I spent 9 days living in a Ngöbe indigenous reserve in the Bocas del Toro province on Panama’s Northern Caribbean coast. Not too many miles from the Costa Rican border, it’s a whole new ball game, with a new place, new people, and a new plant.
Panama is relatively new on the coffee scene; it’s often referred to as an “industry teenager.” Sandwiched between the established Costa Rican trade and the even more established Colombian behemoth, Panama is still figuring out its place in the coffee world, and is certainly hasn’t yet reached its full potential.
Panama’s land area is small, but it has the same fertile volcanic soil as its neighboring coffee producing nations and enjoys similar coffee-conducive climates. But the land ownership is markedly different than the smallholder more or less equitable breakdown in Costa Rica: a significant portion of the in Panama land is divvied up into comarcas belonging to several of the country’s indigenous tribes.
One such land holding group is the Ngöbe (pronounced roughly “no-bay”). They live in communities (such as the one I visited) within the comarca in modest palm-thatch roofed houses home typically large families (think an average of 8+ kids). Many speak Spanish too, but all speak Ngöbere, their native language (which is nothing like Spanish). Recently, lots of Ngöbe communities branched out from growing subsistence root vegetable and exportable bananas to also start farming coffee.
But, the plant they grow is something apart from the Arabica grown on the cool Tico mountainsides to the north: Panamanian Ngöbes farm Robusta.
Coffee can be subdivided into endless categories based on origin, flavor, tree varietal (cultivar, if you’re so inclined), and then further categorized based on processing and roasting. But the simplest division made between coffees is the gaping ravine carved between Arabica and Robusta.
Arabica tree varieties are considered to yield the “higher quality” fruit that produces quality, flavorful cups of coffee. Though higher in caffeine, Robusta is seen as the inferior quality plant. Arabica has more to offer in the cup, but it’s a much more fragile plant and more difficult to cultivate and coax to high levels of production. In perhaps the boldest of simplifications, Robusta is robust. It grows anywhere*, can take a lot more heat (literally), and produces higher yields. In recent years Robusta’s biggest growers- Brazil and Vietnam- have been trying to narrow the ravine and turn out flavorful Robustas that offer a tasty cup. Even if the reality of Robusta’s flavor potential improves, it will still be used as ‘filler’ in blends and carry the stigma of living in the shadow of its overachieving sister, Arabica.
*Robusta can’t really grow everywhere, but its range of happy homes feels like anywhere compared to the steep demands of Arabica. Robusta can withstand full sun and can be grown right at sea level, whereas Arabica demands elevations of at least 800 meters. Its roots inherently reach deeper and grasp the ground more firmly, and it will germinate practically overnight in soil as contaminated as this- right in the middle of run off from kitchen and latrine waste.
In the Ngöboe community I visited, Bahia Ballena, Robusta farms are tucked into every available corner of land, even pockets of the jungle that seem far from arable. Some farmers have fincas hours up into the mountains, on hillsides deep into the comarca wilderness, bien metido, as they say. Others have farms tucked into the eerie depths of mangroves, with coffee planted on soft, muddy, malleable soil, which, after about 6 feet, reveals the salt water of the Caribbean.
I spent 4 months on Costa Rican coffee farms and never once saw the ocean- in a country named for its ample coast lines. For people who grow temperamental Arabica, visiting Robusta farms is like jumping through a wormhole and experiencing some wild alternative reality too far-fetched to even have been considered. (The absence of Robusta in Costa Rica is no accident; twenty-some years ago the Costa Rican government passed legislation making it illegal to grow Robusta. All existing Robusta plants were ripped up and replaced with Arabica in an effort to make any and all “Costa Rican coffee” synonymous with “high-quality coffee.”)
Because the Panamanian coffee industry is still developing, the simultaneous concentration of processing and ignorance at production levels looks a lot like Colombia did 30 or 40 years ago; farmers have no idea where their coffee goes or what it’s worth on any external market. They merely sell to the (often only) available middleman for whatever price he’s giving, and he then hauls their coffee hours away to the country’s few dry mills, exporters, and domestic roasters, all concentrated in a handful of urban centers.
The beneficio collective processing mill system of Costa Rica is absent in Panama (and pretty much everywhere else in the world, for that matter). Here, farmers process the initial stages of coffee themselves before handing it over to the middle men. The low tech version of this is natural coffee; coffee that is simply laid out on a sheet of corrugated metal (think the sheets of zinc used for tropical roofs) and left in its pulpy skin to dry in the sun for a few days. One notch up would be laying it out inside a raised and covered bed, eliminating the need to pull the sheets of fruit covered metal in out of the rain. When coffee dries out in its own shell (called locally cereza negra for the black color of dried coffee cherries) the sugars develop differently, thus generating different tastes. In terms of the global market, natural coffees- be they Arabicas or Robustas- are not as generally desirable as depulped and washed coffees.
In the void of the beneficio the cajuela and the fanega disappear as well, but Panamanian growers also sell by volume. This time it’s by lata, a full-to-the-brim 10 gallon bucket. In order to earn a few more dollars per lata, some farmers do separate the bean from the fruit in the next notch up (and the highest-tech) processing carried out by the growers: depulped coffee that is churned through a depulper like this and then also laid out to dry.
Even though Panamanian Robusta is grown at much lower altitudes than any Arabicas, it has a much more cumbersome journey from plant to preliminary processing point. Most Costa Rican farms are accessible by (sturdy AWD) truck, and those that are most remote, by ox cart or horse. This is not the case in the comarca. Mountain fincas are accessible only by vertical, mud slick mountain trails; mangrove fincas by narrow hand-carved canoes maneuvering through shallow canals, followed by a healthy paddle through the open Carribean back to the community. For farmers in Bahia Ballena to process their robusta- even when the process is as simple as laying it on that piece of zinc to dry in the sun, someone has to haul it down the mountain or paddle it in a boat. Sometimes even both.
Coffee is always the product of lots of human labor, but none I’ve seen to date matches the physical exertion demanded by Ngöbe plots of Robusta. Costa Ricans are no strangers to hauling sacks of coffee long distances; they often have to lug the bags of cherries up similar near-vertical, mud-slick mountainsides to get them to the central point for the medida (and the vehicle that will get the coffee from the cafetal to the beneficio). But in the comarca there aren’t any vehicles. The work elsewhere done by Toyota Hi Lux, pair of oxen, or trusty pack horse, is here done by men, from teenagers to grandfathers.