The icy Pacific Humboldt Current wells north from Chile and the Antarctic and the warm, tropical El Niño current moves south along the Ecuadorian coast. They meet off the coast of Peru and send misty Pacific rain clouds climbing 4 ½ miles up the slopes of the Andes, the highest tropical mountain range on the globe. The Andes lie like the spiny back of an ancient giant reptile between the pacific shore and the verdant Amazon rain forest to the East. This creates some of the finest coffee growing geography and climate on the planet. Arabica coffee is grown on approximately 200,000 farms in Peru, most on the Eastern Amazon side of the Andes, making it the 6th largest producer of arabica coffee in the world. Most of these farms are small, averaging less than five acres in size on mountainous terrain.
Thousands of "cafetaleros", coffee-growers, sell their harvest to sustain their families. The average small-scale farm produces about 20 bags of 100 pounds of coffee each year. Most coffee is then processed through cooperatives, and distributed through several intermediaries before being sold for export; however, some is sold in an economic system known throughout Latin America as “coyotismo”, to the “el café coyotes”, Coffee-Coyotes, who travel into the most inaccessible regions and buy raw coffee beans directly from the growers at very low prices compared to what the Fair-Trade cooperatives payout. The Coffee-Coyotes pay $0.25 to $0.40 per pound over-the-fence while the cooperatives distribute $1.15 to $1.48 per pound. Despite the supposed romance of the idyllic country life depicted in “Juan Valdez” commercials, the truth is that growing coffee has always been hard labor and a gamble for the coffee-growers.
The Coffee-Coyote has often been vilified and demonized as a greedy scoundrel getting rich off the hard labor of the poor small-farm growers. This may be the case in much of Latin America, but there is another side of the Coffee-Coyote in Peru. As reported by Kerri Miles in CoffeeTalk, every week during the harvest season the Coffee-Coyotes travel hundreds of miles into the mountains over impossibly dangerous roads. (Anyone who is a fan of the reality TV series, Ice Road Truckers, may remember a special episode called “Deadliest Roads” and, like the one called “El Camino de la Muerte”, “The Road of Death”, the roads in the Peruvian Andes are some of the most dangerous in the world).
The small independent Peruvian coffee-grower is not able to get their harvest to western Peru dry mills or markets due to lack of transportation vehicles and lack of good roads. They often lug sacks of coffee on pack animals or their own backs to dusty village markets to sell their beans to the Coffee-Coyote. In Peru, the Coffee-Coyote may seem like a modern day Indiana Jones hero, driving a large truck along very dangerous roads, dealing with thieves, hijackers, corrupt officials, and fickle weather, while carrying cash to buy the crop. If they make it to their destination and buy the harvest the return trip is just as dangerous with thousands of dollars worth of arabica coffee aboard, a valuable hijacking target.
So like their savvy and clever namesake, the Coffee-Coyote will continue to adapt to the changing environment and economy and still be regarded as villains by some and necessary middle-men by others. And with no viable east-west trans-Andes road infrastructure the Coffee-Coyote will be an important part of the coffee economy in Peru that brings some of the best arabica beans in the world to your cup for some time to come. Yowl!