If you’re currently experimenting with a change in your diet and seeing what Veganuary is all about, well done, you’re half way through. If not…it’s never too late (even in February). As well as health and environmental benefits, the animals appreciate it too.
If you do eat meat and wonder how you could possibly consider going without it, at least give some consideration to where it comes from. You don’t have to kill your own, but someone, somewhere does, and that’s worth thinking about.
One farmer in Ontario reflected on his own chicken-killing experience recently.
Global beef production and its effects on our planet – a compelling story map has the details.
This is worth a look at, showing a compelling analysis of global beef production and its effect on our planet. The Cost of Beef “story map” comes from an environmental perspective and is reputable, put together by esri, University of Minnesota and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Combining analysis, maps and photos, it presents a compelling argument that we cannot maintain the status quo.
For example, it shows the parts of the world where farmland is used to feed animals and for biofuels. More than one third of the calories produced from crops is not for human consumption and in the US less than half of all crops produced ends up as food for people.
A couple of things from the UK reminded me of my visit to the banana farmers in Piura, northern Peru. The first was seeing how areas of the south of England experienced some pretty awful floods throughout the course of this winter, so bad that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, got his Cobra committee together at one point to tackle the problem (or be seen to be tackling it) and even suggested that “no expense will be spared” to help clean up the affected areas and help prevent this from happening in future.
I’m sure much of the money the Government will end up spending on the clean up would have gone a long way to preventing this thing in the first place if proper land management practices had been implemented. Invoking Sarah Palin, Cameron could no doubt spur us to “dig baby, dig” to dredge numerous rivers. This won’t work either.
The second thing is we’re coming to the end of Fairtrade Fortnight and the focus has been to encourage people to learn about the problem of cheap bananas and switch to buying fairtrade if possible.
Banana producers and labourers generally have long had a hard time of it. If you work on a banana plantation, you’re likely to be susceptible to poor wages, long hours, poor working conditions, exposure to various pesticides and be vulnerable to losing your job should you wish to complain. Those farmers who do own their own land potentially have it a little better, though many who produce convential bananas also have to contend with receiving a meagre income, being at the mercy of the multinationals who dictate the prices paid to them.
The farmers I met in Piura belonged to fairtrade co-ops. They were able to overcome many of these problems by the means of receiving higher prices, payments towards community projects, better environmental management and working conditions, among many other things.
However, they are still just as vulnerable to the weather. When I visited, many of them had seen their small plots of land be drowned by floodwaters. The banana plants, stuck in standing water for so long, were dying and would have to be replaced in many cases, causing additional expense with the loss of income from a much smaller harvest.
For these Peruvian farmers however, there was no Prime Minister or President appearing on television to tell the country that no expense would be spared to clean up the area and put the farmers back to where they were. Without fairtrade prices these farmers would have been in even more trouble (Discovery Organics, a Vancouver-based produce importer and distributor, also donated money [also the ongoing fundraiser Pennies For Peru]).
No doubt the UK people affected by floods will have a hard time getting their properties back in shape. There may even be some long-term effects to deal with. I’ll leave aside the hardship of ‘lower property prices’ that will worry them into the wee small hours. For the banana farmers of northern Peru, they have some bigger issues to consider. Is their livelihood destroyed? Will they have to leave the land they own and move away, breaking important community and social links in their neighbourhoods? There were many problems ahead.
So when you’re next looking for bananas in your local shop, look for fairtrade. If they’re not available, try to shop elsewhere. Stick With Foncho, as the campaign goes. Stick with fairtrade.
For a touring cyclist there can be no better energy food than peanut butter. Actually it’s just excellent food period. Already one of my favourite things to eat, it became my number one food of choice on the road. Being vegan, sampling a lot of local ‘delicacies’ was out the window, so as I moved further south, seeking out supplies of my favourite essential foodstuff became a bit of a mission, one that fortuitously led to discoveries in every country.
What’s there not to like? It goes with just about anything, sweet or savoury. My first few weeks in the USA were easy. Oh, how I look back fondly on those idyllic times, stopping mid-afternoon at a local natural food store for some organic, additive-free, peanut butter. If I was lucky, I could even grind the peanuts myself. Such luxury…
Back home in Vancouver I happily make a peanut butter sandwich with avocado and Marmite (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it…). Lacking the special Marmite magic on my travels, I kept to my favourite accompaniment – bananas. Even in Peru, my love affair with peanut butter was still going strong. Who needs variety when you’ve got peanut butter.
I didn’t expect to become so dependent on it, but as I realised I might be able to find supplies throughout Mexico I made a point of searching for it – high and low. I migrated from bread (Bimbo!) to fresh, often delicious tortillas, but I needed some quality toppings and fillings. Beans (with jalapenos)? Avocado and tomatoes (with jalapenos)? Both great options, but I needed that delicious, sweet taste and energy from the peanut butter and it’s conjoined twin, bananas (you can’t separate these things).
It became a bit of a game to try and hunt out peanut butter in each country I passed through. If I found a good source I’d buy extra – just in case there wasn’t any across the next border. However I lucked out every time, with only one – and a very minor one considering my alternatives – snag: Skippy, Jif and their ilk.
Like I said, I try to eat peanut butter as it should be. And that means peanuts. End of. No sugar, no palm oil, no hydrogenated oil, no random other ‘natural’ ingredients. I’ll allow a little salt. If it’s organic, so much the better. From Mexico southwards it was a different story. But needs must, so I wasn’t complaining. I learned to embrace Big Peanut Butter. It definitely spread better. Large jars of Skippy and Jif were stuffed into my panniers. Occasionally I’d see a ‘local’ brand, which really meant some country-specific peanut butter brand owned by the usual suspects. One was called Peter Pan. On very rare and heavenly days I found authentic, 100% peanut butter, such as from cafe Al-Natur in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. And it came crunchy.
Was it expensive? For me, touring on a tight budget, absolutely. I could destroy my daily food allowance on just a single jar. But it was worth it. If I found one country to be on the cheaper side, I’d stock up. I could have bought jam for a fraction of the price, but it’s nowhere near the same. My $6 indulgence. The funny thing was trying to compare prices in each country. Most places it worked out roughly similar, $5-$6 or thereabouts. Gringo prices for gringo food. Panama had pretty good prices and Colombia seemed to be the most expensive. But by then I didn’t care. I was well in for the long haul and even while I wasn’t cycling at that point, it was just too good. I almost brought some home.
If you were reading this blog a few months ago, you’ll know about the fun I had trying to escape the tentacles of the Franz breadmaker mafia. Luckily Franz is a regional player, albeit with a lot more reach than I bargained for.
However, for bread in Mexico there’s just no getting away from Bimbo (pronounced Beem-bo). I can’t fathom the reasons for the name, but obviously it’s not the same in Spanish. The cuddly bear mascot reminded me of Mr Stay-Puft from Ghostbusters, and it’s an appropriate comparison given the size of the Bimbo company. Occasionally when I feel like a change from tortillas I check out the Bimbo offerings.
A breadmaker mafia this size clearly has far-reaching tentacles and Bimbo are huge. Grupo Bimbo turns out to be one of the biggest food manufacturers in the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grupo_Bimbo). They’re only the 4th largest food company in the world behind Unilever, Kraft and Nestle and were the world’s largest bread manufacturer in 2010. Stick that up your pipe and smoke it, Franz! So there’s no getting away from them (except in San Cristobal where I found a number of great independent bakeries).
I really know nothing more about Bimbo’s ethics – though I guess it operates in much the same way as any other huge multinational – but the bread I’ve found so far is vegan friendly. No random milk ingredients or sneaky dairy has been added (though plenty of other ‘un-natural’ ingredients are thrown in there), but I do get to ingest a wide range of interesting-sounding chemicals that are typical within modern bread that never goes stale.
The other fun thing is seeing all the Bimbo bread vans careering around the towns and villages. I think this is where Postman Pat came after the Royal Mail gave him his P45 all those years ago.
I spent the next couple of days in the ‘village’ of Chayotepec. It is tiny; a collection of eight families perched in hillside dwellings at the end of the dirt road I’d travelled up the evening before. I didn’t really know what I’d let myself in for but it turned out to be hugely eye-opening and unlike anything I’d experienced before.
I’ve seen rural life in the developed world, but this was in another league, or at least to my eyes it was. From the buildings people lived in, to where they were situated, how they lived and got around, it was a real learning experience. I started out with breakfast at Irma’s (and went there for all my meals whilst in the village). Like most ‘houses’ in the village it is a basic brick building with open doorways and very random add-ons constructed. Coffee was available for each meal – easily available as most of the villagers have coffee bushes growing in their gardens that they roast and grind themselves. Despite the water (boiled over the stove which gave it a ‘tasty’ smoked flavour) the coffee was good.
After breakfast I spent some time with Rosendo, a coffee farmer. We walked and he showed me where his coffee bushes were located (more than 3,000 of them). It took me a while to notice the look of the bushes as they were growing amongst many other types of bushes and trees in the forest. The harvest doesn’t start until December so most of the berries I saw were still green. Rosendo is part of the UCIRI co-op (though some of the other villagers belong to another co-op) and he told me how that works for him and how it has benefitted him, his family and the community over the years. Unfortunately my Spanish is still limited so a lot of what he said I didn’t understand. His wife’s family also have neighbouring land where they grow coffee and it is all done in the traditional way using certified organic practices. Coffee-growing goes back many generations for them.
Village life still looks very traditional. The school has 11 pupils though it was clear that the ‘older’ young people had to leave the village for other opportunities. Irma has two daughters in the US and four of Rosendo’s children live elsewhere. The village has only had electricity within the last few years, and now they have TV and mobile phones. Internet access was not available when I was there. Everyone kept chickens, cows were kept in nearby pastures and everyone had some kind of fruit or vegetable tree growing on their land – mandarins, avocados, oranges, squash, peppers among others. I got to see how chiles are dried with a family who lived down the road from the village.
Time obviously works differently too. Most of the villagers are up early and the taxi leaves on its morning run to Santa Maria every day at 5am, repeating the round trip again in the afternoon. I got highly confused that the village runs on ‘normal’ time and not ‘summer’ time (1 hour ahead). I was early for all my meals…
I got a real sense that the people in the village seemed quite happy, despite the obvious hardships that life there can bring. Life is basic but everyone has what they need, including most of their teeth. I noticed most of the older adults had teeth missing and some gold replacements for the essential ones. It was funny just watching them when they had their mouth open. Most villagers seem to have a way of generating additional income outside of coffee. The ‘eco-tourist’ project has helped Rosendo and Irma’s families; the village taxi; villagers make or sell things for other villagers, such as cheese, peppers or fruit.
On the second night with rain having been falling steadily all day and the village clouded over, I got a little worried when the taxi didn’t seem to return ‘on time’. Perhaps the road got tricky, or the weather was really bad down below…and then I had to laugh at my Western way of thinking, of how we worry so much when things don’t run like clockwork. The taxi runs twice a day and has done for years and so of course they’ve experienced far worse than the weather I’d seen. It comes back when it comes back…not a minute sooner.
The promotion of the village as an eco-tourist destination is still in its formative phase, or so it looked to me, though they’ve been promoting it for a few years. There’s now a central learning centre (not quite finished) and five cabanas for tourists. The people offer guiding and an insight into local day-to-day life. But it’s not free! I was happy to support them in their project as it didn’t seem like they get many visitors right now. Cheese-making, local crafts, coffee, visiting the forest for animal and ecological interests were all possible. Rosendo told me about the numerous different animals and plants that can be found locally. It’s definitely an ‘escape’ and an easy place to switch off and learn about a whole different way of life.
The next morning I got a better look at my accommodation for the night and the rest of the UCIRI facility. On one side of an open courtyard there were several rooms where some of the staff lived. On the other there is the roasting and packing area. I got a brief tour of the area then and a better look when I came back down from the mountains.
It was another morning of “letting things go” with some waiting around for the trip up to the village of Lachivista and the central warehouse. The tentative plan (and I am still unclear as to how loosely the locals go by the clock…) was to head up there around 10am from the office, so I settled in with a coffee and had more of a look around with some attempts at chatting to a couple of the staff. By 11.30am it looked like we were off, but then that became 12pm. Eventually at 1pm we were ready to go. Again, another lesson for me to let things go and just trust that everything is fine. It probably didn’t help that I was still a little unclear as to what the day would bring, but at the same time it was good for me as the whole thing was such a new experience.
An hour later we arrived. Lachivista is not very high up (probably less than 300m) but the road there was winding and had numerous potholes, rocks and in one section had been washed out completely, shutting it for two weeks. The facility is quite the place – a central office, warehouse (bodega) for bean packing/storage, a small health and dental centre, credit union, cafeteria, meeting area, accommodation rooms for staff, fruit processing area (for maracuya and tamarind), greenhouse with coffee plants, a basketball court…and probably more.
The farmers are scattered in many locations and this is where they bring their green coffee.The harvest is typically from December to February so the warehouse looked almost empty, though there was still plenty of coffee in there. The greenhouse is where they cultivate different varities of coffee in their early stages so the farmers can purchase the plants and take them to their own farms.
The way UCIRI has developed over the years means the producers have many more opportunities for diversification and access to credit if needed. Coffee prices are volatile but with UCIRI they at least know that they are able to live a life of dignity and respect.
The meeting with the organic inspectors perhaps went on longer than anticipated, so by the time it was all done and everyone had eaten it was getting late (well for me it was – around 5pm) and I was told I’d be going up to the ‘eco-tourist’ village in the mountains. Trusting that all was in hand, I got a lift with one of the UCIRI staff to the next village to then switch to a local taxi (collectivo) that would take me up to the village of Chayotepec.
The collectivos are everywhere in Mexico and mostly they are glorified pick-up trucks, with bench seating and a cover for transporting people and any local goods. Now was my chance to get a ride in one. The excitement soon gave way to more unease as the road out of town started as a dirt track…exactly where was I going??!? Slowly grinding uphill various people would hop on or hop off and I wondered where they lived. This seemed to be the middle of nowhere…and the road got steeper, more rutted…surely there can’t be a village at the end of this road, can there?
An hour later, at dusk I arrived. I was told by Fransisco that someone in the village would help me out when I arrived. I could do nothing but trust that all would be fine. I tried explaining to a couple of guys there that I knew nothing about the village, what I was going to do there, or where I was staying. Even though a gringo doesn’t show up very often there they took things in hand and I was soon shown to my cabana in the dark. A newly-built simple room, it looked welcoming right then. A couple of locals then brought me some coffee and biscuits and I was left to reflect with a sigh of relief and wonder on the day’s events.