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.


  • 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.

-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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-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

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.



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!


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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Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

It is with sad news that I write about a community I visited almost a year ago, Finca la Florida in southwest Guatemala. The recent earthquake that hit the country on 8th November has had a major impact on this community and its livelihood. I spent three days with the people here and it was one of the highlights of my trip. Although they are poor, they try to be self-sufficient. However, in a situation like this, there is little, if any, federal help to get them on their feet again.

I was contacted a few days ago by Katie Barnes, who has visited La Florida twice. So both of us have seen this wonderful community for ourselves and how, even in the best of times, they struggle to make a life for themselves above the poverty line. Within the community are around 50 families. Ten homes have been badly damaged along with the Casa Grande (the old house that had been converted for their eco-tourist project). Young coffee trees in their nursery have been hurt; honey-making equipment too. Most importantly, water pipes required for coffee processing is broken. The timing is particularly bad as it is harvest time; without the means to process organic, fair trade coffee, their income will be severely impacted.

Katie has established a ‘crowd sourcing’ fundraising website. If you are able, please make a donation to help this community get back on its feet. Katie has detailed the exact damage and cost to make the repairs. You can see exactly where your money will go. For example, $1,500 is required to buy and install new water pipes.



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!


Jardin, Colombia: Jaime Marin, Fair Trade Coffee Farmer

An abrupt knock on my hotel room door as I was polishing off my makeshift dinner. “Senor,” says the receptionist, “there is someone waiting for you downstairs.” Jaime Marin had arrived early. He was keen to meet me, though I saw over the next day or two how he likes to meet and talk to just about anyone. Warm and friendly, red-eyed but with young-looking features, he’s also loud and lively.

And so began my adventures with Jaime. We ventured out into the beautiful cobbled square in the centre of Jardin, where he wanted me to meet an American couple whom he’d been guiding that day. I had no idea who they were, but Jaime was enthusiastic. Eventually, Floridians David and Marivel ambled over, and we shared an evening together with rum as I listened to their adventures of the day with Jaime in the local surrounding stunning countryside. I got a sense of what I was letting myself in for on the following day, as Jaime and I made arrangements to visit his finca.

Jardin (The Garden), is more than an apt name for this delightful town, located in the Andean foothills within a beautiful, lush and deeply green valley, south of Medellin. Almost immediately I sensed the languid and restful aura; this is a place worth spending time in. And if, like me, you seem too busy to ever sit, watch the world go by and ‘people watch’, spending a little time here will convert you without even knowing. The beautiful town square is made for lounging in, whether at 6am or 6pm. Many locals sit and drink coffee all day, and the ambience of the town compels visitors to do the same.

The backdrop was a bonus. I was here to visit coffee growers, and one man in particular: Jaime. Jaime Marin is a farmer here who supplies his hill-grown coffee for the Canadian company Level Ground (one of several in this and surrounding regions who do so). I’d met Hugo Ciro from Level Ground while I was at Fruandes in Bogota and he suggested I come here to visit Jaime. My three days here turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Next morning, I met Jaime early and we climbed into the back of the local pick-up ‘taxi’ that would pass close to Jaime’s finca, high up in the surrounding hills. It was a popular journey; the small truck was full as we headed up the dirt roads that criss-cross the area. After half an hour we jumped off and reached the finca a short walk away. Immediately I took in the stunning views. Lush green hills drop away from the finca. A deep valley stretches away and the hills rise higher on the far side of the valley. Jaime supplements his income with tours for visitors, and it was obvious what would bring them here.

I met some of his animals – horses, a donkey, goats, chickens. It’s a working farm, but small enough that Jaime needs only a little help, through a local labourer he hires. The finca itself is well kept and tidy. Jaime grew up here. I spotted an old photograph showing him at the finca in his youth and it looked almost identical today.

Jaime runs this small finca, around five hectares. He’s part of a large family (17 brothers and sisters!) but several have left the area. Only two of his brothers have coffee farms locally. He comes every morning to tend the coffee, animals and many other subsistence crops he grows here.

Jaime has a long-established family connection with Level Ground and Hugo. Through a partnership with the local beneficio (Cooperativa Andes), Jaime is able to store his washed coffee (processing it at the finca) in the village, ready for shipping. As well as coffee, Jaime grows tomatoes, bananas, corn, and ‘lulo’. It took me a long time to understand what people talked about when they mentioned this fruit, with its exotic, crazy name. It resembles a ‘little orange’ and most people make juice from it. Everything here except the tomatoes are organic. The animals provide fertiliser for the plants on the farm. He told me he was the only organic producer in this area. Jaime sells his coffee directly to Level Ground, so there is no middle-man commonly found in most coffee importing transactions. It means Level Ground can pay Jaime a higher price for his coffee and they have helped Jaime and his family in several other ways. Level Ground helped to bring one of his daughters to spend six months in Victoria, BC to learn English. Another of his daughters, Veronica, who comes back home every weekend from university in Medellin, had very kindly made us lunch when Jaime and I returned from our tour.

Many other farmers have started to replant their coffee due to devastation caused by the ‘roja’ disease of the previous year. Farmers can’t replant everything at once, but it was easy to spot all the new bushes that lined many hillsides. Jaime grows 5,000 coffee plants, including some recent planting. Despite the increased revenue from coffee with the Level Ground partnership, he still needs an income from other sources. He’s diversified into tourism through his horse tours, but he would like more opportunities, and tourists, to show people this magical area.

The local surroundings where Jaime’s finca is located is not ‘poor’, as was typical in many other places I visited in Central America. I wondered why that was so. Most people kept their homes in good condition and looked after their gardens. Jaime’s apartment was pleasant and modern.

I thought that was the last I’d see of Jaime, as I was due to leave early the next morning. But he was clearly intrigued by my cycling adventure. Later that evening, resting in my hotel room, I got an abrupt knock on the door. Not bothering to get the hotel staff to call my room, he showed up unannounced with his friend Carlos Carvajal. Typical Jaime. Carlos was a real adventure cyclist, having completed a 25,000 km bike ride around South America. Carlos and I chatted for a few minutes, but I wanted to spend a little time enjoying the evening in Jardin for myself. I walked out to the large hotel balcony that overlooks the village square. Families and friends sat outside the cafes, chatting and drinking. It was busy yet calm and serene. I sat, watched, listened, and allowed the magic of this little coffee town keep me warm as the evening slowly cooled into clear, crisp darkness.

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Fair Trade Costa Rica: CoopeAgri

“I’d be happy to sell 50% of our coffee as Fair Trade”, says Enrique. “I’m trying really hard to increase our sales, but it’s really frustrating. I’m knocking on doors, but nobody is answering”. Enrique is a big fan of Fair Trade, but he can’t understand why CoopeAgri sells so little of its coffee at Fair Trade prices. Currently it is around 35% of their total production.

CoopeAgri is located about three hours’ south of San Jose, the capital. The co-operative is 100% certified as Fair Trade, but the problem is having a sufficient number of buyers willing to pay Fair Trade prices. It’s a huge challenge and Enrique, young, enthusiastic and passionate, was practically screaming at me to show his frustration. He recently transferred from another department, and he has that newcomer’s awareness of “why are things the way they are?”.

We spoke at length in English, and there was much to be positive about. CoopeAgri is a very successful co-op. The town of Perez Zeledon (also known as San Isidro de El General) is dominated by the presence of CoopeAgri. Over its near 50-year existence it has ingrained itself into the town in many ways I had never seen in other places. This included supermarkets, a financial co-op, hardware store and recently they opened a cafe in the town. They even run a petrol station.

At the CoopeAgri beneficio. This is outside the coffee lab. There is a huge coffee processing facility and offices here too
The new CoopeAgri coffee shop in San Isidro centre

Having such an influence within the local community requires a large number of employees and producers. The co-op has more than 500 employees (e.g. in supermarkets, offices etc) and 12,000 producers. Approximately 2,500 are sugar cane producers. All the producers are small-scale, with around 1-1.5 hectares under cultivation.

CoopeAgri got involved in Fair Trade in 2004, starting with a small amount of coffee under harvest (~100,000 lbs). Now they sell ~3.5m lbs as Fair Trade. However, they have a capacity for ~25m lbs of coffee each year.

The co-op has survived many problems over the years, including the time of the coffee ‘crisis’ (around 10-11 years ago, when prices hit an all-time record low and farmers were unable to cover production costs). As a direct result of the ‘crisis’, many farmers removed their coffee plants, so over the last few years production levels have fallen. Now, because prices have risen significantly, farmers are replanting coffee. But it will take at least 2-3 years for those plants to bear coffee fruit. And by that time who knows what the prices will be like? This boom-bust cycle is typical in the coffee world, and a real reason why Fair Trade, in the long-term, has the ability to give farmers a minimum standard of living.

With prices relatively high at the moment, Enrique told me that many of the farmers are being approached directly by international buyers. They promise to pay farmers on the spot. Fair Trade typically pays farmers at set times of the year, often several months after the harvest. This is a big problem for the co-op, as it is very difficult to dissuade farmers from selling to these buyers. Despite the size of CoopeAgri, they are unable to pay farmers ‘on the spot’ to try to stave off the direct buyers. If they did, the co-op would run into credit problems, because it gets paid several months after the harvest. Also, prices fluctuate in those intervening months, which can cause additional credit problems. “Fair Trade” requires that buyers offer advance payments to the co-op (up to 60% of the contract), but even this does not alleviate the problem.

Another source of frustration for Enrique (really, he does support Fair Trade!) was the lack of opportunity to sell the co-op’s own roasted coffee in international markets. If you buy a bag of Fair Trade coffee at your local shop, almost always it will be from a company that roasts the coffee in the country you buy it from. CoopeAgri roasts its own coffee and sells it within Costa Rica. However, Enrique would love to sell this in other countries. In contrast to other co-ops that do this, CoopeAgri roasted coffee is the same quality as the beans it exports. Typically the import taxes are higher for a ‘product’ than a ‘raw material’, so it is very difficult to access North American and European markets.

The amazing thing, for me, was that Perez Zeledon is a Fair Trade Town. There are hundreds of these in Europe, and North America is catching up. But it was a huge undertaking for the town to get this status, because the criteria was the same as for any other town or city (e.g. a certain number of shops/cafes have to sell Fair Trade products; local council commits to buying Fair Trade products for internal use, wherever possible). The difficulties were many: lack of awareness of Fair Trade within the town, few products available, Fair Trade products are more expensive. They succeeded and it was refreshing for me to see that. It also challenged my assumption that Fair Trade Towns were a ‘northern’ thing, solely for us in the northen, developed world. With each visit, I learn a little more.

CoopeAgri is a great example of a successful co-op. Although Fair Trade can do a lot more for CoopeAgri, it has already done a lot or the community and is continuing to do so. There are many social programs, a Family Commitee (the only one in Costa Rica), which helps women in various projects, they co-ordinated with a Spanish NGO (non-governmental organisation) to bring $30,000 worth of computers for local children, and they have a sizeable number of female producers (around 35%). Over the last few years, the co-op has developed good relationships with their buyers. It is important that these relationships continue to develop, emphasising the ‘personal’ nature of Fair Trade. In a world of impersonal commerce, Fair Trade acts as an antidote to ‘the way things are’. And everyone can play a part.

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A sprint through Fair Trade – catching up on some visits

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.

At the CoopeAgri beneficio. This is outside the coffee lab. There is a huge coffee processing facility and offices here too
The new CoopeAgri coffee shop in San Isidro centre

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.

The APPTA nursery. Plants here are cultivated within the coop and also sold to members.
Fermenting cacao. To get from the sweet, lovely citrus to the sweet, lovely cacao smells, you have to put up with a few days of pretty unpleasant-smelling fermentation
At APPTA I got to chew on fresh cacao. Citrusy, sweet and delicious
  • 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.

COCABO have nice bags for their cacao
Elma at the COCABO office. Funny, open and caustic, she had a lot to say
A cacao grower takes a siesta. It's tiring work dealing with this heat..
  • Colombia: Fruandes (dried fruit), Jaime Marin (coffee), Factoria Quinoa (quinoa), Fondo Paez (coffee)

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.

Up to our ears in mangos, the aroma was heavenly. But it's not easy work, chopping and slicing
After the chopping comes the drying, sorting and packing. Et voila!
The improvised loading system. Ugly, but it worked
You don't have to like mangos to work here, but it definitely helps if you do

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.

Jaime at his finca, high above Jardin. We also had his labourer and an inspector from National Coffee Federation
Jaime at the casa of the finca, with a nice mural of his farm on one side of the building
Jaime with his daughter Veronica on the balcony of their home in Jardin

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.

At Fondo Paez I met Celio (left) and Salvador (President). It is an indigenous co-operative in the highlands of southern Colombia
Celio showed me some old photos from previous visitors to the co-op
The Fondo Paez staff at the office. They have their own coffee for within Colombia that uses an indigenous name
  • Ecuador: Nevado Roses (roses), CADO (alcohol!), COPROBICH (quinoa), Pachacuti (panama hats), FAPECAFES (coffee)

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.

Nevado roses....amazing flowers here. Huge stems, beautiful colours
Hard at work cutting and packing the flowers
It's cold work too, the workers are all geared up to cope with the 5C temperatures in the packing area
Fair Trade roses: they look pretty good in a vase
In Riobamba I spent time at the quinoa co-op, COPROBICH. Avelino, the President, is in the middle
With COPROBICH I got to see my first ever quinoa plants. They're hardy buggers, growing at altitudes where almost nothing else will
Being a quinoa farmer is not easy, but great care is taken in the process. We met these producers by the roadside, sieving quinoa grains
Fair Trade hat-making. Maria sewing labels
Once the hats are made in a basic shape, the edges need to be trimmed. The ladies here tend to switch around in the different work activities
The women (and their children) eat lunch together every day, and I was lucky to be invited for lunch too
At the FEPECAFES office in Loja, southern Ecuador
I met Martin at FAPECAFES, who was a great help arranging my visit to see some producers
One of the producers at home; the whole operation is here, hand-done - depulping, washing and drying. The drying beds are in the background
Here's the coffee washing. The bloke on the left, our taxi driver, luckily didn't get involved
Then we visited another producer. This bare patch has newly-planted yucca. The coffee was growing all around us


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