A sprint through Fair Trade – catching up on some visits

I thought I was blogging at a good pace, like my cycling (ok, almost). But it seems to have veered off a little and I’m trying to catch up. I can measure the difference between where my blog is at and where I am at, in countries…so having just taken care of Nicaragua, I realise I’m four countries behind now. Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador.

Not wishing to take until 2013 to get my blog all up to date, I’m going to give a quick rundown of some of my last visits, just to give an idea of where I’ve been recently. Later I’ll return to these places to provide a few more details.

  • Costa Rica: CoopeAgri & APPTA

I had two visits in Costa Rica. One was to a coffee co-operative (CoopeAgri) and the other a cacao co-op (APPTA). Both are certified Fair Trade. CoopeAgri is located about three hours’ south of San Jose, the capital. The co-op forms a major part of the town and surrounding communities and has existed for 50 years. They produce coffee and sugar, and operate many other ventures within the town, including local banking, a petrol station, hardware stores and a new cafe. Uniquely, the town, San Isidro de El General (also known as Perez Zeleton) is an official “Fair Trade Town”. I found it a successful co-op and is a great example of how a co-op can be a positive influence within a community.

At the CoopeAgri beneficio. This is outside the coffee lab. There is a huge coffee processing facility and offices here too
The new CoopeAgri coffee shop in San Isidro centre

APPTA is located in the remote northeast of Costa Rica, right by the Caribbean coast. It’s a cacao exporter, and the producers also grow bananas and other fruit and vegetables for local and national markets. I visited their hot and humid cacao processing facility & office, just outside the town of Bribri. They export Fair Trade cacao and also have a nursery for cultivating fruit and vegetables for local and national markets. Bananas are also a major part of their operation. The highlight, without doubt, was tasting some fresh cacao pulp right off the tree. It’s completely different to what we think about cacao – citrus flavour, sweet and so refreshing.

The APPTA nursery. Plants here are cultivated within the coop and also sold to members.
Fermenting cacao. To get from the sweet, lovely citrus to the sweet, lovely cacao smells, you have to put up with a few days of pretty unpleasant-smelling fermentation
At APPTA I got to chew on fresh cacao. Citrusy, sweet and delicious
  • Panama: COCABO (Cacao)

COCABO is a Fair Trade cacao co-operative that has existed for 60 years. It’s the oldest co-op in Panama. Located in Almirante, in the remote northwest corner of Panama, it’s a Fair Trade co-op that exports organic cacao and also cultivates bananas for sale within Panama. I met various people, including the indomitable Elma, who’s worked there for more than 25 years. She’s seen it all, and felt ambivalent about the benefits of Fair Trade. I was surprised at her philosophical attitude, and her humour outweighed her negativity over some aspects of Fair Trade, such as the minimum price and how much help the Fair Trade social premium provides.

COCABO have nice bags for their cacao
Elma at the COCABO office. Funny, open and caustic, she had a lot to say
A cacao grower takes a siesta. It's tiring work dealing with this heat..
  • Colombia: Fruandes (dried fruit), Jaime Marin (coffee), Factoria Quinoa (quinoa), Fondo Paez (coffee)

Fruandes (Frutos de los Andes) has a processing office in Bogota. Actually I couldn’t tell what it was originally, but I was told that it was probably a house. Hidden within, tardis-like, seemed like a secret hive of fruit, delicious aromas of mango and some very very busy people in white coats. The mango harvest was late this year so it was a mad scramble to get the mangos dried, packed and shipped out. I arrived on the day they were shipping a lorry-load to Vancouver. Chaotic was understating it, but it was all being done in good spirits.

Up to our ears in mangos, the aroma was heavenly. But it's not easy work, chopping and slicing
After the chopping comes the drying, sorting and packing. Et voila!
The improvised loading system. Ugly, but it worked
You don't have to like mangos to work here, but it definitely helps if you do

Also in Bogota, in a tiny office out of the centre is where Factoria Quinoa is located. Luis Avella is the man behind it. He was more than busy; I barely got to speak to him over a hurried lunch. He’s an entrepreneur who came out of academia to start up his company. He has written and lectured about Fair Trade for many years, but felt the best way to help people was to start up his own company. Factoria Quinoa sources quinoa from small growers in southern Colombia. The company focus is on quinoa as a health food, so they make quinoa ‘powder’ as well as quinoa grain.

One of the highlights of my trip was spending a couple of days in Jardin. It’s a very small town south of the city of Medellin. Tucked in amongst the surrounding Andes mountains, it is a refreshing, tranquil spot to relax in. The beautiful town square had me wanting to just sit there and drink coffee all day, much as some of the locals undoubtedly do.

Jaime at his finca, high above Jardin. We also had his labourer and an inspector from National Coffee Federation
Jaime at the casa of the finca, with a nice mural of his farm on one side of the building
Jaime with his daughter Veronica on the balcony of their home in Jardin

On my way south, a little distance from the city of Cali (home of salsa, apparently), is the coffee co-op Fondo Paez. I visited their newly-acquired office (a house, really) in the town of Santander de Quilichao. They are an indigenous co-operative of “Nasa” people with around 460 growers who live up in the surrounding highlands. It was basic stuff, almost no furniture, plastic chairs, a dot-matrix printer whirring in the background…Celio, one of the co-op directors chatted to me throughout. It was obvious to me that they have a tough life, but he said Fair Trade has helped give the co-op some better opportunities, such as the office where I met them.

At Fondo Paez I met Celio (left) and Salvador (President). It is an indigenous co-operative in the highlands of southern Colombia
Celio showed me some old photos from previous visitors to the co-op
The Fondo Paez staff at the office. They have their own coffee for within Colombia that uses an indigenous name
  • Ecuador: Nevado Roses (roses), CADO (alcohol!), COPROBICH (quinoa), Pachacuti (panama hats), FAPECAFES (coffee)

Ecuador is a rich treasure of many many things. I got lucky to have such a diverse experience with my Fair Trade visits. I got to learn about three completely new Fair Trade products, roses, alcohol and hats, and also got a closer look at Fair Trade quinoa. My visit to Ecuador was rounded off with a coffee visit.

The roses I saw were amazing, fantastic quality long-stem roses. John Nevado is a comitted Fair Trade producer, but he has many reservations about the process. Who wouldn’t like Fair Trade alcohol?? CADO is an alcohol producer, though at the moment the alcohol they produce is for cosmetics. They have plans to make alcoholic drinks, so let’s hope the BC Liquor Board gets its act together one day to allow us to bring more Fair Trade booze to sell in Vancouver. COPROBICH is a quinoa co-op in the heart of the country and I got a better idea of how it’s produced and even got to see my first quinoa plant! Further south, near Cuenca, is the co-op AMTA. They supply directly to the UK company Pachacuti, a Fair Trade hat company. It’s a group of less than a dozen women that make panama hats (and many other styles too). The region is a large producer of hats, and this was a unique chance to see Fair Trade here. I rounded off my Ecuador trip with a visit to a coffee co-op and I felt right at home again amongst the coffee bushes. Ecuador is not a major coffee producer but FAPECAFES is a large producer association (1700 growers) in the Loja region, close to the Peruvian border.

Nevado roses....amazing flowers here. Huge stems, beautiful colours
Hard at work cutting and packing the flowers
It's cold work too, the workers are all geared up to cope with the 5C temperatures in the packing area
Fair Trade roses: they look pretty good in a vase
In Riobamba I spent time at the quinoa co-op, COPROBICH. Avelino, the President, is in the middle
With COPROBICH I got to see my first ever quinoa plants. They're hardy buggers, growing at altitudes where almost nothing else will
Being a quinoa farmer is not easy, but great care is taken in the process. We met these producers by the roadside, sieving quinoa grains
Fair Trade hat-making. Maria sewing labels
Once the hats are made in a basic shape, the edges need to be trimmed. The ladies here tend to switch around in the different work activities
The women (and their children) eat lunch together every day, and I was lucky to be invited for lunch too
At the FEPECAFES office in Loja, southern Ecuador
I met Martin at FAPECAFES, who was a great help arranging my visit to see some producers
One of the producers at home; the whole operation is here, hand-done - depulping, washing and drying. The drying beds are in the background
Here's the coffee washing. The bloke on the left, our taxi driver, luckily didn't get involved
Then we visited another producer. This bare patch has newly-planted yucca. The coffee was growing all around us


Football, Ecuadorian style

Football. Best game on the planet. I’ve seen many games in England and the odd one or two in Vancouver. One thing on my list during this trip was to try to catch a live game somewhere. It proved difficult to be in the right place at the right time, but the stars eventually aligned and I got an opportunity to see a match in Quito, home of Deportivo Quito. The competition was the Copa Libertadores America (the South American equivalent of the European Champions League) and the opposition on the night was Velez Sarsfield from Argentina (I have no idea who they are either).

I hoped it would be a good game, certainly different from what I’d experienced before. And it was…from the crush of getting into the stadium, where half of it was closed and so fans had restricted points of entry and impatience reigned. We were packed into one side of the stadium, a decrepit-looking thing, though the views of the nearby mountains, with aircraft flying under the backdrop, made a stunning panorama. I was seated on bare concrete not far from the hardcore fans. The flags and banners were out, and the huge bass drums were being readied. Fencing surrounded the pitch, which was a shock. I can’t imagine fan safety was ever a priority for these occasions.

As the game was about to start, Velez got a typical away-team reception of a chorus of boos. There wasn’t a single away fan, unsurprisingly. The Quito chants were underway, the flares were lit and the drums rolled.

Into the game and I notice the differences. The pace is slow, like treacle. There’s little goalmouth action. The funniest part is when the referee, miles behind the play, books a Velez player when he made a foul. Just as I’ve seen on television many times, the ref races over and dramatically shoves the yellow card in the Velez player’s face. Hilarious. Right before the end of a desperately poor first half, a Quito player hoofs the ball downfield towards the Velez area, a real up-and-under. The Quito forward gives chase and falls inside the Velez penalty area. Diving, surely? No, the ref (again, miles behind play) agrees with the linesman’s flag to give a penalty to Quito. The fans go absolutely mad and the penalty is duly converted, 1-0. Then the flares really got going. A dozen of them. The fans chant, the drums bang louder. I’m surprised when some riot police jog onto the pitch to accompany the ref when he blows the half-time whistle.

It quietens down quickly, and the food vendors walk up and down the aisles selling their snacks. Nothing vegan, though, so I skip the offerings. I notice one young lad, shirtless, carrying a fire extinguisher, and wonder how he managed to smuggle it in. Quickly though, I spot several more lads with them. The players come out, and the extinguishers are let off in unison. Colour-coordinated in pink and blue, the air is filled with dust. The flares had already gone out, so the fire risk was minimal, and then the CO2 dust rains down on the crowd.

The chants continue but the noise erupts once again when Quito score early in the second half. It looks like they can play after all. Later I notice the ref has a paint gun to mark the ’10 yard’ distance at free kicks. He carefully marks where the ball is to be set and where the opposing players can stand. What an idea! Why don’t they use that in the Premiership?? When one of the players feigns injury (sorry, that’s my prejudice – all players in South America feign injury…) a golf cart comes on to cart the player off. Needless to say he is absolutely fine.

The game peters out, despite another goal for Quito. They win 3-0 and the crowd are happy. The chants continued throughout the rest of the game. An estimated 9,000 were there, though it was hard to tell given how empty the stadium looked on the other sides. But I didn’t care. It had been quite an experience for me and I enjoyed it, despite having to sit out in the cool mountain air. It wasn’t as good as English football, but you try telling that to the thousands of Quito fans who left the stadium, paying 10 cents to use the toilet on their way out.

Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera, so here’s another picture of Carlos Valderrama…

Carlos Valderrama is Colombian, but you just can't beat that hairstyle

Fair Trade Cotton, Managua, Nicaragua: Zona Franca Masili

I almost surprised Julia, the co-ordinator of Zona Franca Masili (Free Trade Zone Masili). We had vague arrangements to meet, and I showed up on the afternoon we had tentatively agreed upon. However, I mistakenly went next door first, to the occupant’s complete surprise. Talking to the screen door I said hello but needed to go inside to see exactly who I was talking to, and found an old American woman telling me off. “You know this is someone’s house”, she warbled as I tried to make my way through her front room. Not quite the central American welcome I was used to. But to be fair, it was my mistake. I’d found the residence of the Jubilee House Community (JHC), a charity that helped the women’s cotton co-operative get started.

Julia and I sat down and she told me a the story of the co-op. “Zone Franca Masili” origins arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, in 1998. The local area was devasted and the displaced people were relocated to a new community (Nueva Vida) a few km outside of Managua. Following relocation, unemployment levels within the wider community were as high as 80%. A US non-profit organisation (NGO), JHC, then looked into ways of helping the people here, and a sewing co-operative was established. It took time and hard work to get the foundations ready – literally in this case, as the women took 2 years to build the sewing warehouse themselves – but by 2001, COMAMNUVI (Cooperativa Maquiladora Mujeres de Nueva Vida Internacional RL), as it was originally called, was able to get started. From 2005, the co-operative established itself as a worker-owned “Free Trade Zone”, the first of its kind in the world (though they call it a “Fair Trade Zone”).

The cotton they use is organic and sourced from Peru. Julia said that they are trying a new initiative to source the cotton from within Nicaragua. The co-op started out as a women’s co-op but today there are a few male members as well. They work Monday to Friday and on Saturdays there are opportunities to study. Producing clothes gives the members a long-term job, not seasonal work that many were accustomed to before. They receive annual health checks and access to medicine, as well as small amounts of credit if needed. The members live across the road in a co-op community.

One of their major clients is the US company Maggie’s Organics, who have been buying their products since the beginning. They also export garments to Canada and Germany.

Cotton does not work like coffee and cacao, for example, in that there is no Fair Trade label on each end product or no minimum price for the products they sell. The co-op is a member of the WFTO (World Fair Trade Organisation) so adheres to Fair Trade ‘principles’. The monthly salary they receive (approx $150) is low by our standards, but it is a considerable improvement on what a lot of people earn there, and significantly better than what they started out paying themselves (as little as $2/day initially).

Julia showed me where the real work happens. I met a few of the ladies who were stitching, sewing, packing or otherwise keeping busy, though it was quiet. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly; the women clearly seemed to enjoy what they were doing. I saw plenty of t-shirts hanging up and some really interesting designs.

It was obvious from my travels to and from the co-op that many people in the neighbouring areas do not have opportunities like the people at Masili. My short time in Nicaragua reminded me a lot of Guatemala. Most people in the country struggle to make an adequate living and assistance from outside NGOs is common. Initiatives like Zona Franca Masili are encouraging and an important lifeline that allows members and their families the opportunity to make a life a little above the bare minimum. It’s not much, but it provides them with some dignity and the hope that their families and children can make a better life. Julia is optimistic about the future and has expectations to help grow the co-operative and the number of families that benefit from it.

This quote about the founding of the co-operative is an inspiring one: “This phase [the construction] was very difficult for us and many of our families told us that we must be crazy to invest so much in a project that would never have results. But when we look at our successes, it fills us with provide in our work and hope for the future of our cooperative“.

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Jinotega, northwest Nicaragua: Fair Trade coffee – SOPPEXCCA

Dona Marlena walked on ahead of me, her young daughter trailing behind us as if being pulled by a wayward piece of rope. She spoke rapidly and I tried to keep up and my mind focused. A member of a Fair Trade co-op, she was happy to take me on a wander around her small finca to show me what her farm looked like.

I wasn’t expecting this. Earlier in the day I managed to negotiate Nicaragua’s unique addressing system to find the co-op office and cafe, having had good practice when in Esteli. It’s quite bizarre. Buildings are addressed with reference to local landmarks, whether or not they still exist. In this case, the “landmark” was a large hardware store.

When I arrived I was most interested in the cafe. “Flor de Jinotega”, a cafe run by associates of the SOPPEXCCA co-op, is another great example of promoting Fair Trade coffee within the local community. Fatima, the manager of SOPPEXCCA was out when I arrived, so I comforted myself with a cup of coffee in the cafe, hoping to catch her in the afternoon. In the meantime I looked around in the cafe and smiled again that the community was able to make this cafe a reality. It promotes local coffee, the co-operative, helps generate better quality coffee production and gives the producers more opportunity to diversify and increase their income through different opportunities.

Luckily, just before I left I met Eric. He told me that Fatima would be there just after lunch and that there would be an opportunity to visit a finca in the afternoon. Result!

I met Eric after lunch and we headed off to meet some producers. The customary mode of local transport, apart from buses, is a motorbike. So I hopped on the back, without a helmet (yes, I know) and off we went. First stop was Dona Marlena, one of the co-op’s women producers. When we arrived we saw her husband and a couple of other guys finishing up some wood to help build a new ‘dwelling’ next to the main living area. It’s not a house, by any stretch. Marlena took Eric and I on a little tour of her finca. We saw her coffee plot and other crops she grows, such as corn, beans and bananas. She has 5 manzanas (about 3 hectares).

Marlena’s husband pointed out that although Fair Trade coffee prices are higher, he doesn’t feel any better off because the family has to pay more for other food they have to buy. They have their own ‘wet-mill’ processor at the farm, which makes it a little cheaper than using the one at the main beneficio.

She has been six years in Fair Trade though she still has conventional conventional production (not organic). It’s a family farm, as her parents produced coffee. At harvest time she hires up to 50 outside workers (which she would do whether even if not in Fair Trade). It’s expensive, but she needs to do it. Marlena is yet another producer who has noticed the effects of a changing climate and she says it’s not in a good way. harvests in a bad way. As we walked back to her home, she pointed out an area where she intends to plant more coffee this year – 3,000 plants!

When I asked Marlena about the benefits of Fair Trade, she told me there were several things. A good price, coordination and organisation within the co-operative, help (technical assistance) with production. One problem is that she gets paid once per year, in June, when all the coffee has been bought by Fair Trade importers.

After Dona Marlena, Eric took me to a new (last year) beneficio. It was small, but the guys were hard at work in the rain. Mauricio gave me the lowdown…when he wasn’t being interrupted by the constant ringing of his mobile phone. The new site helps the farmers in that area process their coffee more easily. Beforehand, they either processed by themselves or had to drive longer distances for processing. Unusually at this particular site, there was no drying patio because the area’s unique micro-climate made it susceptible to wet weather…as I saw for myself! The beneficio is able to minimise its water consumption by recycling. Typically ‘wet processing’ of coffee uses large amounts of water.

I eventually got some time to chat to Fatima, right at the end of the day. She looked busy and tired, yet made an effort to talk with me. She was very open and smiling, which I thought was genuine, even though it was clear that after our talk had finished she still had a lot to do. Our chat was quite business-like, and I felt a sense that I was imposing on her workday. But really I am grateful she gave me the time she did.

Nicaraguan coffee is highly rated, particularly coffee from La Estrella, which does well at the national Cup of Excellence competition. The cafe “Flor de Jinotega” opened five years ago and they have plans to open one in the capital, Managua, later this year. One difference about the coffee served at the cafe is that it is the same quality as the coffee they export. Typically in other co-ops they sell their lower quality coffee to local/national markets.

I saw parallels with Guatemala, in that outside charities and NGOs have a large prescence within the country. In SOPPEXCCA’s case, Christian Aid have a long-established relationship to assist the co-op.

Some SOPPEXCCA stats:

Nearly 30 years old, it’s an umbrella of 18 co-operatives, with 650 producers. They help 25 communities. It started with 68 producers. 20% is certified organic; 100% is Fair Trade. Export 16,000 quintals (100lb bags) annually.

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Esteli, northwestern Nicaragua: PRODECOOP and Miraflor Fair Trade co-ops

PRODECOOP. Yet another acronym that I could barely figure out the meaning of. Yet behind the letters there’s another well-established, well-run Fair Trade co-op that has done a lot to help the local communities in the area around northwestern Nicaragua. Located in Esteli, it is a large co-operative that was established almost 20 years ago.

I knew about PRODECOOP well before my visit. The lady who runs it, Merling Preza, is also President of CLAC, a pan-American Fair Trade organisation (see my post about Cafe Honor, in Honduras to find out a little more about CLAC). I hoped I’d meet Merling for her invaluable knowledge and expertise in Fair Trade. Unfortunately, being President of a co-operative, of CLAC and Cafenica (a collection of several Nicarguan co-operatives) means she is a busy person, and my luck was out. I did get to talk to Mayarling, a young lady who has been with PRODECOOP for six years and works to promote PRODECOOP coffee internationally. She introduced me to many staff at the office, where I got a quick “buenos dias” before rushing on to the next person. It all looked very professional, and in the typical Latin American way, when 12:00pm came around, it was like a buzzer had gone off, the way everyone stopped for lunch.

PRODECOOP has 2,300 members, a number that has remained steady for several years. It is a 100% Fair Trade co-op, with 50%  certified organic and 25% of its membership are women. Mayarling says it is difficult to get everybody to meet organic standards. They export virtually all of their coffee, mostly to US and Europe, although in the last few years they have begun exports to Venezuela. They also produce coffee for the Nicaraguan market, though the coffee is typically a lower standard than that which is exported. Their beneficio (processing area) is located north of the town. 50 employees work in the Esteli office and 12 at the beneficio.

PRODECOOP is a member of Cafenica, a group of 10 Nicaraguan co-operatives that together comprise more than 6,300 small producer members. By joining together, Cafenica is able to do more to help its members than the co-operatives could do separately. The two other co-ops I visited in Nicaragua, Miraflor and SOPPEXCCA, are also members of Cafenica.

The profile of PRODECOOP is quite high in Fair Trade circles, and I asked Mayarling how the co-operative has developed and its success with Fair Trade. It’s a combination of many things. They have good quality coffee – it does well in the national Cup of Excellence competitions. They have high production standards. Other projects are underway, such as the honey pilot project. 55 producers are involved and the project will try to make honey for export. Producers still grow other crops for themselves or to sell at local markets, such as maize, beans and citrus fruit.

The co-op has had a good harvest this year. Although climate change is a noticeable problem, particularly for producers’ own food they grow, there hasn’t been any unusual, devastating weather patterns this year. But when production is adversely affected, the co-op helps ensure producers can buy basic foods at good prices, rather than for higher, ‘black market’ prices.

One particular success that I saw, which comes from Fair Trade (the “social premium”), is being able to provide school backpacks for children. Last year over 3,000 were provided for all school levels. Mayarling gave me an exercise book that the co-op provided for children too. A new building was built at the beneficio with the Fair Trade social premium and assistance from the European HIVOS charity. Medical help, a health centre and technical assistance for farmers are also provided by the co-op. The co-op has good relationships with its buyers, together with long contracts. This is important for stability for the co-op.

One interesting comment Mayarling made was how Fair Trade has changed the way families managed the harvest. Before Fair Trade, children would help during harvest time. But the Fair Trade standard is no child labour (children under 15). So the families work more closely together now to ensure the coffee is picked in good time and that helps them avoid the expense of hiring labourers.

My brief time in Esteli also included a quick visit to Miraflor. Again, it was just an office location but I managed to talk to Marlon, who gave me a little overview of what Miraflor is all about.

Miraflor is a lot smaller than PRODECOOP, with around 600 members. It is a group of 11 co-operatives that cultivate organic coffee, but not just that. A large focus of Miraflor is in eco-tourism with plenty of opportunities for volunteers (most typically from developed countries). They also grow vegetables and a pilot project is underway to export potatoes to Venezuela.

Marlon, who looks young but seemed a little over-worked when I met him, often getting interrupted on his phone, has worked for Miraflor for 12 years and coordinates coffee production and eco-tourism. He was happily persistent in trying to convince me to visit their eco-tourist finca. He explained how important a successful eco-tourism project is to the co-op members. I did notice parallels in Nicaragua with Guatemala, in that many NGOs have interests here. Although I saw only glimpses of the most rural areas, many Nicaraguans have struggled through poverty over many years. External aid has brought many different projects and eco-tourism and volunteer opportunities are popular.

Typically a volunteer will spend 2 months situated in the countryside with the producers, living on or near one of the fincas, or with a family. They undertake work to help preserve nature and the environment. Over the years, deforestation (among other things) has had severe effects in many areas. By involving local people in these initiatives knowledge is shared and it helps to put the communities in a better position to help themselves.

When I asked Marlon about Fair Trade, he was a strong advocate for it. He has seen the evidence of it working and its value to the co-op communities. As well as helping the producer families themselves it also helps the environment. He did stress the need for Fair Trade to be well organised within the communities, particularly when the initiatives are starting. I had to agree with him – the most successful Fair Trade examples I have seen tend to have a strong commitment from the communities.

Benefits from Fair Trade that the co-op receive are spread throughout their communities, so everybody can benefit, not just co-op members, for example with health and education.

Coming away from Esteli having visited PRODECOOP and Miraflor I felt only partially satisfied with my visits. Talking to someone in an office was good, but I would have learned more from spending time with other producers in the countryside. I’m always grateful for the time I do get with people, but it can be hard to get a real feel for a co-operative when it’s a short meeting in an office.

Western Honduras to Nicaragua…in only two days

Sitting on the crowded bus, I marvelled at how quickly the miles passed and yet how I was missing all that was happening on the road. I could look out the window, but it wasn’t the same as seeing everything from the seat of my bicycle. But when the bus slowed to a virtual standstill, the driver ragging the gearing to get into first, I did feel slightly happier that I wasn’t riding up some steep mountain roads.

My few days in the Santa Rosa area in western Honduras were really interesting. But time was running out and I needed to make tracks towards Panama. It meant some long bus rides lay ahead. The first of which was getting to the Honduran captial, Tegucigalpa.

Santa Rosa parque central. Lovely square, nice church

Leaving Santa Rosa was a bit of a panic. For all the ‘laid-backness’ of the people in Central America, when it comes to bus travel, they somehow get over-excited and the bus ‘shouters’ make you feel like their bus is the most important place to be in the world. “You have to get on, now! (Even though we’re not leaving anytime soon…).” So I got into a bit of a tizzy trying to get my bike around to load her up, dumping my bags on the ground and making sure they treated her well when loading her up. I didn’t count on the blind taxi driver then driving over my bike bag. Argh! All a-fluster, I managed to get on the bus but then had 8 hours ahead to calm down…

Tegucigalpa was a place I wanted to spend as little time as possible. I heard negative things about it and the bus terminal was not in the nicest area of town. Arriving late afternoon I hope to be on my way first thing next morning. I didn’t get to see any of its nicer spots, unfortunately, so my experience is one-sided. I did get to wander about a little bit, but I was on edge almost the whole time. It’s a shame that I wasn’t able to see its good side, which it does have. My hotel was perfectly fine and safe, but I was glad it was a quiet Sunday morning when I left. I needed Plan B, as the bus to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital was full. It meant a bus to the border, skipping over and more buses from the other side. Not ideal, but getting to Esteli was do-able in a day.

Except…I get to the bus stop and they tell me they can’t take my bike. Unbelievable! I thought these bus people could take anything. Not this time, even though I waited for another bus. Eventually they pointed me over the road, to catch a different bus. It got me going, though not quite as far as I hoped. Eventually, after another bus ride, I was close to the border. I fancied cycling the remaining 15 km, even though it was uphill and I didn’t have much time that day. But it felt a lot easier than juggling the bike and the buses.

The border was its chaotic self. I even smiled at the $12 ‘tourist’ fee. Money changed, I saw the Nicaraguan bus. Relief! It was a “school bus”. This typically means anything goes, and with little fuss Edna was loaded up on the roof. We drove through more coffee country and I felt quite at home; the bus was packed, sweaty and jarring. But it was short, and I transferred to yet another bus in order to get to Esteli, my stop for the day. I timed it perfectly, after paying for tickets and toilets we were on our way again. This bus was a proper coach, so I got to sit back and reflect on my chaotic day. Four buses, a border crossing, an hour of cycling…and, very relieved, I made it to a simple but very nice hotel in Esteli just before dusk.

Nicaragua! The usual border chaos, but it was pretty straightforward

I was very relieved to get through El Salvador and Honduras. I’d heard plenty of negative things about each country, and though my experience was generally good, I always had a sense of caution in the back of my head. When even local people urged caution, as in El Salvador, it made me take notice. A couple of other cyclists I’d met in Mexico had their trip ended after later being robbed in Honduras. And though I was cautious, I had some very good experiences in both countries. The people were generally very welcoming, friendly and hospitable. Each country has a lot to offer visitors and I often felt that we listen to the media too closely when it comes to travelling. Sometimes you just have to put that to one side. The best way is to get out there and experience it for yourself.

Leaving Esteli...I was out before dawn

Las Capucas (COCAFCAL), Santa Rosa, Honduras. An excellent Fair Trade example

(to see some videos of my time here at Las Capucas, visit http://www.youtube.com/fairtradebikeride)

“The next bus is at 1pm”, the young lady in her rickety shack of a shop told me, as her young child buzzed around her by the doorway. “1pm? But it’s only 10am now”. “Si…but maybe you can hitch a lift before then.”

So I set out on foot up the dirt road. 14 km away was the co-operative Las Capucas (COCAFCAL). I figured I’d make it there by 1pm anyway, if no one showed up. However, my luck was in and my 2nd attempt at thumbing got me onto the back of a pick-up. “Las Capucas?” “Si, senor”. Great, I was going to make it. And after two bus rides already that morning, it meant it only took three hours to get there from Santa Rosa. It was certainly worth the trip.

This time I’d actually made arrangements with Jose Omar for my visit. Unfortunately by the time I showed up he was otherwise occupied and wouldn’t be back until late afternoon. However, there was more than enough there to keep me occupied and Jose Luiz took me to visit some producers in the afternoon. The producers I met that day could have been characters straight out of a cult film…Jose Isidro – Speedy Gonzalez, Pedro Romero with his illicit booze, and Francisco with one arm.

The Las Capucas story is inspiring. Established in 1999, Jose Luiz helped fund the start the co-operative and has been President for the last four years. It started with 24 producers. Now the co-op is 100% Fair Trade and organic certified (plus Rainforest Alliance and “4C”). Jose has lived in the area his whole life and is passionate about the area and the community. He’s seen the co-op through the hard years to build it up to what it is today, and he’s an award-winning producer himself too, placing 3rd nationally.

Jose took me to visit some producers, and when I got in the passenger seat of his truck, I gave the gun lying on the seat a dubious look. Jose sensed my apprehension, told me it is ‘useful’, but to my relief decided it would be better housed in the glove compartment.

The success of the co-op is down to Fair Trade, according to Jose Luiz. Investments in the health centre, school, library, football pitch and the construction underway on my visit, were not possible without Fair Trade. He has been able to get a very committed response from the community, not just the producers, and that has made a big difference. Their buyers come back year on year and they are also investing in tourism, with three modern cabanas almost complete.

Some really effective initiatives include the electronic/virtual library for the community’s education, their branding is consistent and modern, a well-run website. The internal annual ‘cupping’ competition encourages improved production from the producers and their education. External buyers are invited as well, which cements those relationships.

As I waited for the crowd to return Jose Luiz kept an eye on his Facebook page and seemed to be chortling away at whatever was amusing him. It’s not something I quite expected, but then my day was full of the unexpected.

I was told that Jose Omar was out with a ‘delegation’ for the day. It included people from the national coffee federation and a coffee buyer, a Swiss guy. Knowing I could get a lift all the way back to Santa Rosa with them, I stayed until they arrived back. Enrico, the Swiss buyer, was a beanpole of a man with a pencil, greying moustache. However, he was easy to talk to and said he really enjoys his job (well, who wouldn’t…). He didn’t let on about who he worked for and we only got a little chat in the car on the way back. I’d have loved to have learned more.

What really convinced me that this is a really good example of Fair Trade in action is the commitment of the co-operative and the ‘buy-in’ that they have from the community. The area is quite isolated and yet the community is doing well and continues to make improvements to the lives of the people there. With everyone having a vested interest in the success of the project, there’s a greater incentive to see it succeed. I’d seen eco-tourism initiatives in other co-ops that didn’t look like they would immediately succeed, but this one appeared different to me. They regularly try to meet with their buyers, they involved the community and they have and continue to make investments in their infrastructure. It also helps that they have a website with information in Spanish and English. One other advantage they had was being able to work with external NGOs (non-governmental organisations) that have enabled internships to the co-op. Whether by luck or design, that brings more exposure and a commitment to improve things there. The driving force of people like Jose Luiz and Jose Omar means that this co-op is in good hands for the foreseeable future and should continue to benefit and improve the local community.


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