Bolivia is the fifth largest country in South America and has a hugely diverse topography, with microclimates and altitudes that are ideal for growing coffee. Most of the coffee grown in Bolivia is Arabica, composed largely of heirloom varietals like Typica and Caturra, and is grown organically. Bolivia has a long history of coffee production, though little is known about its introduction to the country, or commercial coffee production further back than around 1880. There are still commercial farms and haciendas in Bolivia, though most large estates have been expropriated as part of governmental land reforms, and redistributed to smaller, rural farming families. Since this legislation was put in place in 1991, 80% of the country’s coffee production is now produced by smallholders, who tend to 1.2 to 8 hectares of land, on average.
Around 25% of the population is classified as living in extreme poverty, taking into account daily earnings and access to food, safe drinking water, healthcare and information. In rural farming areas, where resources and infrastructure are most scarce, the poverty of farmers – who are vulnerable to cyclical price shocks in the coffee market – is perhaps the greatest hindrance to the growth and development of the coffee industry in the country. As such, production volumes have been waning year-on-year, and heavy rust outbreaks which haven’t been treated well, alongside the lure of coca production and urban draw, have led to producers abandoning farms.
The country has three geographic zones: the Andean highlands in the southwest, running north to south; the moist slopes and valleys on the eastern side of the Andes, called the Yungas and Valles; and the eastern tropical lowland plains, or Oriente. Yungas, which traverses the eastern slopes of the Andes, is the largest and oldest coffee growing region in the country, accounting for 90% of Bolivia’s annual production and some of the highest altitude grown coffee in the world – up to 2400 masl in some parts. Historically, lack of access to information and processing centres, coupled with altitude-related climatic changes and poor infrastructure, have meant that Bolivian coffees have been known to fade rapidly after export, and show other processing-related discrepancies on the cupping table. The climate in this area is very humid and the eastern Andes are prone to high rain fall, which makes drying coffees problematic – similar to some areas of neighbouring Peru. Many producers use rudimentary hand pulpers before drying, though after depulping, coffee is often laid on tarpaulin on the ground or on flat roofs, meaning it is open to the elements, and prone to moisture absorption and slow drying times, which in turn can lead to over fermentation. The altitude that is so influential to coffee cultivation in Yungas has also caused some problems with transporting depulped coffee from smallholder farms to centralised mills in La Paz. It is exposed to extreme temperature fluctuations at higher altitudes and even snowfall at elevations above 200o masl, meaning the coffee can freeze and then thaw during transit, whilst traversing the treacherous Yungas Road (also known as the ‘Road of Death’), on its way east to the capital. Storing and warehousing coffees at high altitudes prior to export, is often cited as another contributing factor to quality loss.
Coca production is widespread in the country and continues to be both a major lure for farmers who struggle to finance their coffee production. However, the ongoing, detrimental impact that the cultivation of coca continues to have is having a knock-on, positive effect on the nation’s coffee production. Attempts by the Bolivian government and US aid agencies to encourage farmers to cultivate coffee, as opposed to coca, has resulted in the building of more strategically placed milling stations, which have helped post-harvest quality control in some rural areas, whilst also encourage the number of smallholders returning to the cultivation of other food crops. These incentives for smallholders rely heavily on the world price of coffee, which means they are more effective (in years like 2010 and 2011) when coffee prices soar, as opposed to periods of instability and fluctuation. Even quality-conscious farmers are still liable to return to coca production to secure their livelihoods, such is the immediate need for cash income, but more and more are doing post-harvest coffee processing on their own farms and pockets of specialty production, which invite higher premiums, have begun to proliferate. It remains to be seen whether coffee production continues to fall in Bolivia, as it has recently, but the upside is that more is being done to encourage farmers to grow coffee than in previous years.
Aside from the potential price premiums and the ongoing assistance of the national coffee association ACEB, another contributing factor to the increased focus on the production of specialty coffees in Bolivia is the Cup of Excellence competition, which has helped to showcase the best coffees in the country. In 2009, Bolivia even had its first winner of the competition – Mauricio Ramiro Diez de Medina – whose Takesi Estate farm in Sud Yungas benefits from the region’s volcanic soil, high altitudes and an abundant, uncontaminated water supply from the Takesi River, which originates from the thaw of the Royal Mountain range. Farms like Takesi Estate are shining examples of Bolivia’s potential for excellent specialty coffees and promotion of quality via Cup of Excellence, coupled with education and practices around yield and quality improvement for smallholders, are vital to Bolivia’s continued coffee cultivation, and the key to securing better prices for farmers. Falcon Specialty have been working closely with a group of smallholders in Yungas in the areas of Taypiplaya, Caranavi and Circuata, and we expect big things from our first shipments arriving in early 2017.