UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (III): Coffee visit, Chayotepec

I spent the next couple of days in the ‘village’ of Chayotepec. It is tiny; a collection of eight families perched in hillside dwellings at the end of the dirt road I’d travelled up the evening before. I didn’t really know what I’d let myself in for but it turned out to be hugely eye-opening and unlike anything I’d experienced before.

I’ve seen rural life in the developed world, but this was in another league, or at least to my eyes it was. From the buildings people lived in, to where they were situated, how they lived and got around, it was a real learning experience. I started out with breakfast at Irma’s (and went there for all my meals whilst in the village). Like most ‘houses’ in the village it is a basic brick building with open doorways and very random add-ons constructed. Coffee was available for each meal – easily available as most of the villagers have coffee bushes growing in their gardens that they roast and grind themselves. Despite the water (boiled over the stove which gave it a ‘tasty’ smoked flavour) the coffee was good.

After breakfast I spent some time with Rosendo, a coffee farmer. We walked and he showed me where his coffee bushes were located (more than 3,000 of them). It took me a while to notice the look of the bushes as they were growing amongst many other types of bushes and trees in the forest. The harvest doesn’t start until December so most of the berries I saw were still green. Rosendo is part of the UCIRI co-op (though some of the other villagers belong to another co-op) and he told me how that works for him and how it has benefitted him, his family and the community over the years. Unfortunately my Spanish is still limited so a lot of what he said I didn’t understand. His wife’s family also have neighbouring land where they grow coffee and it is all done in the traditional way using certified organic practices. Coffee-growing goes back many generations for them.

Village life still looks very traditional. The school has 11 pupils though it was clear that the ‘older’ young people had to leave the village for other opportunities. Irma has two daughters in the US and four of Rosendo’s children live elsewhere. The village has only had electricity within the last few years, and now they have TV and mobile phones. Internet access was not available when I was there. Everyone kept chickens, cows were kept in nearby pastures and everyone had some kind of fruit or vegetable tree growing on their land – mandarins, avocados, oranges, squash, peppers among others. I got to see how chiles are dried with a family who lived down the road from the village.

Time obviously works differently too. Most of the villagers are up early and the taxi leaves on its morning run to Santa Maria every day at 5am, repeating the round trip again in the afternoon. I got highly confused that the village runs on ‘normal’ time and not ‘summer’ time (1 hour ahead). I was early for all my meals…

I got a real sense that the people in the village seemed quite happy, despite the obvious hardships that life there can bring. Life is basic but everyone has what they need, including most of their teeth. I noticed most of the older adults had teeth missing and some gold replacements for the essential ones. It was funny just watching them when they had their mouth open. Most villagers seem to have a way of generating additional income outside of coffee. The ‘eco-tourist’ project has helped Rosendo and Irma’s families; the village taxi; villagers make or sell things for other villagers, such as cheese, peppers or fruit.

On the second night with rain having been falling steadily all day and the village clouded over, I got a little worried when the taxi didn’t seem to return ‘on time’. Perhaps the road got tricky, or the weather was really bad down below…and then I had to laugh at my Western way of thinking, of how we worry so much when things don’t run like clockwork. The taxi runs twice a day and has done for years and so of course they’ve experienced far worse than the weather I’d seen. It comes back when it comes back…not a minute sooner.

The promotion of the village as an eco-tourist destination is still in its formative phase, or so it looked to me, though they’ve been promoting it for a few years. There’s now a central learning centre (not quite finished) and five cabanas for tourists. The people offer guiding and an insight into local day-to-day life. But it’s not free! I was happy to support them in their project as it didn’t seem like they get many visitors right now. Cheese-making, local crafts, coffee, visiting the forest for animal and ecological interests were all possible. Rosendo told me about the numerous different animals and plants that can be found locally. It’s definitely an ‘escape’ and an easy place to switch off and learn about a whole different way of life.

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UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (II): Central Warehouse, Lachivista

The next morning I got a better look at my accommodation for the night and the rest of the UCIRI facility. On one side of an open courtyard there were several rooms where some of the staff lived. On the other there is the roasting and packing area. I got a brief tour of the area then and a better look when I came back down from the mountains.

It was another morning of “letting things go” with some waiting around for the trip up to the village of Lachivista and the central warehouse. The tentative plan (and I am still unclear as to how loosely the locals go by the clock…) was to head up there around 10am from the office, so I settled in with a coffee and had more of a look around with some attempts at chatting to a couple of the staff. By 11.30am it looked like we were off, but then that became 12pm. Eventually at 1pm we were ready to go. Again, another lesson for me to let things go and just trust that everything is fine. It probably didn’t help that I was still a little unclear as to what the day would bring, but at the same time it was good for me as the whole thing was such a new experience.

An hour later we arrived. Lachivista is not very high up (probably less than 300m) but the road there was winding and had numerous potholes, rocks and in one section had been washed out completely, shutting it for two weeks. The facility is quite the place – a central office, warehouse (bodega) for bean packing/storage, a small health and dental centre, credit union, cafeteria, meeting area, accommodation rooms for staff, fruit processing area (for maracuya and tamarind), greenhouse with coffee plants, a basketball court…and probably more.

The farmers are scattered in many locations and this is where they bring their green coffee.The harvest is typically from December to February so the warehouse looked almost empty, though there was still plenty of coffee in there. The greenhouse is where they cultivate different varities of coffee in their early stages so the farmers can purchase the plants and take them to their own farms.

The way UCIRI has developed over the years means the producers have many more opportunities for diversification and access to credit if needed. Coffee prices are volatile but with UCIRI they at least know that they are able to live a life of dignity and respect.

The meeting with the organic inspectors perhaps went on longer than anticipated, so by the time it was all done and everyone had eaten it was getting late (well for me it was – around 5pm) and I was told I’d be going up to the ‘eco-tourist’ village in the mountains. Trusting that all was in hand, I got a lift with one of the UCIRI staff to the next village to then switch to a local taxi (collectivo) that would take me up to the village of Chayotepec.

The collectivos are everywhere in Mexico and mostly they are glorified pick-up trucks, with bench seating and a cover for transporting people and any local goods. Now was my chance to get a ride in one. The excitement soon gave way to more unease as the road out of town started as a dirt track…exactly where was I going??!? Slowly grinding uphill various people would hop on or hop off and I wondered where they lived. This seemed to be the middle of nowhere…and the road got steeper, more rutted…surely there can’t be a village at the end of this road, can there?

An hour later, at dusk I arrived. I was told by Fransisco that someone in the village would help me out when I arrived. I could do nothing but trust that all would be fine. I tried explaining to a couple of guys there that I knew nothing about the village, what I was going to do there, or where I was staying. Even though a gringo doesn’t show up very often there they took things in hand and I was soon shown to my cabana in the dark. A newly-built simple room, it looked welcoming right then. A couple of locals then brought me some coffee and biscuits and I was left to reflect with a sigh of relief and wonder on the day’s events.

UCIRI Fair Trade Co-op (I): Head Office, Ixtepec

One hundred and twenty days and more than 7,000 km since I left Vancouver, I finally closed in on my goal of my first visit to a Fair Trade producer. My thoughts while riding the 60km from my stopover to Ixtepec were many, but my greatest concern was whether I was pedalling to the right place! I’d not been able to confirm my visit with the co-operative and hoped that I was heading the right way and that they’d be happy to see some random gringo show up on their doorstep.

UCIRI (Union of Indigenous Communities in the Isthmus Region) is a coffee co-operative formally established in 1983. It comprises more than 50 communities located in different regions of Oaxaca that represents more than 2,500 members. It’s origins were formed several years before then led by Dr. Francisco van der Hoff, who went on to use the example of UCIRI to help create the first Fair Trade certifier, Max Havelaar, in the Netherlands in 1988.

As it turns out, it was easy to find. Their front walls are painted a deep red and yellow in the style of their coffee brand. Three-feet high lettering is hard to miss. I pulled my bike through the garage entrance and was warmly welcomed by Celso and Raymundo. It took a few minutes to convey why I was there, but they seemed happy to see me. What followed over the next day or two was where I got to learn a little about how day-to-day life works outside of our time-oriented Western culture.

Riding solo for several months makes it easy to control my time. Now I was at the disposal of UCIRI. I was told that Fransisco would be along later that day and as he spoke English I’d be able to tell him more about my trip and what opportunities would be possible for me with UCIRI. I had arrived around lunchtime, so apart from gesticulations, some good coffee and a spot of my usual lunch, and I waited and looked around the office before Fransisco arrived.

After some discussions with him and his staff, a plan was put together that I’d go up to the main processing and packing area in Lachivista and then hopefully go further up into the mountains to see a coffee farm. Accommodation for that evening was a bit vague – a room somewhere nearby. But first we went back to Fransisco’s house to clean up the garden and mend the chicken shed. Not exactly what I was expecting…

It was 7pm before we headed back into town and where I could get my bags to the room. I’m used to sorting accommodation early, so having to wait this late (for me) was unsettling, but I knew I was in good hands. I just didn’t know what kind of room I’d be getting. My limited Spanish meant I hadn’t realised that some UCIRI employees have rooms at their roasting facility half a mile away. I was shown to a spare room, and with great hospitality given a bed and blanket. By then I was pretty tired from the day’s events and made do with a dinner of granola that I had in my bag, while looking forward to what was to come the following day.

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Meet and two veg: Discovery Organics tell us about the produce we eat

As I’ve cycled through Mexico I’ve managed to find a lot of interesting, locally-produced fruit (and the odd vegetable too). Easily available fruit that I’ve been enjoying – mangoes, guava, bananas, melon, oranges, grapefruit, tomatoes, pineapple, coconut…exotic stuff! Even though I have missed out on the summer Vancouver produce I feel I’m getting a pretty good deal here.

But those of us back in Vancouver, US and Europe have to go to a bit more trouble to sample these kinds of fruit. We’ve got used to seeing most of those on our shelves for at least a good part of the year and pretty much take it for granted nowadays.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to step back a bit and think about how this all gets to your local shop.

The other day I read a blog post from Discovery Organics, a Vancouver-based produce importer/distributor that promotes organic, Fair Trade and local produce through developing long-term relationships with small-scale farmers. It’s owned by Randy and Annie, two passionate advocates for good quality food and fair working conditions. They do a fantastic job bringing organic, and especially Fair Trade, produce to Vancouver and western Canada.

I read a blog piece by Randy about a visit he made to Peru just over a week ago. It really brought home to me how connected we are to the places our food comes from, even if we pay little attention to that fact.

You can read the piece below, and for more info about Discovery Organics, check them out on the link below.

http://www.discoveryorganics.ca/blog

Randy’s produce update: climate change and produce supply

I was in Peru last week, and was lucky enough to be involved in a rather impromptu get-together with produce importers from the U.S., England, France and Italy.  Our conversation turned quickly to climate change, and the impact on agriculture.  This was after I had been talking to our three different co-ops of mango producers, all wondering how they are going to survive.  Pollination is down 80% in some areas, and one variety of mangos is ripening 2 weeks ahead of schedule, while the other, normally shipping in early November, won’t be ready until after Christmas, potentially overlapping with the Mexican crop, instead of falling in a perfect window.  This year, Chile lost a huge amount of their avocado crop, with the coldest, most brutal winter on record – including snow and hard frost in areas that have never seen them. 

Interestingly, the biggest impact the Europeans are seeing is the dramatically different quality in citrus, with rapid ripening, quick ‘re-greening’ and low juice content.  Juice content in limes from parts of Mexico have lowered 10% over the last 2 years.  Warming in certain areas is allowing tropical diseases to migrate farther and farther from the Equator, where growers have been caught off guard.  The Veracruz area on the Bay of Campeche in South Central Mexico has lost 70,000 hectares of citrus production this year to a new disease. In New Zealand, kiwi growers took a hit with production expected to drop 20% next season. 

As suppliers, we are going to have to watch, very closely, as many crops, including some vegetables are going to do weird things, both in the tree, as well as in storage and on the shelf, and adapt quickly to these changing times.  Even wheat harvests, even in a good growing year like this one, have been reduced 20% because of the largest ozone hole ever recorded over the Arctic stretched across Russia, and scorching the plants with excessive UVB levels. 

This past growing season locally may also be a warning sign of tough times ahead, and B.C. growers will also have to adapt to different planting times, and innovative strategies, to move forward profitably.   

Not a great Thanksgiving message, as we celebrate the hard work of all farmers out there at the end of harvest-time. 

Once we become part of this huge global food system, whether as a farmer or a retailer, we become enrolled in the love of feeding people – especially healthy, organic food.  The entire Discovery team wishes you all a great Thanksgiving weekend, and eternal thanks for what you do!

Welcome to Oaxaca…

I was happy to get out of Guerrero as it seems to be one the provinces that’s a little higher risk than most. Acapulco was the most obvious sign of that with police frequently rumbling around in their pick-up trucks toting guns of various sizes. Oaxaca seemed to be a lot more appealing. It’s where the population is more indigenous and seemingly more ‘authentic’ (though I’m not really sure about what that says about the rest of Mexico I’d seen – it was hardly a US theme-park version of Mexico…). Perhaps it’s just where older cultures and customs prevail and are more obvious. In any case, I was looking forward to getting there.

The sign said Welcome to Oaxaca and I raised my arm in salute as I passed under it. Riding on a little happier, it was only a few minutes later when I noticed a long line of traffic ahead. An accident perhaps?

As it turns out it was a roadblock. Perhaps this is ‘authentic’ Mexico. Some local farmers (campesinos) were protesting about not being paid by the government for their work. According to one chap he said the money is being used to stop drug trafficking instead. Whatever the reason, it was quite a sight. They were on their third day of protest and nothing was getting through during the daytime. They intended to keep it up for the ‘working week’, only removing themselves in the evenings.

As I rolled my bike through the people and parked vehicles I was a little worried they wouldn’t let me through. Luckily I was greeted in a friendly way by everyone and a couple of people asked me what I was doing. I could only offer sympathy for their predicament, take some pictures, and move on.

Amazingly it was all very peaceful. The police looked on without any concern. People were able to get through using a chain of taxi vans at each end of the block, and the ‘protesters’ were chatting under various canopies they’d set up. It was all very civilised. I only hope someone in government was paying attention to their protest, though I’m doubtful it would achieve any lasting impact.

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