Thursday, October 6, 2011

Coffee, Coca & Thee - Los Yungas, Bolivia

Under a tin-roof in the Yungas cloud forest, I bought a round of cold beer. We sat, just me, a few farmers and their wives sipping & chatting on an afternoon of oppressive heat. Coca leaves were placed on the table for sharing; leaves that had been grown just up the dirt road. The chatter was predictably about banana, citrus and coffee, the principal crops of this subtropical zone. With a roll of the eyes, there was resigned commentary on the international report that coffee prices have hit a 14-year high. Looking around this little village and at the people who work the coffee plants, you might wonder where all the money is. For these small-scale producers, the topic of coffee means lean profit, hard labor and but one harvest a year. On the other end of the spectrum, the coca plant (which is coming into new prominence in this zone) provides three to four harvests in the same period. The price coca brings is higher than that of coffee and it doesn’t need much care. Harvest, dry and sell; that´s it. A simple process that provides more time in a day to work other crops.

The farmers say coffee is problematic. Good coffee requires nurturing ‘til the dry season when the coffee cherries become red ripe and can be harvested. Yet the cherries don’t ripen all at the same time so you must hand pick only the rubies from the branches, place them in baskets and carry them to processing. Then you continually return to the plants and pick only the red cherries until the year’s harvest is complete.

Now the work has only just begun… In the Yungas, they prefer natural drying which is the oldest method of processing coffee. The pulp of the cherry fruit is cleaned away by hand. Then the beans are spread in a thin layer on patios to be dried in the sun. They must be raked and turned and raked and in three to four weeks they will have dried nicely. From there the beans will be milled, hulled, polished, cleaned & sorted. At this point, the beans are bagged and sold to brokers for export. If destined for the Bolivian market they are then roasted, ground and packaged for local sale and consumption.

As we sipped they chewed their coca leaves. In front of each lay a little pile of discarded bits; the farmers were carefully stripping out the stem and the middle rib reserving only the sweet green leaf. With smiles I received assurance that this was the very best; the small tender Yungas leaf grown for chewing not the coarse, large leaf of the Chapare Region (infamously used for cocaine production). The leisurely conversation took a new turn. Roberto Zabala, secretary general of the Afro-Bolivian community, told me frankly the quotas for growing legal coca have increased since Bolivia's first indigenous President EVO Morales took office in 2006. And that they fully understand that EVO will eventually go and quotas will be lowered. And so they're reluctant to dedicate more land to coca plants even though they now earn more. The pendulum will swing the other way and the balance of coffee and coca and fruit will change once again. The on-going challenge for any person living on the land is to survive the intense sun, periods of heavy rain and even the unpredictable politics. Yet for now, they're happy there’s a little more money for buying children's shoes, for repairing houses and investing in equipment that will make future farm work a little easier. One of the wives said you've got to take the good times with the bad. And times are better. Even so, they're also putting something away for whatever is to come. "Things are going to change," another wife said. “They always do.”

All images by Mick Huerta. Taken in the legal Coca fields of Los Yungas, Bolivia.

Copyright © Mick Huerta 2011.
All Rights Reserved.
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Travel, Culture, Food & Wine!

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