I had reservations about visiting the people of Fondo Paez. Knowing that I couldn’t make my way to their remote community, I made arrangements to visit their office location in the small town of Santander de Quilichao. A one-hour bus ride from Colombia’s third city, Cali (the home of salsa, apparently), meant this was a realistic day trip. My hesitancy about visiting was two-fold. For one, I was pretty knackered and not in the mood for an early visit, but what put me off more was the story I read about the recent death of the Fondo Paez co-op President Luis Carlos Mestizo Conda. He’d been killed a few months earlier in Santander in what was presumed to be a robbery. I’d heard about the history of security problems, kidnappings and deaths and people did warn me about parts of this region.
However, having already made arrangements I dropped myself off the bus in Santander town centre and walked up the narrow residential streets towards the co-op office. I became slightly lost, not helped by encountering a group of swarthy labourers in the quiet back streets. I walked on, getting more nervous with each step, particularly when I realised I would have to retrace my steps of moments earlier. Usually, this is just a momentary embarrassment, a pretty obvious signal to the locals that this gringo doesn’t know where he’s going…but this time I wondered I’d get a little more than that. Retreating back down the street, I took a gamble to ask for directions and approached the men. As soon as I mentioned Fondo Paez they heartily pointed me to a nearby street. I’d misjudged the local people, not for the first, or last time.
The office was really a house, and effectively doubled-up as one. Due to the long distance of the communities within the co-op, members can stay at the office overnight with a couple of rooms used for sleeping. Adriana, the office co-ordinator, lives there most of the time. I was greeted at the door by Celio, a co-op Director. Celio was very welcoming and helpful during my visit, and even escorted me back to the town centre during lunchtime (if there’s one thing I learned on my travels it is that lunch is a serious business. No one is ever too busy to skip lunch). He had a humble manner, in common with all the members I met here.
The co-op is an indigenous organisation, speaking the Nasa Yuweh language, or ‘Nasa’ as it is commonly known here. It is one of more than 60 indigenous languages in Colombia. They call their coffee Nyaf Tewesh (coffee of the ancients).
The co-op has been active since 2000, but due to its size and lack of resources, it partners with Cafinorte (part of the National Colombian Coffee Federation) during harvest time from April to August. They have a good relationship. During this time, Cafinorte makes its warehouses, offices and administration available, as well as giving technical assistance from their agronomists. Of the co-op’s 460 Fair Trade producers around 200 are certified organic.
Celio has nine children, the eldest one works for Fondo Paez. Celio is not too comfortable with the modern world. He doesn’t like the town much; the countryside where he lives has always been home, which is reached on dirt roads after a 2 or 3-hour bus ride. He says it is hard to keep young people on the land. He farms like many generations have before him, growing corn, beans and bananas. Both he and Salvador grow organic coffee.
Despite being Fair Trade certified, the co-op still struggles. They have had this office for over two years (when I visited in February 2012) but it was like they had just moved in – sparse furnishings and plastic chairs. They are connected to the electronic world, with two computers, but the punctuating hum of their dot-matrix printer during my visit made me think back to when I last used them, more than twenty years earlier. However, they hope to buy this office in the future with assistance from the Fair Trade social premium.
Salvador said very little during my visit and he was probably the most shy of all the producers I met on my travels. I couldn’t tell if he’d become President reluctantly. The death of the previous President would have made anyone a little nervous.
Colombia clearly has a different approach to its coffee production compared to what I’d seen before. The relationship between Fondo Paez and Cafinorte (and by extension the Colombian Coffee Federation) allows small producers to access resources they wouldn’t otherwise have the means to do so. Cafinorte were proud of their association with Fondo Paez, even though many of their 80,000 members produced conventional coffee. I picked up a brochure at Cafinorte that highlighted this relationship.
Celio walked me back into town and I gratefully jumped on a bus heading north to Cali. I was still feeling tired, so despite the noise and thumping music accompanying me on the ride back, I slept.