(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.