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Rob Butterworth, of Butterworth & Son in Bury St Edmunds, reveals the stark truth behind our daily caffeine hit

At a time when the Amazon has been reported as burning more than ever, the reality of how we help indigenous people manage their land has never been more important.

The real stories behind why the Amazon is burning are poorly reported by mainstream media and unless someone like Sir David Attenborough makes a documentary on the topic, the issue for the most part will be of little interest in people’s day-to-day lives yet the impact of what is actually happening may be more widely affecting than only climate damage.

Many indiginous people maintain their land and their rural way of life by farming small areas of well preserved land to sustain a humble way of life but if the cost of production is higher than the sale price, the temptation to grow crops for illicit drugs to feed their families and communities is great. This can lead to unwelcome involvement from drug gangs in the future causing illegal logging to clear land for the raw material and for extra land for farming of illicit crops.

Cup of Strong Black Coffee in a White Cup and Saucer (20556342)
Cup of Strong Black Coffee in a White Cup and Saucer (20556342)

This month the coffee industry celebrated International Coffee Day, but many farmers in Peru have little to celebrate. Leon from Freeman Trading has recently visited South Peru, in particular the Tembopata Valley which grows some of Peru’s finest organic coffee. He has written this very stark report about the coffee growing situation out there.

"As most of you will know since September 2017 the ‘C’ Price (world coffee price as set by “some bods” in New York, who have probably never seen a coffee farm) fell below the $1:40c l/b ($3kg) threshold. What this means for most Peruvian farmers is that the market value of their coffee is now less than production costs, or in simple terms worthless.

The consequence is that the farmers of this region simply abandoned their coffee farms and switched to coca leaf production as a cash crop. The impact on this shift to coca (the base product of cocaine) resulted in near catastrophe for the Cecovasa coffee co-op. Their one time 135 container output fell last year to just 15 containers, a whopping 89 per cent drop in volume (and revenue). As a result, this left them in severe financial difficulty pushing the co-op to the brink of collapse. Having been forced to forsake salaries, the co-op was also forced to sell off various assets, including 40 per cent of their land at their dry mill plant in Juliaca to repay debts.

There is however, good news. In August 2019 those debts were cleared. Nevertheless, the banks have been reluctant to support the co-op financially until their credit rating gets off the ground, the classic catch 22 scenario many of us in business have probably experienced at some point.

This year, with only 15 containers on the horizon, Freeman headed out to visit Cecovasa. The co-op also accompanied us on a visit to the farms and to talk to farmers directly regarding their hopes and fears. This was a very important visit on many levels, not only to strengthen the reputation of Cecovasa to the farmers but to also reassure the farmers that Freeman Trading are not just a foreign buyer but an alliance. Showing that we are here to do whatever we can in these difficult times.

Just words? No. As a result of our trip we increased our volumes this year from two to three of the 15 containers available. This now means that Freeman Trading Ltd is responsible for 20 per cent of Cecovasa’s revenue for this coming season. Knowing all too well of this precarious position we decided to go one step further and pre finance all our trades. So far we have transferred $83,680 USD with a further $45,000 to be transferred in November. Giving Cecovasa a vital lifeline to pay the farmers to bring the coffees down from the hills and transport it back to the dry mill, which is a gruelling 24-hour truck ride across treacherous roads that climb to almost 5,000m – to give that some perspective is more than halfway up the highest mountain on earth!

Cecovasa actually play very important role in the value chain, they are in fact what is known as an umbrella or secondary co-op. Managing a multitude of services to the farmers of the seven producer co-ops such as healthcare, pre-finance, quality control, technical assistance on the ground, transport to the dry mill, weighing, re-bagging, grading and all logistics and paperwork to the final leg of the coffee’s journey to the port of Callao in Lima, which is a further three days truck drive. In 2011, when Freeman formed an alliance with Cecovasa, they were responsible for getting to market coffee’s from over 5,000 farmers and their families. Cecovasa are in regular contact with the elected presidents of each co-op throughout the year however, annually Cecovasa hold a mass assembly which lasts for three days!

It’s is an eye-opening experience of transparency and open dialogue in action, a mammoth task of accountability and traceability as it’s also the time of year where premiums are issued to each and every farmer. . . well, those fortunate enough whose coffees achieved audited premiums such as the $0.66c organic premium that goes direct to the producer. The accountants were more than happy to present the 86-page matrix in a multi-layered XL format, traceability down to each and every kg that each and every individual farmer produced."

Rob owns Butterworth & Son coffee roasters and tea smiths, based on Moreton Hall, and Guat’s Up! café in Guildhall Street.

His job takes him around the world visiting coffee farms to source great coffees.