, has unfolded. The Guatemalan Mam have been able to preserve political and religious hierarchy and Mam language thanks in part to Guatemalan indigenist practices, however, the Soconusco region has long been involved in widespread trade practices and Mexico has been unable (or unwilling?) to override this history to enact preservation measures.

The Mexican Mam have had a relationship with a commercial product in much the same way that Peruvian growers have with their product. The Mam have been working as exporters since 2000 BCE when the region was conquered by the Aztecs who mined cacao for currency. When the Spanish arrived in the 1600s, Castillo and Nigh report that the plantation systems were already in place:
Early Spanish colonists invested heavily in cacao production during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, expanding the original plantation and introducing Moorish irrigation technology ... Mam Indians probably supplied the skilled labor necessary for the cacao boom that produced some of the first Spanish fortunes in the New World (1998: 137).
As a result of this history, Mexican Mam identity has long been tied to capitalist endeavors. When a worldwide depression collapsed the trade market in the 1630s, the Mexican Mam also faded from view until the 19th century when foreign investors revived the region for coffee production, the Mam (this time also including Guatemalan Mam displaced to the Soconusco by seizure of communal lands) once again provided the labor for the production of this commodity, which became a major export product for Mexico:
Thanks to Mam laborers on Soconusco plantations, their owners were able to export 227,040 quintals of coffee to Germany, the United States, England, France, Spain, and Switzerland between 1927 and 1928 (Castillo and Nigh 1998: 138).
In the mid-nineteenth century, one of the outcomes of the Mexican Revolution was the redistribution of lands (ejido) to the Mam, which suggested the potential for them to grow and sell coffee for themselves, but for reasons mentioned above, this has historically made for difficult living conditions. Compounded with financial hardship, the Mam also faced systematic attempts at eradicating specific markers of their cultural identity following the Mexican Revolution. For example, Castillo and Nigh provide the following ethnographic account of the "civilization through dress" program as told by a Mam man:
I remember when the law came that prohibited our costume: they tool the weaving from the woman and the short pants from the men, and they burned them in the middle of the plaza. One old man refused; he wouldn't take off his pants, and so the policeman came and threw kerosene on him. We were all in the plaza—I was a child still. He said, "Take it off or I'll set you on fire; you're a stubborn Indian." The poor man tool off his short pants crying" (1998: 139).
These types of programs continued until the 1970s, when the international community began to demand that human rights be awarded to indigenous populations. This opened the door for potential growers to receive aid in the form of "technical assistance, credit for agrochemicals, and state-supported channels for marketing" (Castillo and Nigh 1998: 139). However, this did little to change sale practices, which put individual growers at a disadvantage.  

In the 80s, the Catholic Church's local cooperative commission met with Mam coffee growers, and the growers decided to form cooperatives that wouldn't rely on government assistance. Subsequent meetings resulted in the formation of the ISMAM (Indigenas de la Sierra Madre de. Motozintla) cooperative. ISMAM was founded on the basis of a shared memory of what it meant to be MAM: that the ancestors had a connection to the land, and understood how to produce high quality, natural foods. This belief is tied to the organic trade in which ISMAM has rooted itself. The cooperative purchases all the coffee produced by the growers at a set price and is the point of contact for trade with other nations. The result has been that the standard of living for MAM has risen—schools have been built, there is greater financial stability, and the people own their product.

Peruvian growers have started to move in this direction according to a few sources that I have found online (see here, here, and here). They have also come to the realization that they must join together to face the global market, and gain domestic recognition. It's not a foolproof plan: initiatives by the Pangoa Coffee Cooperative had to be abandoned when coffee prices fell in 1998.

My research has been largely documentary, and I don't have a sense for the current state of Peruvian growers (which is why I invite those with inside knowledge to share their thoughts with us), but it seems that co-ops may offer coffee a domestic foothold in places where coffee has largely been an export product. The co-ops not only can act as a representative for growers on the global stage, but can potentially provide an important voice for growers locally as well, raising awareness about the work done by coffee farmers and the product itself.

ResearchBlogging.orgCastillo, R., & Nigh, R. (1998). Global Processes and Local Identity among Mayan Coffee Growers in Chiapas, Mexico American Anthropologist, 100 (1), 136-147 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1998.100.1.136

1 comment:

  1. People who live in rural areas have access to tasting the coffee beans they harvest. When such coffee beans are packed, patented and labeled like perth coffee beans, it increases its price because of its processing for exporting. Some coffee beans may have change taste because of the stages it will go thru before it ends up in a consumer's cup. Somehow, biologists and entrepreneurs must find a balance between maintaining the coffee's identity and its value in the market.