The human side of the cup, Act 2: Ecuador

Interview with our producers

The human side of the cup, Act 2: Ecuador

angel barrera | 2020-06-08

As you might know, during the past weeks we held our yearly event called ‘Coffee in Primeurs’. It is a huge cupping session that usually takes place here in our offices. This year, of course, we had to think of a different format. So instead of receiving all our dear shinny happy roasters here in Bordeaux, we has to send samples to their premises. And instead of having our dear happy farmers & exporters among us, we organized ‘Live’ online conferences.
The Lives were a big hit as we had very positive feedbacks. One of the most recurrent ones was that the Lives showed the human aspect of sourcing coffee and the human aspect of our partnerships. In a cupping, a roaster often focus on the beverage: the coffee, its production process and the cup profile... now, they could expend their knowledge beyond the cup. We felt that as something extremely touching and encouraging. We then started our lives by saying to farmers: “roasters have already fallen in love with your coffees, this is a chance for them to fall in love with you.”
This is why, from this point on, we decided to publish more interviews with farmers from all over the world. Farmers who are currently harvesting while their country is still facing the consequences of COVID-19. We have asked practical questions as well as some more specific ones about who they are and what motivates them. We are all happy to take the time to know them a little bit more. To actually see the human side of their cups of coffees.

Angel, for the Belco sourcing team.

We continue this series of interviews with Arnaud Causse, producer in Ecuador.

How is the situation of COVID in Ecuador?

Very tough actually; 3.500 deaths in such a small country!! Thousands of people have lost their jobs and hundreds started to starve. Social situation is spoiling more every day and violence increasing (by violence I don’t only mean lack of security but dramatic hopeless situations for so many people).
Some months before COVID crisis, Ecuador had to face very strong strikes and indigenous riots which consequences have leaded to a deeper economic disaster. Because of very low oil incomes, state was already very close to a real bankruptcy and had to deal with IMF to get some loans (under Washington consensus conditions with all the side effects on poorest levels of the society…).
However, agricultural goods exports increased during this year-half and lots of jobs have been saved in rural areas though cut flowers industry has been sharply hit by lack of freight solutions and loss of sales.
At this stage, Ecuador can’t play with money printing as many countries could do (the currency is the USD since 2000) and so can’t attend financial needs of companies to boost back their activity. None fund supplier can trust the government and lend some money, even at high rate or short term. The only way is increasing taxes to get some incomes… Probably the worst all companies could expect.
There’s another frightening way a desperate government would be able to choose, the worst ever: mortgaging its subsoil!!! That would mean a violent ecological and social disaster and a huge loss of biodiversity in one of the last wild life hotspots in the world. One of the best Ecuadorian coffee production area is trapped between two enormous deposits (gold and copper), perhaps the biggest ever found. I can’t imagine the effects of mining operations in this terroir…
Moreover, there’s no kind of benefit for unemployed workers and all private banks stopped granting loans at all.

How is the situation of COVID affecting the coffee industry in Ecuador? What are the challenges? How is this affecting your farms management/work?

To be honest, fortunately, in the case of coffee industry, the negative impact is quite low at this moment. Indeed, harvest is just starting and there’s not a huge demand of manpower. That means coffee growers didn’t lose production at this stage and obviously neither loose sales opportunities. All will depend on prices and demand maintenance from now on. We are nervously waiting for news from the market actors.
The biggest challenge right now is searching for working capital loans. Government financial agencies are trying to give a hand but their resources are very tight (only 50 MUSD for CFN and 1 BUSD for Banco del Pacifico) and procedures are very complicated… Private Banks are completely inoperative regarding any financial deal; they are focused on getting former loans back. More than never, farms are full dependent on commercial partner’s down payments.
The lack of financial solutions might cause poor use of inputs that could affect future yields; indeed priority is done to wages (harvest and routine tasks) and taxes.
Biosecurity measures that should be implemented are not so binding and just need more discipline than usual; the cost of such implementation is quite marginal and won’t affect economic results.

Do you think the whole COVID pandemic might create a change in our society? If so, what kind of change?

Unfortunately I don’t think so and really hope I could be wrong….
I am quite sure we will lose the opportunity to be more resilient. To avoid a real collapse it was necessary to admit a whole degrowth at planet level. None government would have taken such an initiative while the others not but this virus succeed in. Under neoliberal rules, what we can expect is a new huge economic growth which will compensate the loss due to the crisis (like a kind of post war boom). That means we will easily forget that financial markets were collapsing just before COVID pandemic started and money will be still the king once again. We will mining fossil resources back at a more frenetic rhythm and poison once again our environment.
The most threatening change might be the banishment of the HUG.
Last financial new: Zoom market capitalization is now worth more than the top seven airlines combined ones. What a change!!!!
The most transcendental positive changes which could have been expected won’t happen because most of the people who think whole and holistic resilience is the only way to bequeath a best world to next generations are not aggressive enough and won’t bravely fight to put an end to that termo industrial society era.
COVID crisis might have been the one and last opportunity to avoid the Anthropocene collapse nightmare but humbleness is not humanist and trans-humanist best asset… Mother Nature is losing her temper.

Seeing how COVID is first a sanitary crisis but would create an economic crisis afterwards, how would you see it changing/transforming/adapting the specialty coffee industry?

As explained before, a huge economic growth will follow the economic crisis. Nowadays who is drinking and purchasing specialty coffees? People who hasn’t lost (too much) buying power because they live in countries which can print money whenever they want and enough to compensate any loss. Tomorrow, any specialty coffee addicted will pay in crypto currencies his beloved cup.
During the lock down, according to our own customer’s comments, most expensive coffees were the most demanded on e-commerce platforms because people took its time to learn more about coffee attributes and to choose a real exotic experience. We have to bet that trend will remain and increase. So we hope.
Once again, let’s have a look to what’s the share of raw material in a cup of coffee: 12 g of roasted coffee means, at auction level, 4 cts as a commodity, maybe 10 cts as microlot and an average of 16 cts as fancy nanolots. 12g = 12 cts between an ugly astringent mixture and the most pleasant intense sensation!!! Does that have any influence on consuming behavior?
What would you like to say to roasters & consumers currently buying coffees from your farms and why would you encourage them to keep buying, roasting & drinking your coffees in the future?

At least we are not actually coffee growers but flavors crafters; we try to fulfill our customers’ expectations the best we can and believe me (I have been trying to bring excellence to our reliable faithful customers for roughly 25 years) it’s not always a piece of cake but we enjoy that challenge. Every year there are new trends and we have to figure out how to match them with innovations. We are passionate growers but also are peasants (I love this word!!!); we live and evolve at earth and nature rhythm not at markets one. So, please, be as slow but also as committed with excellence as us and try to value the product as the result of our dedication not as a response to marketing tyranny.
On the other hand, defending and valuing our work and yours doesn’t mean to remain static. We will keep on innovating following our feelings and experience but also listening to what you would consider the best cup ever should taste. Communication is the key… If now it is more complicated to cross oceans and sanitary barriers please keep in touch to help us improving constantly. Your feedback is invaluable…
Our concern about looking for the more resilient way to produce pushes us to learn more every day from other crops agro-ecologic trials but also to take a close look to how nature is generously responding when respected. I guess that’s our brick in the wall of change… and that most of our partners in the middle or/and at the end of the chain are sharing that vision to build a better world. Better times will come soon…
To end up, who is Arnaud in some few words?

What is your favorite book?

Avaro Mutis’ “Empresas y tribulaciones de Maqroll el Gaviero” where the story doesn’t matter but the style…

What is the word you would say define your team at the farms?

Proudly committed (two words, sorry…)

Who is your favorite/inspiring person in human history and why?

Humbly Jean Henri Fabre as a mentor to find the way to understand nature and be more resilient every day.
A century ago didn’t he write: “All seems to show that the day will come when mankind will succumb, killed by such excess it calls civilization”… so prophetic!!!

If you happen to believe in reincarnation, in what animal would you like to reincarnate and why?

An earthworm because it doesn’t need to hear and see to live, it can experiment both genders during its life but, most of all, is so useful, essential and discrete (altruism at its ultimate!!!).
I am focusing on growing coffee trees on living soil; my best allies are earthworms. I am so grateful to their collaboration!!!! Their work and positive incidence is so amazing and they don’t expect anything in return…

What on earth makes you the happiest person living on it?

Diversity of sounds (music, silence…), flavors and tastes (food, drinks), colors, thoughts, lives…

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