Disaster and Hope: Fair Trade Bananas in northern Peru

“We can save some parcels,” says one of the BOS banana growers we met, “but we have to throw away most of the trees. We hope the rain won’t come back so that we can begin this work in April [we visited in late March]. But we need assistance and can’t do anything without government help.” Unfortunately, government assistance is a remote proposition. “We will have to throw away the trees because the flood water has been there so long that the tree roots are saturated and the trees will not grow any more.”

The BOS (Bananeros Organicos Solidarios) banana co-op was one of three banana co-ops we visited that day. All three have been seriously affected by improbable rains and flooding that the area received. We were in northern Peru, in the lowland desert a short distance north of Piura. The area typically receives only 50 mm of rain per year, but in February this year three times that amount fell in a couple of days. Combined with the huge amount of rainfall that the mountain areas received meant a double blow. The rivers burst their banks and flooded many of the lowland areas.

My travels coincided with a visit to the area by a few people I knew from Canada, and I was excited to be able to join them for a day as we toured three different Fair Trade banana co-ops. From Vancouver were Randy Hooper, owner of Discovery Organics (that imports organic, Fair Trade bananas from co-ops in this area); David Wilson from Choices Markets (buys these bananas from Discovery Organics); and Sean McHugh from Fair Trade Vancouver. Also accompanying us were Jim and Sophie from the Peru office of Fairtrasa, the company that has helped many producers in central and south America to convert to Fair Trade and buys their produce to sell in Europe and North America.

Once it became clear to Randy Hooper that producers were so severely affected (this included mango growers as well, located a little further south) he initiated an emergency fundraiser. The trip he made was to present some of the funds raised to these groups and show solidarity, support and to tell them that their customers are concerned about the farmers’ livelihoods. This would never happen with those in a conventional trade situation.

From all the donations received, $10,000 was given to BOS. That is crucial for the co-op to help those most in need, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to what they probably require. Randy estimates $500,000 would be necessary to get the co-op back on its feet properly. We toured some of the affected parcels and met a few of the growers who had lost their entire crop. They told us their situation with dignity and without an obvious sense of the calamity they face, but I could see the hurt in the eyes of many of them. For the older growers, they accept that nature throws them situations like this, that it is part of farming, however difficult it can be. They are experienced enough to know that nature can be pleasant or harsh. But to know that their buyers are concerned for them makes a huge difference. Randy is a rare example of a person who genuinely cares about the people he buys from. Very rare. Fair Trade tries to build relationships like this, and though it is difficult, it is a step towards giving those at the bottom of the ladder a step up, a helping hand, rather than constantly pushing them back down into the muddy earth.

Earlier in the day we visited two other co-ops. Our first visit was to Santa Clara. It is a wind-blown little village that sits just above the floodplain. Down below from the village, a sea of green. The village itself was a collection of brown and yellow desert dust. We packed into a little community hall and the presentations began. One thing I’ve noticed is how in these kind of situations everyone likes to speak up and have their say, and usually they take a long time to say it! We were pressed for time, so no chance to visit the affected areas. However, the presentations were well received – and so was the donation to the co-op of $5,000. $1,000 is for the village school and $4,000 towards a new warehouse.

After a hurried group photo we were off again, to visit AP BOSMAM. We were treated to a ‘shortened’ slideshow presentation, though even that had us wilting in the heat of the afternoon as we sat sweating and struggling to pay attention. Again, Randy and David did their presentations. As well as giving everyone a large printed photo of the Choices Markets management team, he presented each group with a soccer ball (Fair Trade of course). The previous day that had resulted in an impromptu 20-minute game of football. A donation was given to this co-op of $5,000.

One of the projects that AP BOSMAM has been heavily involved in is to help a local school. We took a visit there, where children of all ages, dressed in bright yellow, acted as though a giant sugar fairy had sprinkled them all with excitement. It was bedlam as the strange white people wandered around the school grounds. BOSMAM had recently been able to use Fair Trade social premiums to improve facilities at the school, whether through a new volleyball court or new desks and chairs for the classrooms. We were ushered into one classroom where the children were expecting us. Ahead of our visit they had made various flags that they now began waving as we entered. In a boisterous but well-behaved manner, they showed off their flags of Canada, USA, Peru,,,and Cuba. They quickly quietened down when the presentation started and did not make attempts to hide their boredom. Outside the classroom, many other children squeezed themselves in the doorway or at windows to get a glimpse of the gringos in their midst.

One day, three Fair Trade banana co-ops. All of them have suffered lately because of disastrous, extreme weather and yet they will struggle on, much as they have always done. However, in some cases, if a situation becomes too severe, farmers will abandon their plots and migrate to the cities to try to find work, typically with little success.

Even for farmers who managed to salvage some of their crop, their bananas have suffered. Quality has been affected and prices subsequently fell. I saw many sorry-looking bananas for sale in local markets in Piura, the largest city in the area. For one “nuevo sole”, approximately 40 cents, I was able to buy 10 bananas.

At BOS, Randy told the gathered farmers that we will return to Vancouver and do what we can to help them by publicising their situation, but stressed that there were no guarantees. The farmer spoke again. “We are thankful to Randy for coming here and showing his support and trying to help us. We will grow more bananas, we will come back.”

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(You can also see a couple of videos from the BOS visit, at http://www.youtube.com/fairtradebikeride)

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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!