Fair Trade cacao, Costa Rica: APPTA

This looked like proper jungle. Steamy, hot, humid, with unfamiliar animals and noises, and a treasure trove of cacao and bananas. The unknown beckoned again on my second fair trade visit in Costa Rica as I came down from the highlands to the coast.

APPTA is an organic, Fair Trade cacao and banana co-op located in the remote northeast of the country, sandwiched between the Caribbean coast and the Panama border. Its main business is cacao for export and bananas for the national market. It also grows other fruit and vegetables for local  markets. On a damp, grey morning I visited the cacao processing facility and office, just outside the small town of Bribri. As I crested a small hill near the site, I saw the distant hills of Panama and in the foreground a green sea of banana plants stretching across the floodplain (the bananas we typically eat grow as a plant, not a tree). This was undeniably banana country.

Walter, the co-op gerente (manager), was too busy to show me around so I got a tour with Jairo, a young personable man who deals with exports. After seeing the fruit and vegetable nursery with Jairo, he handed me over to Leonila, a nursery worker, and we went off to look at the cacao trees. Despite the damp conditions, I was dressed in shorts and short sleeves, so I was unprepared for the stealthy attacks on my arms and legs by the mosquitoes. It was my first day out of the mountains for a while and I’d got used to being sting-free.

However, the upside was the cacao. There were several different ‘pod’ varieties and colours. Some were just ripening, so this was my chance to taste the pod contents right off the tree. Deliciously sweet, creamy white and fragrant, the pulp that contains the beans is good enough to eat in itself. But it takes a little more effort to get the cacao to the point where it can be used in making chocolate.

The cacao processing area is housed under a large, open shed. Due to the damp conditions, the beans were drying in racks under the shelter of the roof or in a large bath humidifier. When it’s sunny, these large racks, the size of a snooker table, are wheeled out to dry in the light and heat.

Cacao requires several days to ferment before drying. Whereas coffee is de-pulped and washed first, cacao is simply dumped into large wooden containers, covered and left for around 5-6 days. The smell coming from the bins told me all I needed to know – but I peered in anyway to check out the fermenting pods. Call it investigative curiosity…

After 5-6 days, the pulp has fermented and just the bean remains. From here, it’s a short, heavy haul by the co-op workers to place them on one of the racks or baths for drying.

The dried beans are bagged and stored in the small warehouse adjoining the office. All organic, a proportion of the APPTA cacao is Fair Trade. Typically their European buyers pay Fair Trade prices. Fair Trade pricing for cacao works in a similar way to coffee: there is a world minimum price, and Fair Trade pays above the market price when the market is higher than the minimum. A proportion of the price also goes back to the co-op itself.

Another important part of the co-op’s work is in producing banana pulp for export. The co-op is trying to establish export markets for export of fresh bananas and is currently working with an importer in Holland. If successful, this would be a major boost for the co-op. Other initiatives include producing various organic fruit and vegetables for local markets. These include passion fruit, cucumber, tomatoes, papaya.

The cultivation of bananas is important as it helps give the growers a consistent source of income. Cacao is harvested annually, so growers can focus on banana cultivation outside of cacao harvest time.

The nursery grows several plants to sell to local growers. The APPTA farm is certified organic, though not all the growers are certified. APPTA makes a great effort to help the local community through various projects, such as improving local biodiversity and sustainability, and product diversification.

Cycling back home, I was amazed that this little organic oasis existed. In the valley I cycled past vast stretches of conventional banana plantations. I saw several signposts warning people not to enter the fields during ‘pesticide delivery time’, which is done by helicopter. There are many stories of workers being treated harshly and the environmental impact of banana production, but that’s for another time…(however I do recommend taking a look at either of these two films, “Bananas!*” or “Big Boys Gone Bananas!*“).

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Co-op Statistics:

Founded: 1987, working in 30 local communities.

Size/No. of producers: 1200 (80% are indigenous Bribri or Cabécar; Women consist 38% of APPTA members).

Fair Trade/organic: All organic cacao, some Fair Trade.

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