Posted by Matthew on 4/23/2022 to Countries of Origin
Bolivia has long been synonymous with the coca plant. For millennia, indigenous farmers in Bolivia's soaring Andes grew the leafy bush in terraced mountain gardens. The leaf is sacred to the Inca and other mountain peoples, who steeped it for tea and chewed it for an extra energy boost up where the air is thin.
The Cocaine Crisis
Not much coca was needed, but in the early 20th century cocaine reared its ugly head, demand in Europe and the U.S. became insatiable, and characters worthy of a Netflix series quickly emerged. Roberto Suárez Gómez, Bolivia’s King of Cocaine, made so much money from the drug that he infamously offered to pay off the country’s national debt of $3 billion.
By the 1980s, a lot of land was dedicated to coca production. Along with it came slash-and-burn farming practices, cartels and violence. Then the U.S. war on drugs began to make inroads and farmers were threatened, cajoled and incentivized to plant other crops, such as coffee. Since then, coffee has risen and coca cultivation has decreased. It’s worth pointing out that about half of Bolivia’s coca crop goes into tea and other non-narcotic products—a much larger fraction than in Colombia and Peru, the world’s two cocaine heavyweights.
Bolivia’s Got it All
As far as coffee cultivation goes, Bolivia’s got it all: altitude, rich soil, a temperate climate and a rainy season that you can set your watch to. The country has been producing coffee for many decades, but only recently has it gone beyond ‘commodity coffee’.
Because of a combination of difficult terrain, poor transportation and lack of equipment, Bolivia’s coffees suffered from patchy quality control. Poor producers also couldn’t afford Fair Trade and Organic certifications. To compound problems, when there’s a glut of coffee on the world market, farmers who struggle to pay their cultivation costs reverted to growing coca.
Happily, financing from development agencies as well as the Bolivian government is helping to solve these problems by establishing coop-processing facilities and the means to certify. So are people like you—by buying Fair Trade coffee! Illegal logging and cattle-grazing, equally problematic activities, are other issues that coffee cultivation is helping to diminish.
The Yungas Valley
Where the arid steppes of the Andes meet the lush tropical lowlands leading to the Amazon lies the Yungas region (pictured above). Semitropical and temperate, it’s a region of valleys on the eastern mountain slopes, part of what is collectively known as el oriente, meaning ‘the east’, or ‘east of the Andes’.
It’s here that approximately 95% of Bolivia’s coffee cultivation happens. There are some commercial farms, but over 85% of coffee is grown on small family plots. Most of the coffee produced is organic.
Coffee cultivation may be a smallhold family affair, but coffee exports are another matter. Fewer than 30 private companies control over 70% of coffee exports, with the remainder traded by Bolivia’s 15+ coffee cooperatives. We source our Bolivia Yungas from one of those co-ops – Associación Integral de Productores Ecológicos de Pumiri (AIPEP) – a primary-level producer with 60+ members, located in Pumiri, in the province of Caranavi (pictured above).
The Future Looks Bean-tiful
Currently coffee exports from Bolivia are far smaller than those from countries like Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. But Bolivia’s star is still rising: it has tons of high-altitude cultivation available. That will become more and more important as global warming drives coffee up the slopes.