It’s fair trade alcohol, but (sorry to disappoint you) not the drinking kind, at least not yet. Alcohol has many other uses, so when I met Carlos Cabrera in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, I was keen to find out more about how alcohol production fits into the fair trade picture. For Carlos’s organisation CRACYP, their fair trade alcohol is produced for cosmetics.
Leaving Colombia, I travelled a little of the backbone of the Andes and wound my way to Quito. It sits snugly in a scenic valley at 2,800m above sea level. Hills of varied gradients radiate outwards on all sides. I liked it immediately. The city comprises a mix of the colonial and modern, with spacious parks and boulevards giving breath to the confined, historical centre.
I met Carlos Cabrera, the General Manager of CRACYP (Rural Reforestation and Progress Network Corporation), in the tourist district. CRACYP is a non-profit organisation founded in 1999 that works with more than 200 communities (many indigenous) in the poorer regions in the south of the country. Their mission is Progreso Verde (Green Progress) that promotes sustainable, environmental development for these people. Their communities produce a diverse range of crops, not just sugarcane for alcohol. Cacao (for chocolate) and coffee are produced in-house as Fair Trade. Other initiatives include ecotourism, community banking and youth development projects. When I met Carlos in a quiet cafe one afternoon he told me more.
With CRACYP’s help, a sugarcane cooperative was formed in 2003. This cooperative, CADO, helps 280 families. Over the years training and technical development have enabled the coop to produce alcohol for many purposes, including perfumes, cosmetics and now liqueurs (surely the best part!). Clients include the Body Shop and since 2011, Dr. Bronner’s, when Fair Trade certification was obtained.
Fair Trade certification gives these communities a helping hand. And at the same time, it gives the families here a chance to maintain their way of life, producing alcohol in an environmentally and socially responsible way. But despite benefits such as higher prices and community ‘social premiums’, life is still incredibly tough for these families. Carlos told me that the current season had been one of intense rainfall, which wiped out some crops and reduced the quality of the ones that survived. The community still lacks the capacity to produce more and many children find it hard to access good educational opportunities. Fair Trade certification helps overcome these problems, but it is a long-term project that requires patience and relationship-building from North American and European clients.
Carlos is based in Quito as it is easier for him to deal with the various clients, NGOs and government groups that are part of developing and promoting the organisation. As such, he’s a busy man and our meeting was rushed. Despite looking tired, he was animated and excitable with years of knowledge and experience behind him. I only got a brief insight into the organisation, but I was grateful just for that.
My plan from Quito included visiting some of the cooperatives we talked about. But in keeping with my travel experience there were glitches ahead and I wasn’t able to make it there. So I missed out on seeing some Fair Trade alcohol first hand. Pity…by this time, I’d got used to such things. Once again, I dug my map out, tracing the road south looking for my next Fair Trade port of call.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.