A 100km ride with 1000m of climbing; there was no way I could fit in a visit to a Fair Trade co-operative, could I? As I set out at 7.45am on a sunny and warm Saturday morning from Santa Ana, a Fair Trade coffee visit was the last thing on my mind. Cycling through the northwest of El Salvador was enough to occupy my mind (and body) for the hours ahead.
I was philosophical about it. I’d had several days in Santa Ana and visited a number of places, and although I’d been given this contact in the north, I wasn’t going to make a special effort to visit there.
Up in the far north is the town of La Palma where I was heading for the night. The La Palma co-operative was somewhere in the area and I knew I’d be close, or might even ride right past it. My directions were pretty loose and I thought I’d missed it when I stopped a few km outside of La Palma at a tiny little drying patio full of coffee. It was on a hill so I was happy to get a few minutes rest.
As I waited there, Beto came over to say hello. His friend Aldo (from J Hill) had called to say I might stop by there, but he also told me he’d had a dream about being visited by a gringo on a bicycle…so how could I refuse?!
Beto was excited about my visit and took me around the small site. He’s spent 15 years with the co-op, and persevered through the “crisis” (around 10 years ago when prices dropped to their lowest ever level) when many producers abandoned their land. This was common in many countries in Latin America, and also led to a large increase in the number of people trying to sneak into the US.
Beto also works at the Salvadoran annual “Cup of Excellence” where he is one of the roasters. That’s quite an achievement, so I knew then I was talking to a man steeped in coffee knowledge.
The area I was in – northwest El Salvador – is a small coffee-producing area. It was quite different from the areas around Santa Ana; there are no volcanoes and the climate is a little different too. He mentioned that the harvest was relatively normal this year, unlike for those in Santa Ana who had seen the deluge of rainfall the previous October. The producers here are all small-scale farmers, scattered about at various distances from the La Palma co-op. There is only one road through La Palma and it is just a few kilometres from the Honduran border. Getting their coffee to the mill is a process in itself for many of the producers.
Fair Trade has helped the co-op survive and Beto has made only a few small investments in improving the mill. They recently built a cupping lab, which was really just a basic room with the necessary equipment. He doesn’t have grand plans for expansion, and I got the impression it was often a struggle to keep things going. They work hard, particularly at harvest time and the rewards seem few and far between. But he had a calm air about him, and having persevered through several years of hard struggle, he hoped that Fair Trade (despite its costs, for example) would continue to give the co-op, its producers and their families just that little bit extra.