SANTA CRUZ, Bolivia — Bolivia is one of the smallest coffee producers in the world. Until recently, that was a blessing.
Quality for years was so lousy that Bolivian beans rate an automatic discount on commodity exchanges. Cheeky traders nicknamed it "surprise coffee" because they never knew what was coming.
But the real shocker occurred recently in a swanky hotel ballroom here in Bolivia's largest city, when an indigenous farmer named Mery Maldonado accepted one of the coffee industry's most coveted awards: the Cup of Excellence. Her farming cooperative had dazzled a panel of international judges with beans so superior that a 154-pound bag fetched more than the typical Bolivian earns in a year.
"I thank God," said Maldonado, dressed in the layered skirt and braids of an Aymara Indian woman. "We have been suffering."
Pummeled by a global glut of beans that had depressed prices for commercial-grade coffee, farmers like Maldonado have been moving upscale to survive. Growers worldwide are trying to differentiate what traditionally has been a commodity product to win better prices for their harvests. Some are scrambling to prove that their beans are organic, shade-grown or harvested without child labor to appeal to socially conscious consumers. Others are focusing on quality to win over gourmands.
Bolivia's efforts to revamp its bargain-basement image rival anything seen on the ABC television series "Extreme Makeover" -- thanks largely to American taxpayers. Concerned that struggling farmers are shifting to coca, the plant whose leaves are refined to make cocaine, the U.S. government is pouring millions of dollars into a campaign to help Bolivian coffee growers cultivate premium beans.
This mugs-not-drugs strategy has yet to transform Bolivian coffee into the next Jamaica Blue Mountain, one of the most sought-after types. But some farms are turning out world-class joe. Interest is percolating among coffee aficionados, some of whom have paid more than 10 times the current commodity price to get their hands on a few sacks of Bolivia's prize-winning beans.
"I used to call it prison coffee," said Bob Stephenson, a coffee roaster from Berkeley who was in Bolivia for the tasting competition. "Not anymore."
Coffee is one of the most valuable export crops in the developing world, providing employment to 20 million families in more than 50 countries. But overproduction has sent wholesale prices tumbling in recent years. Adjusted for inflation, coffee hit a 100-year low in late 2001 of about 42 cents a pound, less than a third of what it was three years earlier.
Commodity prices are rising again, though misery still grips the global coffee belt. In Central America alone, an estimated 600,000 coffee workers have lost their jobs. Thousands have fled for the U.S.
Bolivia's java woes likewise are being felt on U.S. streets. In the heart of the coffee-growing region northeast of La Paz known as the Yungas, coca production surged 18% last year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Much of that harvest ended up journeying north as cocaine.
Some coca farming in the Yungas is legal, as Bolivians have used the mild stimulant for centuries to ward off fatigue and hunger. Nationwide, cultivation is down sharply from the levels of a decade ago because of controversial, U.S.-backed eradication efforts.
Still, American officials are concerned enough that they have poured more than $500 million of developmental aid into Bolivia over the last four years, said Peter Natiello, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Coca production is "ticking back up in the Yungas," Natiello said. "Part of the policy response ... is to help farmers find alternatives."
One of the most aggressive efforts has focused on coffee, which employs about 20,000 families on tiny farms, or fincas, averaging less than 7 1/2 acres. On paper, Bolivia is uniquely suited to producing premium beans. The semitropical Yungas boasts rich soil, a nurturing climate, abundant shade and ideal elevation. Most of the coffee plants are the prized arabica variety.
In late October, Lorenzo Choque was harvesting the last of the bright red coffee berries, known as cherries, from the bushes on his rambling Yungas finca. Wild blossoms of hydrangea, hibiscus and impatiens, translated here as "hard-working woman," ran riot over the steep terrain. Parrots chattered in the shade trees overhead, a sign of an ecosystem bursting with vitality.
"There is plenty of rain," said Choque, wearing a weathered harvest sack over his shoulder and a battered Philadelphia 76er cap on his head. "Everything grows."