The Politics of Coffee

When Equal Exchange arranged this trip to Peru I was excited on many levels. I couldn’t wait to see the coffee growing, help with the harvest, taste the product etc. Delving into the political history of coffee growing in Northern Peru and participating with a political party based on small farmer support was an intriguing sidebar.

I suppose a condensed history is in order to understand the current political movement about what’s going on today and why fair trade is critical for it’s continued success.


Spanish colonialism, which was really slave trade, ruled farming in Peru through the end of WWII. There wasn’t a lot of change until the 1960s when there was a push, by the farmers, for agrarian reform that resulted in guerrilla revolts and land grabs. While this was quasi-successful it wasn’t a viable long term solution.

Under Juan Velasco Alvarado’s leadership came real agrarian reform. His platform was justice for the poor and part of that was cutting farmland into plots and giving it to people who were actually working the land.  In the later 70s the Co-op movement began but was undermined by the fact that the old hacienda owners were in it for personal gains.  It was not truly a democratic movement quite yet.

During the 80s terrorists prevailed and farmers were back in a land grab scenario with terrorists taking over farms to grow coca (cocaine).  Peru was also suffering from hyperinflation, the result of another government corruption issue. As they moved into the 90s, under Fujimora, a grassroots co-op movement began and that is where the Jose Gabriel Condorcanqui (JGC) (the co-op I spent time with) story begins for us.

This particular co-op came together in 1969 and 4 of the original 34 members still participate with today’s 250 members. In 1994 they sent their first ½ container of unwashed coffee to the US. In 1997 they began a partnership with Equal Exchange and of the 2 ½ containers of coffee exported, 1 was for Equal Exchange exclusively. They received $1.40 per lb for what was sold to Equal Exchange vs. the $0.38 that was the current commodity price on the open market. It was the beginning of a great relationship.


JGC participates with an organization that coordinates the co-ops, Cepicafe. They are undergoing a transition currently. They are changing their name to Norandina because as the co-op movement has grown they’ve diversified into cacao and panela (sugar) so it made sense to broaden the namesake from just ‘café’. Cepicafe will remain as a non-profit sister to Norandina.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the trip was meeting with Piura Para Todos (Piura for All), the political party focused on small producers that was started in 2009. The coffee and banana trades were the industries that helped drive the party into existence. There are a lot of small producers in those industries in Peru and spread over almost the entire geographic region. As a result Piura Para Todos has presence in all 8 regions in the country.

The fundamentals are this. Piura Para Todos offers a place for successful co-op leaders to grow and influence a bigger group. There is also a built in support network between the co-ops as they generally want each other to succeed. Social inclusion is critical as Peru has had a history of class issues especially toward the mountain cultures. Historically agricultural projects have been in the governmental ‘budget’ but rarely have the funds made it down to the municipal level. Agriculture is such a large part of Peru’s economy and PPT believe that there is opportunity for an intersection of private and public interest.


What’s refreshing is that there are supporting non-profits like Progresso. They are The Association Promoting Rural Economic and Social Management. They help out on a range of organizational issues within coops and encourage women to be more involved in a traditionally male-centric coffeechocolatefield. They also support on a technical level with hands on agronomists who train side by side with the co-op members to promote sustainable agriculture practices.

How then does fair trade really play into this? As I mentioned earlier, Equal Exchange paid quite a bit more than the market price for JGC’s coffee. Fair Trade provides small producers with long term buying relationships. Rather than a one time buyer who snaps up the entire crop, possibly at a reduced price, never to return, fair trade ensures that the co-ops have steady business and prices so that they can grow steadily as well.  They get pre-harvest money so that they can invest in a successful harvest and it eliminates the middle men who drive price up for themselves but not the farmers.

Here in North America we don’t grow any coffee (unless you count Hawaii) which means we rely on our Central, South American and African friends to supply us with our daily cup.  I implore you to remember as you inhale the aroma of your next cup of Equal Exchange coffee that you consider the political choice you made in choosing a cup of Fair Trade.

Claudia works at MOMs Central.


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