In Brazil’s Southern Minas, It’s All About Cooxupe

The 12,000 members of the Cooxupe Cooperative–the world’s biggest coffee cooperative–grow more coffee than the Central American countries of Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua combined. Since coffee was first introduced to Southern Minas in the mid-1800s, growers here have been at the centre of most of the boom and bust cycles that ultimately have made the Brazilian coffee industry the most competitive in the world. In the second article of our series on Brazil, we review the new 2016-17 harvest, analyze the latest developments for the crop and learn about the history of Cooxupe and its outstanding growers. By Maja Wallengren.

Glowing in the late afternoon sun, the freshly picked coffee cherries from Brazil’s new 2016-17 harvest cast a magical light of golden, orange and deep red colours over the drying patio at the farm Fazenda Nossa Senhora Aparecida just outside the Southern Minas coffee town of Cabo Verde. Few sights are as exciting to coffee lovers and industry officials alike as that of the new harvest getting underway and the hope of a good crop. And despite growing weather problems because of negative effects from climate change in recent years, Brazil’s coffee farmers are optimists by heart.

“My best harvest here was back in 1987 and ever since the numbers have come down gradually year by year, but I have been in coffee all my life so even if this year is going to be about 30 percent smaller than last year, it’s not too bad for us because last year was a good crop,” Joao Paulo Muniz, the fourth-generation owner of Nossa Senhora Aparecida, said with a smile as he looked out over the freshly harvested beans now drying on the patio.

Since the beginning of the harvest last May the forecasts for both overall production and the quality of Brazil’s new crop have quickly come down as multiple issues from drought in some regions during the last part of the bean development period, to excessive rains and frost all have brought varying degrees of damage along. But most industry officials and analysts agree that after last year’s 2015-16 disaster harvest, the new crop should be bigger.

“We are expecting a slightly better crop this year and should get a bigger Arabica harvest, even though we really won’t know for sure how much bigger until the harvest is completed and we can make a full evaluation of yields and bean size,” said Carlos Paulino da Costa, president of the Cooxupe Cooperative, speaking to Tea & Coffee Trade Journal at Cooxupe’s headquarters in the town of Guaxupe.

Coffee is More Than Just a Crop

Stretched out in a region that covers more than 200,000 square kilometers of land, the coffee farms under Cooxupe extend from the southern most part of Southern Minas in the state of Minas Gerais, to the northern plains of the state known as El Cerrado, and even covers parts of the neighbouring state of Sao Paulo. For more than 80 years, Cooxupe’s over 12,000 members have helped shape the cooperative into a kingdom of coffee in its own right, and earned the highest respect and recognition from officials across the world of coffee for its achievements in both overall production, quality and attention to the grower.

“Cabo Verde and Sao Pedro da Uniao were among the first municipalities to join Cooxupe when the cooperative started operating and they were followed by towns and districts like Muzambinho, Tres Pontas, Juruaia and Varginha,” said Paulino da Costa, adding, “what all these towns here across Southern Minas have in common is that they were built directly because of coffee and coffee has paid for every stone, building and development here.”

Driving thousands of kilometers through Southern Minas visitors will criss-cross hundreds of towns and municipalities in a region stretching over 400 kilometers in East-West direction of Guaxupe and over 600 kilometers across Minas Gerais in North-South bound direction. This is the cradle of history when it comes to the industrial revolution of Brazil’s coffee industry. From here, coffee production would evolve from the ageold ox-drawn ploughs up to the 21st century application of state of the art modern agriculture. All along, communities would develop schools, health care and industries and – always – thanks to coffee as the driving motor of socio-economic development.

“Coffee is something very different to other agricultural products because the farmers are much more passionate about what they are doing than what you see with other crops. This kind of passion you only see in coffee because to all the families like those we have here in Cooxupe, it’s not just a crop but part of their life and the family’s history,” said Eduardo da Cruz, a grower himself and an agronomist with Cooxupe.

As the new harvest is being wrapped up the initial hopes for a bumper crop has already been dashed more than a few times, especially by the impact from the heavy unseasonal rains in late May and June which led to an average of 30 percent of cherries falling to the ground. Across the towns and local eating places in Brazil’s coffee

lands, the talk is all about the rains, how much and how severely the rains have affected both quality and quantity of the new Arabica crop. Some 200 years ago, when the first coffee farmers and immigrants started coming to the southern part of Minas Gerais, it was also all about the rains.

“Everybody was talking about how Southern Minas was ideal for growing coffee because there was ample rainfall,” said Jose Candido Rodriguez in Sao Pedro da Uniao, a small town of a little over 5,000 people located half an hour drive Northeast of Guaxupe.

“The best thing you can do here is grow coffee and the best things here in the region, from development to real progress, always have come from coffee and thanks to coffee,” said the 80-year-old grower who is the fourth generation coffee farmer in his family, while both the fifth and sixth generation of new coffee farmers already are underway.

Ideal Land and Labour Conditions

Coffee was first brought to Brazil in 1727 but it wasn’t until planting in the 1820s started to reach large estates in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais that production escalated to what by the 1840s would make Brazil the largest coffee grower and exporter in the world.

The early boom in coffee production took place at the expense of slavery, and records from the 1850s show that approximately 1.5 million people, or half of Brazil’s population at the time, were slaves imported to work in mining and on the sugar and coffee plantations, Marshall C. Eakin, a historian at Vanderbilt University, writes in his 1998 book, Brazil: The Once and Future Country.

While the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 initially resulted in crisis and bankruptcy at many of the farms that had depended on non-paid labour, the changes in overall development that followed would soon start to bring a second boom to coffee production in Brazil, now increasingly at the hands of the European immigrants who arrived between 1880 and 1930.

By the end of the 1930s, as the Brazilian coffee regions were coming to terms with the new conditions of using paid labour and adjusting to lower prices following the 1929 crash of Wall Street, the face of the coffee industry in Southern Minas had changed drastically.

From the Italian immigrant workers who had saved some money during their first 20 to 30 years labouring on farms in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, to the arrival of freed slaves from farms as far away as northern Bahia, it was in Southern Minas the coffee industry found the conditions of labour and land that would lead Brazil to become the world’s biggest grower.

“At the time my father came here to the region of Sao Pedro da Uniao and Muzambinho in the 1930s, this was the new frontier for agriculture,” said Jose Candido Rodriguez. “I was the first son of eleven brothers and sisters. In other areas land was very expensive, but here my father was able to buy a little piece of land to plant coffee.”

This combination of abundant land cultivated with coffee combined with available labour would soon start to become the building stones for what over the next 85 years would develop into the world’s biggest coffee cooperative.

“Cooxupe started all the way back in 1932 with the foundation of the Agricultural Credit Cooperative, and this was what in 1957 was restructured into what we today know as the Cooxupe coffee cooperative,” Paulino da Costa said, adding, “since the early beginnings Cooxupe has been one of Brazil’s leading cooperatives and we have always taken pride in not just providing credit, but also focus on the well-being of the farmers and through technical assistance help them obtain the best possible returns from their crop.”

With the net share of the market price paid to growers reaching over 90 percent for members of Cooxupe, industry officials agree that it’s difficult to find other cooperatives elsewhere in the world that can match such a high return. The transparency of benefits and support that growers here have enjoyed from the cooperative is also credited as one of the main pillars behind the consistent growth of the coffee industry seen in Southern Minas since the 1930s.

“Southern Minas has continued to grow in importance in coffee with the help of Cooxupe’s leadership which has become the organization that has set the bar for all others to follow. Their continued success by always working on behalf of their producers’ best interest continues to be their best resource,” said Carl Leonard, vice president for green coffee at Community Coffee Company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Providing Support for Its Members

As Cooxupe is headed toward its 85th anniversary in 2017 new growers continue to join as members every year and the prosperity that producers here in Southern Minas have seen might be the best guarantee the global market will ever get as far as Brazil’s future coffee production is concerned. Because in spite of the multiple challenges from the increasingly negative effects of climate change and a volatile market, the support from Cooxupe provides the tools for farmers to grow a sustainable future.

“I joined the cooperative in 1972, and until that time Nova Resende was a small town, there still weren’t any roads or infrastructure and it wasn’t until 1984 when Cooxupe came and set up a local service center that we got the first telephone in the town,” said Jose Cardoso, an 82-year-old grower in the town of about 16,500 people.

“Nova Resende has had an enormous transformation, all via coffee, and all because of the support and growth that has come with Cooxupe that has taken Nova Resende from extreme poverty to a city and region of progress and development,” said Cardoso. He noted that the cooperative helped open up a market for coffee there and helped them get better prices, financing and technical assistance. “So even if we are mostly small growers with just two to six hectares of land, we are committed to continue to grow coffee and improve both our productivity and quality.”

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