Well it’s obviously sexist innit? Yes it is, certainly to our westernised eyes, although one should emphasise it is dressed solely in organic coffee beans, which may make it acceptable to some. But that’s not the real problem – take a look at the female mannequin’s colour, white yes? Not even a bit spanish/latin looking no? And what is the skin colour of the people who grow & produce this coffee – definitely not euro-white, but dark-skinned and indigenous. We’ve yet to see a dark-skinned indigenous looking mannequin in Peru. Indeed if you looked at the ‘public’ image or face of Peru – its politicans, business & church leaders, tv presenters & other celebrities, tv ads, it’s public faces – they are virtually all white, or at best spanish-white. The manequin is racist, just like Peru remains a very racist country. It’s a classist country too, but above all it’s racist. But that’s just a part of the backstory to Cafe Ayacuchano, which is a mighty fine coffee.
Where we found the coffee…
We first came across Cafe Ayacuchano by accident (see video about the coffee!), after visiting a couple of museums some 1-2km north of the Plaza de Armas in the city of Ayacucho. They had a small stand outside a large artesianal market (where you buy indigenous style clothing, souvenirs etc), and both the market & the coffee stand were located inside a part of what was once Ayacucho’s main prison. As was our mannequin coffee advertiser. Rather ironically, on March 3 1981 this prison had been stormed by members of Shining Path, the heavily maoist influenced communists in Peru, as a part of their Armed War against the Peruvian state and capital that commenced in 1980. Around 300 prisoners escaped.
Where’s the coffee from?
Cafe Ayacuchano is produced in an area known as the VRAE (the valleys of the rivers Ene & Apurimac), also known as VRAEM (by adding the river Mantaro to the north) – see basic info in spanish or english. These rivers are found pretty much on the borders of the Ayacucho region & several other regions. Cafe Ayacuchano is grown in the vicinity of the community of San Francisco, in the Anya district, located on the river Apurimac.
It is one of a number of economic initiatives (some with ‘dubious’ foreign aid backing ie USAid), to wrest control of the VRAEM back from Peru’s drug traffickers, who have turned the area into Peru’s largest producer of cocaine – around 70% of the country’s largest (illegal) export, by encouraging local indigenous crop growers to switch from coca leaf to coffee production.
Coffee good, coca (or cocaine) bad?
This is an incredibly complicated issue and region. Not only is the use of the coca leaf part of the traditional way of life for local indigenous people – as a food item, medicinal item, and as part of ‘religious’ ceremonies & festivities – but it is also their main cash crop, with upto 4 harvests per year. Switching to another crop is therefore fraught with financial complications amongst others. (see this good video & article by an investigative journalist on the aljazeera website). The Peruvian Govt of course, with massive backing & pressure from the US & international bodies, has run for numerous years a coca-eradication programme (not very successfully), using large military force. This is also tied up to the Peruvian state’s attempts to finally destroy the last remnants of the Shining Path group, who have for decades now had bases in the area, along with a heavy involvement in the drug trafficking trade. (see series of articles here on the drugs trade and S/Path)
But even this part of the issue is complicated. Whilst Shining Path originally commenced their operations in the Andean highlands of the Ayacucho region in 1980, as their suppport from campesinos decreased in line with S/Path’s authoritarian brutality, so S/Path retreated to the more jungle-like areas of the VRAE/M. And there they once again treated those they claimed to be trying to liberate with the utmost brutality & contempt, killing thousands. Which led to many local communitys & groups within the VRAE/M to launch their own organised armed defense groups to take on S/Path, efforts that remained largely independent of the Peruvian army’s military campaign – not least because the state regarded every indigenous person as a potential S/Path supporter, and also killed thousands of them! (excellent article here from UpsideDownWorld).
So not only is there local opposition to S/Path, there’s also mass local opposition to the coca-eradication programme, at least in the absence of any real policy that actually takes the well-being of the local peoples as its primary concern. As those with any understanding of post-Spanish invasion history of Peru will know, the well being of the indigenous peoples comes pretty much at the bottom of any list of state concerns.
NB: these two articles – here and here – on the Ashaninka people of this region give an idea of the struggles local people have experienced for centuries.