Puno, Peru: fair trade coffee on the altiplano

Getting through Peru in a short time-frame required some long, gruelling bus rides. Travelling south from Trujillo, I made a quick stopover in Lima before heading south-east where my destination was Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian altiplano, where I wanted to sample something a little different. A brief visit to the shores of Lake Titicaca, more than 3,000 m above sea level, was a place I’d long been intrigued by. It felt like a good place to round things off. With its claim of housing a ship that took 6+ years to make the journey there from sea level made it unconventional to say the least. Not much coffee grows at this altitude but there was an office of a coffee co-operative and also the area was renowned for its artisan and local crafts. Plus a little cool-down from the desert heat was welcome.

Lake Titicaca straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia. Indigenous communities are prevalent throughout the region on both sides of the border. This includes communities who live on Lake Titicaca itself, on floating beds of reeds. The Uros people pre-date Inca civilization. The floating islands are continuously managed by adding more reeds as ones underneath rot away naturally, so the size of each one can change easily. They are a popular tourist draw with regular boat trips from Puno.

The fair trade coffee co-op (CECOVASA) was located in the neighbouring town, Juliaca. Not a logical location for such a co-operative, but my curiosity was piqued enough to try to find out the reason why it was located so high up here on the altiplano. I knew that CECOVASA wouldn’t have any coffee farmers nearby, but I took the 30-minute bus ride from Puno, passing isolated houses and quinoa plots as we trundled across the windswept plain.

Set back from the main road and just outside the town centre, CECOVASA looked drab and dispiriting from the outside. Even a mural on the wall of the various fair trade co-op members within CECOVASA did little to brighten things up, though at least I knew I was in the right place.

As usual I had turned up unannounced and so had no idea what I’d actually get to see, but Jaime, the manager, was on hand to show me around. At least for a little while…I think he soon got bored of that and later left me to my own devices.

The CECOVASA story was somewhat familiar. As with many other coffee co-ops I’d visited, a historic price collapse of coffee (around 2001-02, which had devastated coffee farmers worldwide and led many to simply abandon their farms) subsequently led to an interest and setting up as a fair trade co-op. The co-op collective had started in 1970 with five separate smaller co-ops. Since 2003 it was fair trade and had grown to eight co-ops (10 now) comprising more than 5,000 producers. The Juliaca part of their story was more recent, and looked to be ongoing, given the state of the facility I was visiting.

This office and warehouse, opened in 2010, was an attempt to get a little closer to the farmers. Although we were more than 3,000 metres up on the plain, we were a lot closer to the producers than before, when these facilities were in Lima. But even today the farmers would pick, wash and bag their coffee at their farms before bringing to Juliaca. Most of the coffee is exported but some high quality coffee is roasted and packaged here for the domestic market. It is this coffee (Tunki) that wins awards – an unusual scenario in fair trade coffee when most of the higher quality is exported abroad.

Day 316 All Camera 009
Award-winning coffee, sold locally: Tunki

I was shown around by Jaime, the general manager. But I was often distracted by his big, bushy hair and capped, rabbit-like front teeth. His dishevelled appearance was a reflection of the co-op itself – a mish-mash of progress and neglect. It was hard to tell if construction had stopped midway through or if it was just slow progress. Despite the new cupping lab and warehouse, many other areas were showing signs of wear and tear, paint flaking off the concrete facades. Perhaps it came down to costs; Jaime was worried about new fair trade certifications. He felt they were needed but the costs added up.

I left with mixed feelings. Many of my fair trade visits left me wondering just much good fair trade was doing. CECOVASA encompassed everything for me, both the positive and negative. I hoped they would succeed but it was difficult to say. I took a bus back to Puno and went to a local cafe to try some award-winning Tunki coffee for myself, hoping I might find an answer.

CO-OP INFORMATION:

  • Over 5,000 producers; 20% are women
  • All fair trade; 60% is organic
  • Currently eight co-ops with more expected to join
  • Each co-op has a women’s committee
  • Winner of Peru coffee competitions

Piura, northern Peru: fair trade cacao and coffee

Santiago carefully picks his way through the scattered cacao beans laid out on the table, making selections with a trained eye and placing them in a customised folding tray in front of him. The tray has placeholders for the beans and he fills it row by row. But this is not a tray for display. After it is filled, he folds the tray over, sealing the beans in place. The tray is designed to check the quality of the cacao beans, and it comes with its own built-in guillotine blade. A quick swipe downwards from Santiago and the beans have been sliced in half. He opens the tray to expose the newly-decapitated beans and examines their insides.

Checking the bean quality is an intricate process and this is just one part. The final check is a taste test, but to get to that part requires another few steps. Santiago claims to look after ‘tourism’-related activities but he’s clearly steeped in cacao knowledge. Dressed in a CEPICAFE t-shirt and light waistcoat, he walks me through the process. From the same batch of beans we took some of the ones that had survived the guillotine and placed them in a mini roaster, separate from the ones that roast the coffee. After roasting the shells need to come off and the beans ground up. Grinding is non-technical – hand power is used. Out of that come the cacao nibs. However, the next stage uses white cylindrical tubs with numerous wires and plastic protruding skywards. Looking more like they should be in a hospital, these tubs turn the nibs into cacao liquor. Then it’s poured into small tasting trays and placed in the fridge until Santiago is ready to taste test.

Into Peru
The day before visiting CEPICAFE, the co-op that Santiago works for, I arrived in Piura, northern Peru, on an overnight bus from southern Ecuador. After several weeks in the cooler mountains I was now in the hot, parched flatlands of Piura.

Piura is the main town of the Piura region and was my base for a few days, offering an opportunity to visit a couple of different fair trade co-ops. In common with Ecuador and Colombia, my first sense of Peru was a mix of the relatively affluent and modern (gated houses, a private leisure club, cafes and hotels) together with the more chaotic hustle that characterised the markets, dusty streets and unfinished or rundown buildings of poorer areas. There is a very pleasant central square, an upmarket hotel facing onto it, and it even had a vegetarian restaurant.

It was hard to believe that Piura, a dusty, hot low-lying town, could be home to a coffee co-operative. But because it is the largest town in the region, it works well as a central base for coffee and cacao producers who live in the interior. This particular co-operative, CEPICAFE (coffee producers of central Piura) is large and has a diverse range of products – coffee, cacao, panela (sugar) and fruit juices and jams.

The co-op office is located just outside of the town centre and I arrived unannounced on a hot, sunny morning. Again, I wasn’t sure what might happen – and neither were they – but after an uncertain few minutes I was given the ok for a tour.

This co-op is particularly unique, given its office (and warehouse) location, size and its products. Most producers live quite a distance away up in the high hills but this location in Piura is a step forward. They have a modern operation here and my first glimpse of it was with a young lad called Ivan, who showed all the equipment they use to make batches of fruit pulp for jams and juice. Alas it was out of season so I didn’t get to see the operation running.

The main emphasis of the co-op is in cacao and coffee. It wasn’t coffee harvest season either, so when I first saw the massive warehouse it looked noticeably empty. Only four years old, it was the largest facility I’d seen on my trip; at harvest time they process a huge amount of coffee.

But when it’s not coffee season there is the cacao. The hub of the action, and the fun, is in the quality lab. The lab is at the upstairs in the warehouse and is used for coffee and cacao tasting; today it was cacao.

Very high quality cacao is produced within the co-op. According to Santiago Paz Lopez, the co-op Manager, “we have some of the best cacao in the world”. calls it the gold of Piura, such is its quality and value. One of their varieties of cacao won 1st in a national competition. Earlier in the day that I was there one of CEPICAFE’s US clients visited – a well-known fair trade chocolate producer who have exacting quality requirements.

The warehouse was on the other side of town, so I accompanied Martin there on a tuk-tuk ride from the office. He explained to me that the co-op handles a range of different standards of coffee. Most carry an organic standard as well as one or more fair trade certifications (e.g. FLO, CLAC). Martin had been with the co-op for 12 years and as we wandered around the warehouse he was happy to talk to me for a while about the co-op. However, because my visit was outside of coffee harvest season, the warehouse had an air of slumber about it, except for when we arrived at the quality lab, which was crowded and alive with activity.

Back in the lab, I watched intently as Santiago and his team put the cacao through its paces. As well as conducting the ‘guillotine’ test the cacao needs to be given clearly it’s most important test – tasting. Who could refuse?

Santiago was ready to give the liquor a try. The chilled liquor was softened (in the microwave) and after a few seconds he handed me a little tasting spoon and I dived into the softened cacao. We tasted two varities and I was surprised how easy it was to notice the difference. Despite that, I had to make sure and I was keen to repeat the process…several times.

CO-OP STATS
-created in 1995, current Piura office opened in 2001
-approx 6,700 producers, all smallholders (1-2 hectares or less)
-four different cacao varieties, including one called cacao (gran) blanco and chulucanas, both highly valued
-producers live in the Amazonas, Tumbes, Cajamarca and Piura regions
-100% fair trade, 95% organic
-well-known clients include Equal Exchange, Theo chocolate, GEPA and Ethiquable

Loja, Ecuador: on the road to fair trade coffee

By the time I reached picturesque, beautiful Loja in southern Ecuador I’d had a wide range of fair trade experiences throughout the country. But I couldn’t leave without making a trip to a fair trade coffee co-op. Loja is home to an umbrella group of seven  co-operatives called FAPECAFES. One of those co-ops was APECAEL.

I spent a couple of hours there getting to know the organisation and the people. Housed in a modern building within the town, the office looked as typical as anything I’d see in Canada. During the afternoon I arranged a visit for the following day with Roger, a forestry engineer, to visit some producers of the APEACAEL co-op located out in the countryside.

Bright and sharp the next morning I met Roger at the bus terminal. It’s the way to get around of course, cheap and pretty easy. The small, comfortable bus wound its way up through the green hills and then down into San Pedro de Vilcabamba, the picturesque little town where the sparse, one-room office of the co-op was situated. A lone computer, printer and scanner sat on a formica table with a couple of plastic chairs. When we arrived, Sandra, a large grumpy woman wearing sparkly pink toenails came across. She was clearly angry about something, much to Roger’s bemusement. But after five minutes we headed out to visit some producers.

Roger, young-looking, is married with two children. He had an easy laugh and got a lot of enjoyment talking about music and nightclubs. Sometimes the world doesn’t seem so different after all.

This was my first visit to coffee producers in Ecuador and it was definitely different. We made calls via taxi to just two producers. These producers were easy to get to being just a little way out of town.

The producers process and dry their coffee at their homes. There is no communal processing facility that was typical in many of my other visits. Although still basic, the homes here tended to be of a higher standard than what I’d seen in Central America. Slate roofs were common.

We visited Elsa first, but it was a short visit with her and Roger chatting intently for most of the time. The coffee processing was different to what I’d experienced. Behind the house was a plastic covered greenhouse type of frame where the washed coffee was laid out to dry, resembling a hostel room full of bunk beds.

Elsa looked a little worn out, dressed in a dark apron and baseball cap. Her young son hovered around us while we chatted, hiding his face in his green flag for most of the time. Their ginger cat remained highly unimpressed with us, sunning itself on the roof.

After Elsa, we had an even shorter visit to another producer. Again, this one was unique. A couple of men washed their coffee in large blue plastic barrels, swirling it around with long wooden poles. They smoked as they worked. The coffee here was drying out on cement patios rather than the raised beds such as at Elsa’s. The depulping of the coffee (separating the bean from the cherry) is done manually using a small machine with a handle that is turned by hand to push the coffee between two rollers.

In Honduras I visited a couple of farmers who produced high-quality coffee at their own homes rather than via the co-op. Their equipment was superior to the mish-mash of rudimentary and improvised equipment I saw here.

Our third and final visit was to see Daniel Castillo, a ‘microlot’ seller. Microlot coffee tends to be produced in small quantities but is high quality and typically gets a higher price, often higher than fair trade. We spent the most time here and took a walk along the road to his finca.

Daniel, an older but genial man dressed in short-sleeved shirt, casual trousers and sandals, walked us up a short track to get to his plot, which is about one hectare (a typical size for millions of smallholder coffee producers throughout the world). He produces organic coffee, though it is not yet Fair Trade certified. His coffee is ‘shade grown’ under a diverse range of other trees and plants, such as yucca, banana and citrus. Daniel has 3,000 coffee bushes.

Roger explained that Daniel gets his coffee to a higher quality after the harvest, when he is able to take extra care with hand processing techniques. The coffee is dried on small, elevated beds rather than directly on the cement patio. This allows for better air circulation to improve the drying process.

We sampled a couple of seed-filled oranges before heading back to Daniel’s house and then back on the small bus to Loja. We discussed fair trade. Of the seven co-ops within the FAPECAFES umbrella,only this one, APECAEL, is not certified fair trade. They were currently underway with licensing process for certification. It’s a process requiring significant preparation and then approval by the co-op membership and it would take several more months at least.

Roger does support fair trade but had reservations about whether it was worthwhile. Different fair trade labels exist with different criteria and license costs so he wasn’t sure which one would be best for the producers. However, he expected the co-op membership to grow in future and the evidence was already there in the other six co-ops within the FAPECAFES umbrella.

My visits to coffee producers throughout Central America had exposed me to the realities many producers face in their day-to-day lives, whether or not they are fair trade producers. I was able to see the complexities involved and the hard decisions needed in how best to improve the lives of them, their families and communities. For the producers here in Loja, it looked like fair trade was still the best option. However, unlike many other producers I’d visited, they seemed to have other options based on their ability to produce high quality coffee, which attracted good prices. The families in Roger’s co-op could benefit from the experiences of the other co-ops.

However, the producers were worried about whether it is worth the cost. The most well-known certification (FLO, the blue-green and black label which is the most common) has a higher cost. In response to this, over the last several years another certification is being introduced that was created in Latin America, for Latin Americans (the Small Producer symbol, SPP). It is still little-known, but it is important. For many consumers, they feel it is enough to simply buy a product with the fair trade symbol. Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that, and my hope is that fair trade continues to evolve with the interests of the producers at its heart. The main thing is to support it as best you can.

In individual cases fair trade may not be the best option. One year of high prices may be great for producers. But in coffee (and other commodities) the price fluctuations can play havoc in producer communities. Over the long-term, fair trade still offers a positive path towards a sustainable means of living for the people in these communities.

But there are still risks. For the producers of APECAEL, they will pay out the costs of obtaining a fair trade price without the guarantee they will be able to sell all their coffee at fair trade prices. For them, for now, it’s still a risk worth taking. It is up to us to make sure that the risk pays off.

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CO-OP INFO:
-in its current form since 2008; FAPECAFES formed in 2002
-APECAEL comprises five communities with 122 producer members. The seven co-ops total 1,700 producers and the other six are certified fair trade
-The co-op is currently in process of applying for certification so they apply fair trade and organic principles ahead of this

Bananas and floods

A couple of things from the UK reminded me of my visit to the banana farmers in Piura, northern Peru. The first was seeing how areas of the south of England experienced some pretty awful floods throughout the course of this winter, so bad that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, got his Cobra committee together at one point to tackle the problem (or be seen to be tackling it) and even suggested that “no expense will be spared” to help clean up the affected areas and help prevent this from happening in future.

I’m sure much of the money the Government will end up spending on the clean up would have gone a long way to preventing this thing in the first place if proper land management practices had been implemented. Invoking Sarah Palin, Cameron could no doubt spur us to “dig baby, dig” to dredge numerous rivers. This won’t work either.

The second thing is we’re coming to the end of Fairtrade Fortnight and the focus has been to encourage people to learn about the problem of cheap bananas and switch to buying fairtrade if possible.

Banana producers and labourers generally have long had a hard time of it. If you work on a banana plantation, you’re likely to be susceptible to poor wages, long hours, poor working conditions, exposure to various pesticides and be vulnerable to losing your job should you wish to complain. Those farmers who do own their own land potentially have it a little better, though many who produce convential bananas also have to contend with receiving a meagre income, being at the mercy of the multinationals who dictate the prices paid to them.

The farmers I met in Piura belonged to fairtrade co-ops. They were able to overcome many of these problems by the means of receiving higher prices, payments towards community projects, better environmental management and working conditions, among many other things.

However, they are still just as vulnerable to the weather. When I visited, many of them had seen their small plots of land be drowned by floodwaters. The banana plants, stuck in standing water for so long, were dying and would have to be replaced in many cases, causing additional expense with the loss of income from a much smaller harvest.

For these Peruvian farmers however, there was no Prime Minister or President appearing on television to tell the country that no expense would be spared to clean up the area and put the farmers back to where they were. Without fairtrade prices these farmers would have been in even more trouble (Discovery Organics, a Vancouver-based produce importer and distributor, also donated money [also the ongoing fundraiser Pennies For Peru]).

No doubt the UK people affected by floods will have a hard time getting their properties back in shape. There may even be some long-term effects to deal with. I’ll leave aside the hardship of ‘lower property prices’ that will worry them into the wee small hours. For the banana farmers of northern Peru, they have some bigger issues to consider. Is their livelihood destroyed? Will they have to leave the land they own and move away, breaking important community and social links in their neighbourhoods? There were many problems ahead.

So when you’re next looking for bananas in your local shop, look for fairtrade. If they’re not available, try to shop elsewhere. Stick With Foncho, as the campaign goes. Stick with fairtrade.

http://foncho.fairtrade.org.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/Pennies4PERU

Fair trade hats, Sigsig, Ecuador

There’s a hat for every occasion, though when it comes to fair trade hats made at the ATMA women’s co-op in Sigsig, southern Ecuador, traditional is the style.

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This following article originally appeared in the January 2013 edition of “fair trade”, a magazine published by the Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN).

http://issuu.com/cftnetwork/docs/fairtrade-magazine-jan2013/17?e=0

I tried to set up an appointment beforehand but was told that the workers were busy and might not have time to talk. I took my chance anyway.

I knocked on the heavy double door of the former hospital building. When the door opened, Rosa, the stalwart matriarch of the co-op, welcomed me. She wore one of the cooperative’s panama hats with a black cardigan and red skirt. Her braided hair gave her a traditional Ecuadorian look. She welcomed me with a smile and insisted that I join the workers for a homecooked meal. It was yet another example of the hospitality and generosity of time I experienced on my travels.
I was nine months into my Fair Trade journey, riding my bicycle from Vancouver to South America, visiting as many cooperatives as I could. I wanted to learn more about the people living in producer communities, and how Fair Trade plays a role in their lives.

The Asociación de Toquilleras de María Auxiliadora (ATMA) is a women’s Fair Trade cooperative that produces artisan crafts, and in particular, panama hats. It is located among the beautiful Andean highlands of southern Ecuador, on the edge of the dusty, patchwork town of Sigsig, a 90-minute bus journey from the colonial city Cuenca.

Inside the old building, there was a central courtyard, almost filled by a wooden structure with a wide central column, which was decorated with a colourful ribbon to make it look like a hat. It stood about three metres high and 10 metres wide and was really a circular table that could also be used as a stage. I made my way into the main working area, where a thrum of activity was already underway. The workroom was open and well lit by the large windows that stretched the length of the room. This was not some factory-style operation. The women worked busily at their own stations, but the atmosphere was relaxed. Most of the noise came from a mix of machines and children. Eight to 10 women typically work here, eight hours per day, Monday to Friday. During busier times, they’ll work Saturdays too.

On the edges of the clean, tiled floor, the walls were lined with shelves and cupboards full of hats in various states of completion. Tables were piled high with materials. The panamas are made from palm-like grass from the Pacific coast. The style was originally named after the coastal city of Montecristi, but they became known as “panama hats” when they were given international visibility during the construction of the Panama Canal in the early 20th century.

The women use many different dyes to colour the grass straw and then hang them in bunches to dry. The traditional hat weaving, an important traditional local skill, is meticulously completed by hand. The women continued to work while I visited. Their sewing machines rattled as they stitched labels onto the finished hats.

Every minute or so there was a loud hiss of decompressed air, as a woman named Maria moulded hats into different styles. Another woman helped to shape the hats with an iron. Meanwhile, a group of children ran in and out of the room, playing games.

The women sell their products directly to Pachacuti, a relationship that has been established for many years. Pachacuti is a Fair Trade certified fashion retailer that in 2009 became the first company in the world to complete a pilot study for the new World Fair Trade Organization certification process. It was the first international Fair Trade organization allowed to put “Fair Trade Certified” on its full range of products, certifying the organization as a whole rather than
specific items.

ATMA provides many benefits for its employees. It offers them fair wages and provides health benefits and educational assistance for their children. Because of ATMA, important cultural knowledge will be maintained and transferred to younger generations. What’s most important is the sense of empowerment. The women here have created their own business, invested in training and equipment, and are earning their own incomes.

The cooperative also has its own shop that sells hats, bags, and crafts. It felt good buying a hat straight from its source. I was satisfied, knowing my money went directly to the women here. It might be a small contribution, but it’s important.

For more information (and to buy): http://www.pachacuti.co.uk

Nevado Roses, Ecuador…Say it with Fair Trade Flowers

“If I had known 10 years ago that we’d be in the same position today as back then, I wouldn’t have bothered with Fair Trade certification”. So says John Nevado, the charismatic owner of Nevado Roses. He’s as colourful as the flowers he grows here. After my trip to Nevado Roses in Latacunga, a two-hour drive south of Quito, I reflected on the some of the complexities of Fair Trade certification. It’s not all a bed of roses…

Latacunga is a medium-sized town, a typical mix of a few pleasant, central, historic cobbled streets surrounded by forgettable, dusty, congested concrete roads. I took a short bus ride a few kilometres out of town to get to Nevado Roses.

Up until this point, most of my Fair Trade visits had been to co-ops, farms and small-scale operations that typically worked with land-owning farmers. In a few cases I’d seen small operations that employed local people, such as the APPTA fruit/cacao co-op in Costa Rica and Fruandes in Bogota, Colombia. Nevado Roses, high up on the hillside of the altiplano, has a very different style of operation.

Nevado Roses is a Fair Trade certified flower producer. Fair Trade flowers differ from other products like coffee and cacao because of the nature of the business. Flower production typically uses a ‘plantation’ style model, in which people are employed directly for a set wage and have no ownership in the land. It all looked very professional, very modern. John Nevado is a committed Fair Trade producer, but he has many reservations about the process.

After a quick introduction with the energetic John, I was shown around the site by Miguel, a somewhat more subdued sort of bloke. And my post-lunch visit meant I missed the height of the action, which takes place in the mornings.

There are 90 greenhouses here, each about half a hectare in size, making 45 hectares in total. Flowers are cut and shipped on the same day. It was quiet wandering amongst the six-feet tall (they were huge!) flowers, with some workers quietly attending to the flowers, trimming, feeding, conducting quality control. Each plant takes around 13 months to flower from initial planting. For about 90 days it will produce flowers, though a plant can last up to 20 years.

It was much more active in the processing and packaging areas. Dozens of workers were preparing the flowers that had been cut that morning. A modern, efficient production line of equipment and workers took the freshly cut flowers, sorting, cutting and arranging into their packaging. In a separate room many more workers, layered in warm coats and gloves, were busy in the 5C degree refrigeration area putting the final touches to the roses to get them ready to be flown out that evening.

The roses themselves were quite amazing. Growing conditions here (warm days, cool nights) are some of the best in the world. The colours, textures, size; everything about them stood out. These were quality! As John repeated many times, quality always sells.

Fair Trade in flowers

John was one of the most opinionated and excitable people I met on my travels. Originally from Spain, he spent many years in Sweden which influenced his “fair” principles and conscience. Around ten years ago John helped develop the standards for Fair Trade flowers. As the sales of Fair Trade products increased, Fairtrade International, FTI (previously known as Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, or FLO), was keen to expand the range of products that could be certified as Fair Trade. John was willing to contribute his expertise.

However, the ‘promises’ of Fair Trade for flowers have been hard to realise. John changed his working practices at the farm to meet the new Fair Trade standard. The farm became “100%” certified Fair Trade. This included ensuring a minimum (fair) wage, creating a ‘social premium’ for the workers and local community and enabling the workers the right to association (unionisation).

Nevado Roses was one of only a few growers that adopted Fair Trade standards; just 10 out of more than 550 growers in the country. In the ten years since, this is still the case. Nevado Roses sell only 7-8% of their flowers as Fair Trade, a figure that has barely changed in these ten years. How can this be? Like I said, the market for flowers is very different to coffee and cacao. Flowers can’t be stored in a warehouse. Quality and the ability to distribute fresh flowers is paramount. People who buy flowers tend to place a high premium on quality and freshness ahead of Fair Trade certification (imagine giving someone wilted flowers and trying to convince them that because they’re Fair Trade they are ‘better’ than conventional flowers!). Sadly, this is the reality.

Even organic flowers here are a tiny part of production. Only two hectares out of 90 are grown organically. Organic production requires more work, higher costs and is less productive. Without the associated demand, it doesn’t make business sense.

The low percentage of Fair Trade sales means the amount of the ‘social premium’ that goes back to the community is limited. Although it can reach up to $100,000 annually, this amounts to very little considering there are 500 workers here. But despite frequent bureaucratic interference, this is one area where the employees have a lot of say in what to spend the money on.

Some final thoughts:

Despite John’s equitable principles, he’s a capitalist too. His approach to Fair Trade is very much market-driven. He disagrees with a lot of how the current Fair Trade model works, particularly its lack of flexibility and costs. There has long been issues with how Fair Trade was perceived as a ‘northern’ initiative that made the decisions on how to help the ‘southern’ farmers, including how the farmers and cooperatives had to pay for certification. However, this is changing. But John advocates for even more flexibility, such as companies making their own decisions about Fair Trade purchasing (think Whole Foods and their “Whole Trade” brand). In this respect, I got the impression he was in favour of controversial recent moves by Fair Trade USA to change standards and start working more directly with companies.

I liked John. He swore a lot, he was funny. But he was knowledgable and I could understand his frustrations with the Fair Trade system. He wanted it to have achieved more in the last 10 years. It is still a work in progress.

Fair Trade has a place for many products, but each is unique. For us, as end consumers, we see the “Fair Trade” symbol on the products we buy and we trust this. I saw some of the problems with certification of flowers, but it is imperative that to maintain trust in the symbol it must be tailored effectively to each different product. I left Nevado Roses knowing that John treats his employees as well as he can and that he has had a positive impact on the lives of thousands in the local community. However, the Fair Trade model for flowers still needs improving. It’s possible it will only ever achieve limited success, but I hope that John continues to work towards the benefit of this and whatever the picture is in 10 years’ time I hope these communities see continued benefits.

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Why does Fair Trade differ for flowers compared to coffee?

So how is flower production different from coffee? Here’s a quick overview of how this model of fair trade flower (roses) production differs here at Nevado Roses from what I’d seen elsewhere:

  • It’s a ‘plantation’ type of structure. The owner, John Nevado, employs more than 500 workers, who work for an hourly wage
  • Flowers must be shipped the day they are cut to ensure freshness for the markets they are sent to in Europe, Asia and North America. This makes it difficult for small owners to succeed within the Fair Trade model
  • Flowers require an intense amount of work and Fair Trade introduces additional costs that cannot be saved in other parts of the supply chain (unlike coffee) so Fair Trade flowers are more expensive for the end consumer
  • Because of the higher consumer cost, small florists in developed countries rarely adopt Fair Trade flowers. The nature of flowers as a product typically means appearance, quality and freshness override any concerns over the means of production
  • The Fair Trade model insists on workers’ right to unionisation, but this is difficult in Ecuador due to inherent political influence

A few stats on Nevado Roses:

  • Employees: >500
  • Workers are paid hourly rates as typically determined by Government
  • Fair Trade “Social Premium” is invested back into the business
  • Fair Trade certified for 11 years
  • Very small percentage is sold as organic (~4%) or Fair Trade (7-8%)

Fair Trade alcohol: yo ho ho (but no bottle of rum)

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.

Carlos Cabrera of CRACYP squeezed in some time with me to tell me about Fair Trade alcohol when we met at this quiet cafe in Quito
Carlos Cabrera of CRACYP squeezed in some time with me to tell me about Fair Trade alcohol when we met at this quiet cafe in Quito

Fair Trade Coffee: Fondo Paez, Cali, Santander de Quilichao, Colombia

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.

Update – Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

Thank you to everyone who helped this community with a donation! Out of this sad event the news is good – they hit the fundraising target of $5,000. Here’s an update from early January from co-ordinating fundraiser Katie Barnes:

We’re so excited that we’ve reached our goal! Thank you so much to everyone who helped. Remember, just because we’ve hit $5,000 doesn’t mean that you can’t still contribute — La Florida can still absolutely appreciate and make use of all donations!

Hopefully the community will be able to salvage some of its coffee harvest this year. Thanks again to everyone who contributed. You can continue to find more info below, which I hope will give updates on their rebuilding process.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

Colombian Coffee? It Must Be Juan Valdez Cafe

Even though coffee originated in Ethiopia, its spiritual home is Colombia, or that’s what Colombians would have you believe. In Bogotá I got the opportunity to glimpse the corporate side of coffee production and marketing. On the 8th floor of a downtown high-rise in the heart of Bogotá’s financial district is the office of the National Coffee Federation (Federacion Nacional de Cafe [FNC]). To most people that doesn’t mean a lot, but the FNC came up with a clever marketing strategy several years ago. So if you want a cup of coffee in Bogotá (and beyond), you can’t miss it: the Starbucks of Colombia, Juan Valdez Cafe.

Juan Valdez coffee shops are everywhere. I was curious to see whether or not there was any ethical substance behind the brand, or was it really just a way to make money from the emerging middle classes and tourists that are increasingly visiting the country.

I had to get a sample of course. On my first day in Bogotá I found a picturesque location opposite one of Bogotá’s museums in the famous Candelaria district and sat back with an americano (the irony of ordering an ‘American’ coffee made with Colombian beans, in Colombia, was not lost on me). But if Colombia likes to provide the coffee, Starbucks provides the inspiration.

Juan Valdez, the face of Colombian coffee
Juan Valdez, the face of Colombian coffee

This was a massive change compared to anywhere I’d been in Central America. This was the first place that I saw evidence of the coffee culture that is so prevalent in the US and Canada. Despite its many other problems, Colombia has made an effort to help its coffee growers and Juan Valdez is the most visible part of incorporating this into Colombia’s culture, both at home and abroad.

As for the coffee experience itself…well it was slightly underwhelming. I enjoyed being able to sit out and enjoy a decent cup of coffee, but it wasn’t spectacular. All coffee is served in paper cups, which means the coffee gets cold too quickly (for me anyway) and produces mounds of waste. But it was very familiar otherwise, and it wasn’t hard to see why it was so busy. Like most places I visited throughout my travels, the hold of the USA, whether still because of the mis-sold ‘American Dream’ or a feeling of aspiring to such a notion dominates Latin American culture. A cup of coffee can bring that ideal a little closer, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

A few days later, I arranged a visit with Maria Fernandez of the FNC to learn more about coffee in Colombia, not just about Senor Juan. I knew I’d be getting the PR talk, but it was a unique insight into a relatively successful program established over many years that has given hundreds of thousands of coffee farmers a better standard of living than they might otherwise have had.

Most of Colombia’s coffee producers with small farms (under five hectares) are FNC members. FNC was established nearly 75 years ago in order to better promote Colombian coffee and protect it against production from other countries. FNC represents groups of growers that have a democratic process of organisation. This comprises local and regional committees who elect national representatives every four years to decide on strategy and direction.

For many years Colombian coffee was promoted internationally as superior than that from many other countries, and this was frequently the case. Growers cultivated the arabica bean and it obtained higher prices in the market because of its superior quality (compared to the cheaper robusta bean). The FNC has been able to help its member growers adopt technological improvements and social benefits to protect them from the swings of market prices.

There are some parallels with Fair Trade. For example, 6 cents of every 1lb of coffee exported goes to the “National Coffee Account”, which is then, theoretically, spent on projects that will benefit all of Colombia’s growers. FNC also has a “purchase guarantee” which means they can sell their coffee to the FNC at any time (so for example if the grower feels the price is too low at harvest time, he/she can wait to see if prices improve and sell the beans later). If the market price is low, the FNC has the power to mitigate the effects of this. However, there are no strict guidelines as to what the farmer might receive, as there is within Fair Trade.

The Juan Valdez brand and chain of coffee shops was set up because the producers wanted more participation and higher income from the coffee they produced. The money from the cafes goes back to FNC, with some to the farmers. Farmers can invest in ownership of Juan Valdez, with some 18,500 owning stocks.

Although Colombian coffee does obtain a premium on world markets because of it being predominantly higher quality arabica coffee, the philosophy adopted by FNC is still very much market-oriented and as a result the farmers are still at the mercy of the prices of the market. Technological innovation is at the forefront of FNC’s philosophy, which may require farmers to invest in planting new coffee bushes or increasing the amount of fertiliser they need. I didn’t hear anything about how organic methods are encouraged, for example using shade-grown techniques. Coffee monoculture is increasingly common.

My short time at FNC gave me a somewhat positive impression. It’s possible that it is a purely Colombian model that couldn’t be replicated in other countries, and its relative success has come despite years of volatile political situations in the country. It has many flaws but it has given many farmers a better position than they might otherwise have. Fair Trade can at least give farmers a guaranteed minimum price, higher investment in social projects, and more likely a better ‘local focussed’ approach to investing in improvements.

The happy, smiling face of Juan Valdez gives the impression of contentment within the Colombian coffee industry. Clearly this is not the case, but there is something in it that can help the farmers. It is one strategy of several, including Fair Trade, that can give the farmers at least some kind of sustainable, dignified way of life.

A few weeks later, on my way home to Vancouver, I passed through Bogotá airport. The Juan Valdez souvenier shop in the terminal had many items for sale. I looked with curiosity, a Starbucks-tainted smile, and walked away.

Some FNC Statistics:

  • Established in 1927, now supports 550,000 coffee growers
  • Colombia has 900,000 hectares of coffee; FNC is helping to replace 300,000 hectares with new, young coffee trees
  • 95% of members are small producers with less than 5 hectares
  • 35,000 growers within FNC are also Fair Trade certified
  • 25% of growers are women, but <10% participate in democratic processes

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