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Photo Essay: The Journey of Coffee in Rural Panama

An outstretched hand with red coffee berries

In the past decade, Panama has succeeded in making its way into the international coffee scene. 

While Panama does not produce as much coffee as some of the bigger players, such as Brazil, it has become famous for the quality of its Geisha variety of Arabica coffee. Most people who have heard something about Panamanian coffee probably associate the country’s coffee production with the region of Boquete and the surrounding Chiriquí highlands. But a lesser told story is that of the Robusta coffee that comes from some of Panama’s most rural communities.

Robusta coffee is a hardier type of coffee that does not rely on specific temperatures and elevations to be grown. While it is not of the highest quality, what it lacks in flavor, it makes up for in caffeine content. This is the type of coffee that most Panamanians actually drink. Most of the time, this coffee is not sold internationally. In some of the most rural parts it is not sold at all but rather grown as a sustenance crop. The remoteness of the communities that produce Robusta often makes access difficult for large buyers.

Despite not having access to larger commercial markets, rural Robusta farmers have creatively tapped into their local communities to make markets for themselves. Farmers have begun to work together to create directives and cooperatives to invest in equipment that an individual farmer would not be able to purchase on their own. They have begun processing coffee in groups and selling to their neighbors and nearby communities. But even getting to this point of production takes time, some personal capital, and a lot of dedication. 

This is the story of one group's beginnings - the organization of labor and the hand processed of coffee before the machines. This is the story of Robusta coffee grown in the rural indigenous community of Samboa. 

To the untrained eye, a coffee tree may look like any other tree. In fact, the average coffee drinker might not even know that coffee is a fruit that is grown on a tree. In rural communities across Panama, without tractors or easy access to chemicals and other machinery, people tend to plant their crops among the monte (brush). And Robusta coffee is treated just the same, planted among a variety of native trees, shrubs, and weeds.
Before becoming a tree, coffee starts like any other plant – from a seed. The evolution of the seed can be seen from left to right. Starting as what one might recognize as an untoasted coffee bean, the seed goes on to spread its roots. The first identifiable stage of its development is known as the ‘fosforo’ or ‘matchstick’; at this stage the seed can be seen above ground, attached to its newly formed stem. A few days later the first leave, called elephant ears, will emerge from the seeds shell. At this point the coffee seedling is ready to be moved from the semillero (seed bed) to the vivero (nursery). The tree will then continue to develop until it has reached a sufficient size to be placed in the finca (farm).
After two to three years of development, the coffee tree is ready to bear fruit. The tree’s sexual maturity can be visibly seen by the clusters of beautiful white flowers that will appear along its branches. Not only are these flowers pleasing to the eye but their scent is sweet like Jasmine.
After the flowers have all come and gone, the production of fruit begins. Each fruit grows no bigger than a blueberry. It’s an exciting time to watch the colors change and to begin mentally preparing for the harvest that is to come.
The fruits start out green, slowly transition into a yellow and then an orange, and finally arrives at the ideal color of red. The best cherries are harvested as the colors 4th and 3rd from the right. If left on the tree past that, the husk begins to dry and the coffee bean inside is more susceptible to rot, pests, or simply falling off and getting lost in the weeds.
Once the coffee has begun to ripen, so begins la cosecha (the harvest). The coffee is harvested by hand, selecting only the fruit that is ripe. Since the coffee cherries grow in clusters, they are fairly easy to harvest when the entire cluster is ripe. However, a large problem when harvesting by hand is ants. Sometimes ants decide to make their homes in the middle of these clusters and one unlucky bunch can leave a harvester with ten stinging bites.
Most farmers use old sacos (rice sacks) to collect their harvest. A few farmers have been able to buy used harvesting baskets off those who work seasonally in Boquete or Volcán. At the end of the day, most farmers carry the cherries home in kra (traditional hand-woven Ngäbe bags), hung from the forehead and carried on the back.
Once the coffee is brought home, there are a number of ways in which it can be processed. Different people have different opinions about which method works best. The majority of coffee producers in Samboa start by de-pulping the cherries while the cherries are fresh. Without a $500 despulpadora (de-pulping machine), most people use the same hand-grinders that they use to grind corn, cacao, and meat. Set at the loosest setting, this device is easily able to tear the coffee bean away from the pulp without cracking the bean.
Once the cherry pulp is separated from the coffee seed, the mixture of pulp and seeds is then taken to the river in a bucket to be washed by hand. Normally the beans are left in the bucket while the husks are thrown into the river. However this practice is slowly changing as farmers realize the nutritional benefits that this husks can provide for future coffee trees in the form of compost.
Once the coffee is washed it is then left to dry two to three weeks in the sun. Without investing in solar dryers yet, the coffee is usually spread out on a tarp, blanket, or old clothes. Women and children, who typically spend more time in the house, are left with the task of cuidando (taking care of) the coffee - protecting it from dogs, chickens, and the rain.
When the coffee is sufficiently dried it is ready to be toasted. A group of 8-10 people will usually process no more than one cubo (5 gallon bucket) of dried beans in a day.
The coffee is toasted in a large paila (large metal pot) over a fogón (wood-burning fire). The coffee stirrer must work for about 30 minutes - trying their best to avoid smoke in their eyes and lungs - before the coffee is ready to be removed from the heat. A large wooden spoon is used to stir the coffee to keep it cooking as evenly as possible. Though it will never be as good as a mechanized roaster, it does the job for the coffee clientele.
After being removed from the heat, the coffee is then left to cool to a manageable temperature.
The toasted coffee beans are then ground to a fine powder using the same grinders that were previously used to remove the pulp from the cherries. This step is usually carried out by men as it is a little more labor intensive.
The ground coffee is spooned into plastic bags using their eyes and good judgement to make sure that each bag is relatively equal.
The bags of coffee are then passed on to the next person to be sealed. This step requires a lit flame, a stick, and a comb. The top of the bag is folded over the teeth of the comb and the hot stick (after sitting in the fire) is run across the plastic along the comb's edge to create a melted seal. This task requires more skill than one might think - too much heat and the mag will simply rip, not enough heat and the coffee will spill through. Once packaged, the excess plastic is trimmed off and the coffee bags are ready to be sold at $1.50 for a pack of 12.
The final and most important step is to enjoy a fresh, hot cup of coffee after a long days work. The gente (people) here in Samboa typically enjoy their coffee well-sweetened with sugar.