The history of coffee in Bolivia

Geography and environment

Bolivia is located in the western heart of South America and covers an area of 1 098 581km2. The Andes Mountains stretch across western Bolivia and form the country's three main geographical regions: the mountainous highlands and Altiplano in the west, the semitropical Yungas and temperate valleys of the eastern mountain slopes, and the tropical lowlands that extend across the northern and eastern regions, known as the Oriente.


Coffee production in Bolivia is concentrated in the rural areas of the Yungas, where approximately 95% is grown. Other growing regions include Santa Cruz, Beni, Cochabamba, Tarija and Pando. While there are commercial farms and haciendas, government land reforms have expropriated most of the large tracts of land and redistributed them back to rural farm families. These small plots range from 1 to 8 hectares and produce between 85-95% of Bolivia's coffee, most of which is of the Arabica variety and organically grown.

Bolivia has all the ingredients to be a high quality coffee producer such as altitude, fertile soil and a consistent rainy season. However, the rugged terrain and lack of infrastructure and technology make post-harvest quality control a challenging task. Funds from development agencies are seeking to establish processing facilities in rural areas so that farmers have access to resources that will help ensure quality grain while increasing the value of their product.

More than 70% of the coffee trade is exported by 28 private companies. The remaining percentage of trade is by Bolivian coffee cooperatives, of which there are 17. Both the private and cooperative sectors are members of the Bolivian Coffee Board or Cobolca. Most Bolivian (green) beans are exported to the United States, Germany and other parts of Europe, Russia and Japan.

The coffee crisis

The global coffee crisis has had a devastating impact on the rural population of Bolivia and on the economy as a whole. With coffee prices as low as USD 0.40 in early 2002, many producers were unable to cover production costs. Despite a price increase in 1997, coffee production and its value on the international market have been in steady decline since the early 1990s. The role of coffee in the national economy has fluctuated based on the highly volatile international commodityprice or the New York price. In 1997, Bolivia exported 6,725 tons of green coffee and received $26,040,000, meaning that each ton was worth approximately $3,872. In 2003, however, green coffee exports totaled 4,453 tons and the profit was only $6,389,000, making the price of each ton a mere $1,423. This staggering price inequality reflects (to a lesser extent) the natural boom and growth cycles of the coffee economy, making small farmers very vulnerable to cyclical price shocks.

Deforestation for agricultural cultivation and timber export is a serious threat to the environment and biodiversity of Bolivia. Soil erosion caused by cattle grazing and unsustainable agricultural practices such as slash and burn has also become a major problem, especially for customary farmers. Water pollution is also damaging the land.

Yet there is hope on the horizon. Bolivia is currently working on transforming its coffee sector, developing infrastructure such as processing plants that did not exist before and looking for a specialised market for coffee at better prices. Many also predict that Bolivia's war on drugs will have significant benefits for the coffee industry, providing increased financing and development opportunities for cocaine growers transitioning to legal forms of farming.

Activism and social change

In the last few years, specialized labeling (Fair Trade, organic and shade growing) and cooperative movements have gained momentum among various rural producers of commodities, including goods such as coffee, cocoa, bananas and handicrafts. The purpose of these initiatives is to promote sustainable livelihoods, improve working conditions, allocate credit, and encourage organic farming practices such as biodiversity while maintaining productivity. Producer cooperatives are generally formed as a means of building solidarity, sharing knowledge and skills and breaking out of exploitative conventional agriculture. One of the most influential and beneficial aspects of this cooperative structure is that part of the cooperative's income is donated to social projects, community development and technical education .