Waking up to Coffee and a Better Life

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Children from the comarca

 Ngäbe-Buglé children.


Ngäbe-Buglé is a comarca, or indigenous territory, located in northwestern Panama and characterized by mountainous terrain and poor soil. It is home to the largest indigenous population in Panama,156,747 strong, according to the 2010 census, and comprising two distinct peoples, the Ngäbe and the Buglé.

The Ngäbe-Buglé constitute one of the most impoverished ethnic groups in Panama. Its residents subsist from farming communal land degraded by overuse. Their meager income from farming does not cover basic needs, compelling many to migrate as laborers to commercial farms in Panama and in Costa Rica. Coffee, the only local crop with significant market value, has not yielded sufficient benefits for these farmers whose isolation and poor roads force them to accept the dictates of the few intermediaries who would venture into the comarca. Farmers entering the migratory labor stream often take their families along, disrupting their children’s education.

Asociación de Profesionales Agropecuarios Ngäbe-Buglé (APANB), a grassroots association of indigenous Panamanian professionals trained in agriculture, submitted a proposal to the Inter-American Foundation (IAF) in 2000 aimed at improving coffee yields and quality, increasing income and introducing organic farming methods. Participating communities were selected based on their experience in producing organic coffee in collaboration with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), the official German aid agency. The project was to involve 60 farmers and also reach 90 women who would receive training in making crafts.

APANB planned to sell organic coffee in bulk under contract to large Panamanian enterprises, bypassing intermediaries who had exploited the farmers. To accomplish this, APANB would work with two Ngäbe-Buglé grassroots organizations, Asociación de Productores de Café de Dupi (Urraca) and Asociación de Cafecultores Ngäbe (ASCON). In 2001, the IAF awarded APANB a grant of $167,538 to be disbursed over three years. APANB’s original commitment of $39,119 in counterpart fell short by $4,799 but other donors contributed $116,788 or $2,179 more than originally committed.


In 2012, a team of evaluators visited the comarca to determine the impact of grant activities, especially certification and marketing. Findings include the following:

  • APANB surpassed its original goal to develop two-hectares of new coffee plants, using organic technologies, on the farms of 60 producers. Instead,186 Ngäbe farmers began applying the methods after attending workshops and receiving related technical assistance. Of those, 101 farmers, with 237 hectares of coffee, received organic certification in 2005.
  • Organic certification from Bio Latina, an association accredited by the United States Department of Agriculture, enabled growers to market their coffee to international buyers paying better prices.
  • Sales of organic coffee grew from $10,400 in 2004 to $65,500 in 2008, when El Puente, a German importer bought 364 quintals.
  • Cooperativa La Esperanza de los Campesinos, a former IAF grantee, is the principal domestic buyer and distributor of coffee produced by APANB farmers. It bought 12 quintals in 2004, and 93 quintals in 2008, the largest purchase to date. In 2012, domestic sales fell to 20 quintals due to severe weather that reduced the harvest.
  • APANB did not meet its goal to increase yields from three quintals to 15 quintals per hectare by the third year of the grant period. Although there were a few exceptions, for most farmers the increase was half of that target.
  • APANB collaborated with former IAF grantee Fundación para la Promoción de la Mujer (FUNDAMUJER) on training 90 women in dyeing material and making traditional dresses and handicrafts. Their success at earning more income attracted other women, Eventually 210 artisans were trained; women from the original cohort trained the newcomers.
  • The average price for handmade chaquiras, or necklaces, and traditional nagua dresses increased 14.8 percent and 33.5 percent, respectively, between the start of the project in 2001 and its end in 2006. By 2012, the price of a nagua averaged 59 percent more than in 2001 while chaquiras sold for 32 percent more. Although many factors were at play, the women attribute the increases to better craftsmanship because of skills acquired in APANB’s workshops.
  • A survey conducted at the time of the evaluation revealed that the artisans spent their income from crafts on food, education, home improvements and other goods and services, in that order. 

 El Puente GmbH, a German importer, labels Ngäbe coffee Café de Panamá
 Artisans showing their crafts

 Artisans showing their handicrafts



The most noticeable impact of better coffee quality, organic certification and new marketing arrangements was the reduction of seasonal migration from the comarca. Seventy percent of the 186 participating farmers used to abandon their land on a regular basis to work in Costa Rica or in Boquete, Renacimiento, Volcán and Cerro Punta, Panama. By 2006, the migration rate dropped to 10 percent; it was only 3 percent in 2012.  

Not having to migrate meant children were no longer pulled from school, bringing stability to their young lives.

Ngäbe producers also changed their farming practices. Migration cycles left the Ngäbe-Buglé with little time to work their own land, which would normally involve seed selection, pruning, shade management and the application of fertilizer or insecticide. Poor production and quality resulted in low prices. The organic practices promoted by APANB improved production, prices and the environment.

The project has a positive impact on Ngäbe-Buglé women participants. Many could sew but used their skills mainly for making or patching their own traditional dresses. Those they made for sale did not sell well due to shabby workmanship. APANB’s assistance improved the quality of their products and the prices they commanded. The women acquired marketing skills along with the confidence to deal effectively with buyers, especially tourists.

APANB‘s professional are trained in agronomy. Irene Gallegos, APANB’s director, was committed to ensuring that one day Ngäbe-Buglé growers would have their own label, which might spur economic development in the comarca. APANB used IAF funds to supply participating communities with the pulp-removal and drying equipment that enables growers to add value to coffee. APANB continued its successful working relation with GTZ, which had assisted Ngäbe farmers with organic production.

APANB’s collaboration with three grassroots organizations, ASCON, Urraca and Federación de Organizaciones Artesanales Ngäbe Buglé (FORANB), helped accomplish most goals of the project. ASCON and Urraca organized APANB’s workshops for the respective communities and facilitated follow-up extension. Midway through the IAF grant, the two farmer associations merged under the ASCON banner, so they were no longer competing to market their members’ coffee.

ASCON became the principal buyer of the farmers’ coffee and, more importantly, changed the way farmers sold their production. By collecting coffee and marketing in volume, ASCON could sell directly to El Puente and La Esperanza and producers could avoid middlemen. Gallegos’s dream came true when El Puente began selling Ngäbe-Buglé coffee in Germany under the Café de Panamá label.

Before receiving APANB’s technical assistance, farmers in the comarca did not use organic techniques. The traditional slash-and-burn method took a toll on the ecosystem. Forested land became worked as agricultural land, contributing to its degradation and fueling poverty in the comarca.

Ngäbe-Buglé farmers easily adapted to organic practices. Their coffee had always been free of chemicals as they could not afford toxic fertilizers and pesticides. They learned to make fertilizer from byproducts left after processing the coffee cherry. As their income rose, other farmers began to try to emulate the success of their neighbors by applying organic practices. Attitudes toward conservation changed. Before participating in APANB’s project, Ladislao De Gracia said, “conservation was not important because it did not generate income.” Seeing the results made him a believer.

Through training, farmers learned the hazards of coffee wastewater, a byproduct of processing that can pollute water. Care in handling wastewater helped not only farmers but their communities as well.

 GDF levels in pyramid graphic

The results of APANB’s project were collected and analyzed using the Grassroots Development Framework (GDF). The GDF measures results on three levels: the individual or family level; the organization or grantee level, and the community or society level. At the lower level of the cone, the project positively impacted the lives of close to 400 indigenous families as measured by tangible indicators such as basic needs, training, jobs and income; and the intangible indicators of cultural identity and self-esteem. At the mid-level, APANB reported on resource mobilization and partnerships on the tangible side of the cone. It received high marks for accountability or access to information. APANB did not report on any indicators corresponding to the upper or community level, but activities had a positive impact on the target population when migration was nearly eliminated.



APANB is no longer active. After its leader was elected to the National Assembly in 2009, APANB became entangled in internal strife. Fortunately for the growers, ASCON assumed many of APANB’s functions, including payment for the certification process, which has continued thanks to coffee sales and aid from foreign donors, including, most recently, the Spanish government’s foreign assistance entity Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional (AECI).

Farmers continue to use organic practices and domestic and international clients continue to purchase their mountain-grown, certified coffee.

FORANB, an association formed by the artisans, also disbanded as conflicted members withdrew from the association. Casa Artesanal, their outlet for marketing handicrafts to the public, went into foreclosure. Despite the setbacks, the artisans continue to operate, selling directly to customers. 

What worked: Coffee producers adopted organic practices due, in part, to APANB’s extensive training and related assistance offered by technicians who were from the comarca and spoke the Ngäbe-Buglé language.

Growers also noticed improvement in the quality of their beans after applying the new technology and began receiving better prices. More income meant that families did not have to migrate, which brought other coffee producers into their ranks.

What did not work: The departure of APANB’s charismatic director, internal strife and the inability to mobilize funds led to APANB’s demise.

Without the ongoing assistance of APANB’s technicians, the farmers’ commitment to channeling coffee through ASCON weakened. APANB’s disappearance created a vacuum, which prompted the return of middlemen intent on exploitation.

The yield per hectare did not increase nor did total production. APANB’s planners might have been unrealistic in expecting an increase from just over three quintals per hectare to 15 per hectare, considering the labor required and farmers’ inability to hire workers due to lack of resources. Productivity is usually increased through intensive shade regulation, pruning, the renovation of plants and the biannual clearing of underbrush, all labor-intensive operations. On average, the organic yield rose to 7.1 quintals per hectare by the end of 2005. The yield is now at 5.7 quintals and for 2012-13 it is expected to drop to 4.9 quintals and possibly below that.

Total production increased slightly, but not to the level that APANB anticipated. The land the farmers work is owned by the comarca. They cannot buy land adjacent to their plots. To increase the area cultivated, they must clear plots far from their small holdings, which would be impracticable. 

Conclusions: For the indigenous farmers who believed they could benefit from organic technologies and changes to processing and marketing, APANB’s project was a godsend. The same holds true for the women artisans, who worked to improve their traditional designs and craftsmanship. Unfortunately internal conflicts doomed APANB and FORANB, but ASCON, the producers’ own grassroots marketing association, continues to thrive. So do the artisans, who individually sell their crafts in hotels and stores and at fairs.

To request the full evaluation (only in Spanish), email inquiries@iaf.gov