While it is only the 38th largest coffee producer in the world, Bolivia’s coffee sector has its own unique history.
Even though Bolivian coffee doesn’t enjoy the same reputation as beans from neighbouring countries, it does have the growing conditions which allow coffee plants to thrive.
However, with challenges ranging from geography to infrastructure and crop productivity, there is some work to be done before the Bolivian coffee sector can reach its full potential. I spoke to three regional experts to understand more about the country’s coffee industry and the issues it faces. Read on to learn more.
You may also like our article exploring emerging specialty coffee origins.
Bolivian coffee: From past to present
The history of Bolivian coffee begins with Spanish colonial presence in the region. The country was a Spanish colony from the mid-late 1500s until the early 19th century, before finally declaring independence in 1825.
It was around the same time, in the late 18th and early 19th century, that coffee was introduced to the country. It first emerged in the Yungas: a fertile, tropical area boasting high altitudes along the eastern slopes of the Bolivian Andes.
While slavery wasn’t officially practiced, the country’s indigenous populace has historically been subjected to servitude and debt bondage, with their labour used to cultivate coffee.
Throughout the 1800s and into the early to mid-1900s, coffee production was limited in Bolivia. The small volumes of coffee that were left for consumption after exports were usually exclusively enjoyed by the country’s elite.
Veruschka Stevens is co-owner of Elevate Coffee in Cochabamba, Bolivia. She explains that large-scale coffee cultivation didn’t occur until the 1920s, with further agricultural reforms taking place in the mid-20th century.
“The most consequential outcome of the Bolivian National Revolution of 1952 was a government decree that initiated agricultural reform in 1953,” she says.
“This made it legal for newly freed indigenous people to take ownership of agricultural land.”
In the 1960s, the Bolivian state gave land to some indigenous farmers and miners in the Caranavi Province in the Yungas, which was largely unsettled at the time. In the 60 years since, farming has proliferated in Caranavi, and it is now the largest coffee-growing region in the country.
“Indigenous coffee producers began organising, forming co-ops and other support organisations to strengthen their position at the negotiating table,” Veruschka says. “This included ANPROCA (National Coffee Producers Association) in 1976 and FECAFEB (Federation of Coffee Exporters of Bolivia) in 1991.”
Since then, Veruschka notes that the late 20th and early 21st century have given way to a new focus on coffee quality.
In 2014, the country held the first Taza Presidencial: an event that recognises, celebrates, and auctions Bolivia’s best coffees. The Cup of Excellence also operated competitions in Bolivia from 2004 to 2009.
Veruschka adds that the growth of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram has supported Bolivian consumers to better understand what good coffee looks like.
Ruth Vidaurre Solorzano is the President of the Federation of Coffee Exporters of Bolivia (FECAFEB). She says: “The level of understanding about the production and consumption of quality coffee is growing.
“Producers already know about the economic benefits of selling quality micro lots, and they understand doing so requires a greater investment in materials, equipment, and labour.”
What about production today?
As the 38th largest coffee producer in the world, Bolivia is not a household name as far as coffee origins are concerned. Data is difficult to find, but production and export figures for the past few years sit around 30,000 60kg bags.
Today, coffee production is still centred in the Yungas, which is responsible for growing some 95% of all Bolivian coffee. Between 85% and 95% of all coffee in the country is grown by smallholders on plots between 1ha and 8ha.
Historically, private exporters licensed by the Bolivian Coffee Committee (Cobolca2) were responsible for shipping Bolivian coffee. However, the committee now no longer exists, and in the last 15 years or so, there has been a dramatic shift towards co-operatives exporting the majority of the country’s green beans.
Pedro Rodriguez is the CEO of Agricafe, a leading producer of Bolivian specialty coffee.
“Most people know that coffee production in Bolivia has decreased a lot in the last ten years,” Pedro says. “This is because of various factors, including ageing coffee farms and plants (and little renewal), disease (particularly coffee leaf rust), and low productivity.”
Pedro also notes that because a large percentage of Bolivian coffee farms are organic, they are more vulnerable to pests.
Coffee price crises and Bolivian coffee
Bolivian coffee yields have fallen since the late 20th century, although it is difficult to confirm exact figures. As mentioned earlier, it is believed the country has exported around 30,000 60kg bags a year for the last three harvests, but 20 or 25 years ago, this number was considerably higher.
After coffee prices plummeted in the early 2000s, many Bolivian producers found themselves unable to cover the cost of production. In the years since, some have understandably switched to more profitable crops, where they are less vulnerable to price fluctuation.
Coffee consumption in Bolivia
Throughout the 20th and 21st century, coffee consumption in Bolivia has grown markedly, even though farmers in the country face a growing raft of challenges.
Cities such as La Paz, Santa Cruz, and Cochabamba are all starting to become hotbeds for coffee consumption, with the emergence of independent roasteries and cafés in inner-city locations.
Ruth tells me that local consumption has in fact grown exponentially, especially in larger towns and cities.
“Several cafés have been opened with growing competition,” she says. “With that, the Bolivian consumer market is growing, which can, in part, be explained by the events of the Taza Presidencial competition.”
This event promotes Bolivia’s finest coffee to international and local buyers alike, with winning coffees going on to be sold at international auctions.
Challenges facing Bolivian coffee
As well as contending with coffee price fluctuations year-on-year, Bolivia’s coffee sector faces its own share of individual issues and challenges.
Among the biggest challenges are the country’s geography, infrastructure and transport links, and competition for profitability.
Geography is one of the biggest obstacles that Bolivia faces, especially when it comes to transporting coffee.
While the country has an optimal climate and excellent growing conditions for arabica coffee, it is mountainous. In addition, Bolivia is landlocked, meaning that for sea freight (the most common way of shipping green coffee), exporters must first cross the border into other countries (such as neighbouring Peru or Chile).
Ruth explains that this limited access to shipping routes adds additional costs, as border crossings complicate things further. The only other alternative is air freight, which is considerably more expensive.
“The lack of immediate access to the sea is an unfavourable situation for the Bolivian coffee industry,” she tells me. “It naturally imposes additional export costs.”
Infrastructure & labour availability
As Bolivia’s infrastructure is underdeveloped in some areas, it causes delays and costly situations for the transport of coffee within the country itself.
Pedro says: “There are limitations to the road infrastructure. This makes access to producing communities difficult and complicated.
He says that the areas where producers are located can often only be accessed by high-altitude mountain roads which are not well-maintained, making it difficult to transport coffee.
“In addition, the cost of labour for harvests is also scarce and expensive,” he says. “It’s above the cost in neighbouring countries such as Brazil and Colombia.”
The lack of developed infrastructure for transporting coffee and low labour availability are major obstacles.
Competition with coca
Ruth explains that profitability for many farmers is a key issue, as many can often cultivate the coca plant instead and make more money.
She says that in regions where coffee is grown, coca is also prominent, and is often more profitable.
“The Yungas is the traditional and legal area for the production of coca leaf,” he explains.
She notes that changeover from coffee to coca in the region has become an issue that puts the future of the sector in question.
“Coca cultivation in the country is divided into traditional areas and non-traditional areas,” she adds. “The traditional areas are concentrated in the southern Yungas, where coffee production is low.
“However, in non-traditional areas, where there is more coffee, the expansion of coca fields is very low.”
Bolivia’s coffee industry is a unique one, but growth for the future is clearly fraught with challenges. The country must find ways to address its lack of easy access to maritime freight and poor mountain road infrastructure if it is to scale up the production and export of high-quality coffee.
However, if these challenges are addressed, then there is certainly hope on the horizon for the Bolivian coffee sector. It has shown an increasing capacity for quality in the last 15 to 20 years, and events like the Taza Presidencial and Cup of Excellence have shown exactly what the country’s coffee farmers are capable of.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring coffee trends in Latin America.
Perfect Daily Grind
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!