Buying direct from a farmer might bring to mind a British-grown veg box or local farmers’ market. But for one coffee company, buying from the indigenous Mayni tribe who live deep in the Peruvian Amazon rainforest, it means something quite different.
In normal times, for the team at Easy Jose coffee, a small importer and roastery based at Shepton Mallet, South West UK, to reach the community involves a 12-hour train from Peru’s capital Lima, then a seven-hour journey into the Amazon in a four-by-four.
And while any company buying and selling goods during the pandemic has had its work cut out, with visits to suppliers all but off the agenda, buying direct from the Amazon rainforest has had its own unique challenges. The isolation of the community was even more important due to the risk of taking coronavirus to a remote tribe, where contact with the virus would be catastrophic.
“We buy 24 tonnes a year from the Mayni community, and they grow, process and package the coffee for us,” says co-founder of Easy Jose, James Higgs, who says the company stumbled across what the Mayni community were doing when searching for suppliers.
It all began after an initiative by the Peruvian government to help indigenous communities sustain their way of life and preserve the forest through agroforestry, a farming technique that combines trees with more edible and profitable crops. It was also a deliberate alternative to the devastating ‘slash and burn’ approach to clear the land, which decimates both years of carbon storage and species habitat.
With the funding from the government to build a washing and processing facility for the fresh coffee, and which is now wholly owned by the Mayni, they became first indigenous community to create a commercial enterprise out of their coffee, which is grown in the shade of the vast Amazon canopy.
Almost all global coffee is grown on large farms out in the open, after development in the 1970s led to new varieties that can grow close together in direct sunlight, maximising yields. “I liken it to palm oil,” says Higgs. “Where plantations have destroyed biodiversity because it’s all the same crop. The community grow coffee naturally within the landscape; they plant around the trees.”
The system the Mayni use, which clears some undergrowth but retains the native tree species, produces around 40 per cent less coffee than growing out in the open with more light. Lower yields are offset by support money paid by the Peruvian forestry department to incentivise them to keep the forest intact, with an annual payment given following assessment via drones. Easy Jose also recognises the lower yields in its payments and commits to paying 30 per cent above production costs.
“We’re happy to pay more,” says Higgs, who describes how Easy Jose pivoted from almost solely supplying cafes and hospitality, to direct website sales to consumers when lockdown hit last year. “Coffee in direct sunlight does grow quicker. It’s a slower process underneath the trees, but it protects the land from burning.”
Working with coffee leaders in the community, many of whom are women, Easy Jose shares and learns specialist techniques for processing, such as milling and drying with the sugary juice from the coffee cherry and ‘turning’ it multiple times a day to create specialty coffee combinations.
The result is a unique flavour and means that the biodiversity of the forest is protected while providing a viable source of income for the Mayni.
Typically, global coffee buyers chop and change supply to make the most of seasonal growing conditions, says Higgs, who says Easy Jose instead put long-term contracts in place. The other issue is the price of coffee is usually distributed to various middlemen – co-operatives, exporters, importers and buyers – with very little returned to the primary producer, which means they are unable to adopt more sustainable, but more expensive, growing practices.
“We agreed a price directly that was much higher than what they were getting from local co-operatives selling on to exporters,” explains Higgs, who says the Mayni are now the second highest paid indigenous community in Peru. “We make a contracted agreement directly with the community where previously the price was shrouded in mystery, and they never knew if their coffee was going to be bought.”
“There are 350 million bags of coffee coming out of Peru every year, and the Mayni are the fourth highest paid [growers] in the whole country. Our aim is to get them to number one,” he says, proudly.
Money is distributed according to the amount of coffee produced by each member of the community, and there is also a central community plot, where money raised goes toward community projects and infrastructure upkeep.
“The foresight they have with very little access to modern technology; living off their land and protecting their homes. They need the forest for food and for shelter,” says Higgs, who says in this part of the Amazon, communities are vulnerable to attacks by exploitive groups such as miners or people wanting to grow drugs.
Although buying from the Mayni results in a premium coffee that may not currently reach the mainstream, Higgs hopes that part of the result will be to raise awareness of the supply behind such a ubiquitous drink.
“All we’re trying to do is say, ‘have a look at what you’re drinking and why’,” he explains. “What I’m seeing is more and more people are looking in depth at coffee. That is translating into the wholesale sector, where people are asking their local cafes where is your coffee from?”
As word spreads to other indigenous communities in Peru, Easy Jose wants to grow its direct sourcing and pricing model further and create a new blueprint for coffee supply. But it all relies on those in the chain, as well as the end consumer, understanding the value of higher prices.
“In my opinion, the more as an industry we can pay to farmers, the better,” says Higgs. “The more noise we can make, the better impact it will have on the bigger chains.”