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

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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

Getting to know quinoa: Riobamba, Ecuador

Three elderly, indigenous farmers were crouched over a blanket on the rough grass. Piles of grain sat with them in hillocks, like sand. Two of them held large sieves. They hunkered on a blanket, sieving through and separating quinoa. It spoke of a lifetime of tradition, hard work, and an existence on the margins of life. I was with Avelino Morocho Coro, the diminuitive, poncho-clad President of COPROBICH, a Fair Trade cooperative based in Riobamba, Ecuador. I accompanied Avelino on a tour of one of their producer areas and quinoa is the primary product within the co-op. This was the highland area (altiplano). It is cool, windy and life here is a challenge.

The previous day I spent some time with the rest of the co-op staff at their simple but homely office in Riobamba. Riobamba is the largest town in the region and was undergoing much construction amidst its historic, cobbled heart. In the same way, the co-op staff represented the mix of the modern and traditional. All were indigenous. Maria, the secretary, was dressed with the traditional poncho and hat, whereas everyone else (except Avelino, the President) wore regular clothing. The atmosphere was light-hearted. At least that was my interpretation, as I found it difficult to follow the mixed-language conversation – Spanish mixed with a healthy dose of quechua, an indigenous language of this region.

It was a busy week with visitors coming from other organisations based in Quito, which led to plenty of animated discussion. Beforehand there was much hand-shaking and mucho gusto, which became funny to watch with all the smiling and exaggerated gestures. More inadvertent comedy was provided when Auorara, the bookkeeper, called Octavio on her mobile phone; he was sat just five yards away.

Two of the visitors were Lorena from Oiko Credit and Wiliber from CECJ (Coordinadora Ecuatoriana de Comercio Justo). Producers within the co-op need access to credit to help their soil productivity and quality. The co-op was also looking to improve their quinoa washing equipment, a likely cost of several thousand dollars. In 2011 the producers had a major problem to wash the quinoa properly resulting in decreased production levels. Each year the co-op applies for credit so Lorena was there to discuss their requirements. In addition, a major client of the co-op (the French company Ethiquable. Others include Canadian companies Just Us! and Discovery Organics) donates a small amount of money.

CECJ works within Ecuador and represents several small organisations and advocates on their behalf to give them better representation. Wiliber felt that the well-known international fair trade (FLO) certification and conditions required of co-ops puts smaller ones at a real disadvantage. As a result he was in favour of COPROBICH changing their certification to the Small Producer (SPP) certification (criteria for this certification originates from within Latin America and more focused to the needs of these countries).

ERPE, celebrating its 50th anniversary, is a local community radio station based at the same location as the COPROBICH office. They have been a lifeline over the years to get knowledge and information to these remote communities.

We visited two warehouses (bodegas) and a processing area. They are small, simple concrete buildings and many are scattered about the terrain. Despite the difficult conditions of life here, I felt as if it wasn’t as poor as other places I’d visited.

The typical size of a family’s production area is very small, around 0.6 hectares. Growing conditions are tough in this climate so the producers are in a vulnerable position. Aside from wheat for local consumption, some herbs for tea, there are few crop alternatives. Many producers lack the technical knowledge to improve their harvests, which the co-op tries to rectify through education. The harsh nature of life in this area leads many of the younger generation to migrate away from the land, a problem endemic to farming in most countries.

Quinoa is harvested once a year, typically between June and September. Seed planting is from October to January. At harvest, the quinoa is cut, washed and dried. It can be stored for up to three years, which can be a problem for the producers who need to be paid promptly in order to be able to look after their families and to invest for the next year’s production. Production costs of quinoa here are approx $40 per quintal (1 quintal [qq] is approx 100 lbs). Producers hope to receive around $100 per quintal. In 2011 the co-op produced around 90,000 quintals, up from just 2,000 qunitals in 2004.

Our tour of the campo proved interesting in several other ways. Jose, a father of three, was our driver for the day but the combination of his shoddy and wayward driving, four of us cramped in the back and the bare-bones state of the pickup truck meant an uncomfortable ride. At least for me; this was pretty normal for everyone else. When we stopped for petrol Jose left the engine running while filling the tank half with ‘extra’ and half with ‘super’. Clearly there is no Spanish translation to the phrase “health and safety”. The cramped back seat led to unwanted intimacy, such as witnessing Luis clean his ears with a pen top.

We stopped for lunch at a nondescript cafe on the highway. This location seemed to be a regular haunt for the COPROBICH guys. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a vegan meal. No menu here either, lunch was just laid out in front of us. No complaints from the others; three plentiful and meat-heavy dishes were delivered quickly, to (almost) all-round satisfaction.

I ended my visit to the co-op with a shopping expedition at the Sumak Life shop next door to COPROBICH. Sumak Life (or Sumak Kawsay in the indigenous language) means good life or good living. This is an organic shop where local producers offer a range of goods from their communities. It had a surprisingly diverse range. Herbal tea, dried fruit, nuts, cocoa, jam and of course quinoa. But not just quinoa grains – quinoa flour, quinoa hot chocolate, quinoa snack bars. My snack quota was filled easily.

Quinoa has been in the news a lot this year, from the positive (NASA-approved superfood!) to the negative (misleading stories suggesting that increased ‘western’ demand has led to price increases and thus affordability problems for local families). However, from the perspective of COPROBICH they are in a potentially good position to take advantage of this increased demand and prices. Through their increased production and exports they have improved the lives of the families within the co-op and are making investments in their future, such as the new warehouse. What was also really encouraging was relationships that exist with other groups. Together with ERPE and the Sumak Life shop, the local community is better positioned to support itself in a sustainable manner.

COPROBICH: some information

COPROBICH (Corporacion de Productores y Comerical Izadores Organicos “Bio Taita Chimborazo”)

  • Located in the Chimborazo region, Puruhua territory
  • Coop created 2003, Fair Trade exports began in 2006; 80% of quinoa exported
  • 86 indigenous communities
  • More than 1,600 producer families
  • 100% organic
  • Co-op comprised of only indigenous population families. Some of the people I met: Luis Francisco Morocho (“Promotor”), Avelino Morocho Coro (President since 2009), Lorena from Oiko Credit (Quito), Wiliber (CECJ), Jose (driver of pickup to campo), Auorara Guaman (bookkeeper), Maria Delia Guapi Guacho (secretary)
  • 2004 – 2,000 qq produced; 2011 – 90,000 qq produced
  • 1 qq grain requires approx $40 investment; producers hope for $100/qq in return
  • Co-op received a fair trade ‘social premium’ over $6,000 in 2011
  • Wheat grown for local consumption; additional income possible for other products such as herbal teas
  • Sumak Life shop and ERPE radio station provide outreach and interaction between COPROBICH and local communities
  • First large client was Ethiquable, a French fair trade company. Relationship continues today

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

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

 

Football, Ecuadorian style

Football. Best game on the planet. I’ve seen many games in England and the odd one or two in Vancouver. One thing on my list during this trip was to try to catch a live game somewhere. It proved difficult to be in the right place at the right time, but the stars eventually aligned and I got an opportunity to see a match in Quito, home of Deportivo Quito. The competition was the Copa Libertadores America (the South American equivalent of the European Champions League) and the opposition on the night was Velez Sarsfield from Argentina (I have no idea who they are either).

I hoped it would be a good game, certainly different from what I’d experienced before. And it was…from the crush of getting into the stadium, where half of it was closed and so fans had restricted points of entry and impatience reigned. We were packed into one side of the stadium, a decrepit-looking thing, though the views of the nearby mountains, with aircraft flying under the backdrop, made a stunning panorama. I was seated on bare concrete not far from the hardcore fans. The flags and banners were out, and the huge bass drums were being readied. Fencing surrounded the pitch, which was a shock. I can’t imagine fan safety was ever a priority for these occasions.

As the game was about to start, Velez got a typical away-team reception of a chorus of boos. There wasn’t a single away fan, unsurprisingly. The Quito chants were underway, the flares were lit and the drums rolled.

Into the game and I notice the differences. The pace is slow, like treacle. There’s little goalmouth action. The funniest part is when the referee, miles behind the play, books a Velez player when he made a foul. Just as I’ve seen on television many times, the ref races over and dramatically shoves the yellow card in the Velez player’s face. Hilarious. Right before the end of a desperately poor first half, a Quito player hoofs the ball downfield towards the Velez area, a real up-and-under. The Quito forward gives chase and falls inside the Velez penalty area. Diving, surely? No, the ref (again, miles behind play) agrees with the linesman’s flag to give a penalty to Quito. The fans go absolutely mad and the penalty is duly converted, 1-0. Then the flares really got going. A dozen of them. The fans chant, the drums bang louder. I’m surprised when some riot police jog onto the pitch to accompany the ref when he blows the half-time whistle.

It quietens down quickly, and the food vendors walk up and down the aisles selling their snacks. Nothing vegan, though, so I skip the offerings. I notice one young lad, shirtless, carrying a fire extinguisher, and wonder how he managed to smuggle it in. Quickly though, I spot several more lads with them. The players come out, and the extinguishers are let off in unison. Colour-coordinated in pink and blue, the air is filled with dust. The flares had already gone out, so the fire risk was minimal, and then the CO2 dust rains down on the crowd.

The chants continue but the noise erupts once again when Quito score early in the second half. It looks like they can play after all. Later I notice the ref has a paint gun to mark the ’10 yard’ distance at free kicks. He carefully marks where the ball is to be set and where the opposing players can stand. What an idea! Why don’t they use that in the Premiership?? When one of the players feigns injury (sorry, that’s my prejudice – all players in South America feign injury…) a golf cart comes on to cart the player off. Needless to say he is absolutely fine.

The game peters out, despite another goal for Quito. They win 3-0 and the crowd are happy. The chants continued throughout the rest of the game. An estimated 9,000 were there, though it was hard to tell given how empty the stadium looked on the other sides. But I didn’t care. It had been quite an experience for me and I enjoyed it, despite having to sit out in the cool mountain air. It wasn’t as good as English football, but you try telling that to the thousands of Quito fans who left the stadium, paying 10 cents to use the toilet on their way out.

Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera, so here’s another picture of Carlos Valderrama…

Carlos Valderrama is Colombian, but you just can't beat that hairstyle