Fruandes: Fair Trade Mangoes, Bogota, Colombia

Remember Hansel and Gretel and their gingerbread house? When I walked in the door at Fruandes (Frutos de los Andes), I thought I’d wandered into my own mango version. Mmmmm, mangoes. Homer Simpson eat your (doughnut) heart out.

“It’s common for people to convert their houses into businesses here”, says Hugo Ciro, one of the founders and CEO of Level Ground, the Canadian company that imports the products from Fruandes. And from the outside, you’d never know. But once the door was opened, it was an Aladdin’s cave of mango heaven.

It was a stroke of luck that my visit to Bogota coincided with Hugo’s. He lives near Victoria, BC, Canada and was in Colombia to visit some of the producers that Level Ground works with. My visit that day also coincided with a mad scramble by the staff to get the dried mangoes loaded and shipped out to Canada due to a late harvest this season. It was chaotic but a general air of good humour prevailed.

Hugo was born in Colombia but has lived in Canada for many years. This mango facility I visited was established in Bogota in order to help a group of local women. Displaced women who had come to Cazuca (with their children), a local refugee camp in the suburbs of Bogota, were employed to work in the factory. Through a connection with a local NGO, Level Ground provides minimum wages, access to healthcare, transport subsidies, school tuition, scholarships and materials for children. More recently they’ve set up a way to let them access credit, acting like a bank, for workers who wish to purchase their own housing. Applying to the government for a downpayment, Fruandes helps with a loan if that application is successful.

Level Ground work with producers in several countries. Since 2001 they helped producers through diversification into dried fruit (due to the “coffee  crisis”). As well as mango, they source coconut, banana, pineapple and physallis. Also panela (sugar cane). All the fruit is sourced from Colombia, though due to high demand for mango they are looking for alternative supplies in another country.

The white coats of the workers contrasted sharply with the orange-yellow hue of the mangoes they worked with. It was messy but in a good way! All the cutting and chopping is done by hand, the mango is then loaded on to drying racks and placed in the humidifiers to dry. On my visit, there were two shifts of workers due to the need to get the mangoes done as quickly as possible.

Level Ground, the importer of Fruandes fruit, does not have designated Fair Trade certification (through Fairtrade International [FLO], recognised by the FLO symbol). The company is also changing its membership from the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) to the Fair Trade Federation (FTF). Being a member of one (or both) of these groups indicates the company is committed to working on Fair Trade principles. Typical members are companies who deal with crafts where certification standards are harder to establish due to the nature of these products. Hugo said that Level Ground supports the ideals of Fair Trade but they prefer to support it in their own way. Although it’s harder to recognise a “fairly traded” product this way, what I saw at Level Ground and Fruandes is a business working to Fair Trade principles. From their customers’ point of view, it is important to have organic certification. Also, Level Ground are very open about how they do their business and welcome transparency and people finding out more about their farmers and their produce.

Amid all the hullaballoo trying to load up the boxed mangoes on the container lorry, the staff were in good spirits. An improvised loading slide, sending boxes to the lorry from the second-floor window, worked a treat, but it was slow going. It was Hugo’s last day and he was due to fly back to Canada later that evening. I’d been in flagging spirits at this point in my trip and part of me wished I was going back with him.

One of the important aspects of Fruandes is how the fruit production process enables more money to stay with the Colombian workers and thus in the local economy. The growers benefit from Fair Trade and by processing, drying and packing the fruit in Bogota, it benefits local people here too.

Before I left I was invited to the daily staff mango party. Or at least it felt like that. Freshly-cut mango was handed around on a tray to several of the staff who were taking a quick break. It was hard to resist, so I didn’t. I can eat a lot of mango… My skin didn’t turn mango colour, but as I stepped out into the cool Bogota sunshine I had a satisfying glow, and not just from the delicious fruit.

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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.

Disaster and Hope: Fair Trade Bananas in northern Peru

“We can save some parcels,” says one of the BOS banana growers we met, “but we have to throw away most of the trees. We hope the rain won’t come back so that we can begin this work in April [we visited in late March]. But we need assistance and can’t do anything without government help.” Unfortunately, government assistance is a remote proposition. “We will have to throw away the trees because the flood water has been there so long that the tree roots are saturated and the trees will not grow any more.”

The BOS (Bananeros Organicos Solidarios) banana co-op was one of three banana co-ops we visited that day. All three have been seriously affected by improbable rains and flooding that the area received. We were in northern Peru, in the lowland desert a short distance north of Piura. The area typically receives only 50 mm of rain per year, but in February this year three times that amount fell in a couple of days. Combined with the huge amount of rainfall that the mountain areas received meant a double blow. The rivers burst their banks and flooded many of the lowland areas.

My travels coincided with a visit to the area by a few people I knew from Canada, and I was excited to be able to join them for a day as we toured three different Fair Trade banana co-ops. From Vancouver were Randy Hooper, owner of Discovery Organics (that imports organic, Fair Trade bananas from co-ops in this area); David Wilson from Choices Markets (buys these bananas from Discovery Organics); and Sean McHugh from Fair Trade Vancouver. Also accompanying us were Jim and Sophie from the Peru office of Fairtrasa, the company that has helped many producers in central and south America to convert to Fair Trade and buys their produce to sell in Europe and North America.

Once it became clear to Randy Hooper that producers were so severely affected (this included mango growers as well, located a little further south) he initiated an emergency fundraiser. The trip he made was to present some of the funds raised to these groups and show solidarity, support and to tell them that their customers are concerned about the farmers’ livelihoods. This would never happen with those in a conventional trade situation.

From all the donations received, $10,000 was given to BOS. That is crucial for the co-op to help those most in need, but it is a drop in the bucket compared to what they probably require. Randy estimates $500,000 would be necessary to get the co-op back on its feet properly. We toured some of the affected parcels and met a few of the growers who had lost their entire crop. They told us their situation with dignity and without an obvious sense of the calamity they face, but I could see the hurt in the eyes of many of them. For the older growers, they accept that nature throws them situations like this, that it is part of farming, however difficult it can be. They are experienced enough to know that nature can be pleasant or harsh. But to know that their buyers are concerned for them makes a huge difference. Randy is a rare example of a person who genuinely cares about the people he buys from. Very rare. Fair Trade tries to build relationships like this, and though it is difficult, it is a step towards giving those at the bottom of the ladder a step up, a helping hand, rather than constantly pushing them back down into the muddy earth.

Earlier in the day we visited two other co-ops. Our first visit was to Santa Clara. It is a wind-blown little village that sits just above the floodplain. Down below from the village, a sea of green. The village itself was a collection of brown and yellow desert dust. We packed into a little community hall and the presentations began. One thing I’ve noticed is how in these kind of situations everyone likes to speak up and have their say, and usually they take a long time to say it! We were pressed for time, so no chance to visit the affected areas. However, the presentations were well received – and so was the donation to the co-op of $5,000. $1,000 is for the village school and $4,000 towards a new warehouse.

After a hurried group photo we were off again, to visit AP BOSMAM. We were treated to a ‘shortened’ slideshow presentation, though even that had us wilting in the heat of the afternoon as we sat sweating and struggling to pay attention. Again, Randy and David did their presentations. As well as giving everyone a large printed photo of the Choices Markets management team, he presented each group with a soccer ball (Fair Trade of course). The previous day that had resulted in an impromptu 20-minute game of football. A donation was given to this co-op of $5,000.

One of the projects that AP BOSMAM has been heavily involved in is to help a local school. We took a visit there, where children of all ages, dressed in bright yellow, acted as though a giant sugar fairy had sprinkled them all with excitement. It was bedlam as the strange white people wandered around the school grounds. BOSMAM had recently been able to use Fair Trade social premiums to improve facilities at the school, whether through a new volleyball court or new desks and chairs for the classrooms. We were ushered into one classroom where the children were expecting us. Ahead of our visit they had made various flags that they now began waving as we entered. In a boisterous but well-behaved manner, they showed off their flags of Canada, USA, Peru,,,and Cuba. They quickly quietened down when the presentation started and did not make attempts to hide their boredom. Outside the classroom, many other children squeezed themselves in the doorway or at windows to get a glimpse of the gringos in their midst.

One day, three Fair Trade banana co-ops. All of them have suffered lately because of disastrous, extreme weather and yet they will struggle on, much as they have always done. However, in some cases, if a situation becomes too severe, farmers will abandon their plots and migrate to the cities to try to find work, typically with little success.

Even for farmers who managed to salvage some of their crop, their bananas have suffered. Quality has been affected and prices subsequently fell. I saw many sorry-looking bananas for sale in local markets in Piura, the largest city in the area. For one “nuevo sole”, approximately 40 cents, I was able to buy 10 bananas.

At BOS, Randy told the gathered farmers that we will return to Vancouver and do what we can to help them by publicising their situation, but stressed that there were no guarantees. The farmer spoke again. “We are thankful to Randy for coming here and showing his support and trying to help us. We will grow more bananas, we will come back.”

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(You can also see a couple of videos from the BOS visit, at http://www.youtube.com/fairtradebikeride)

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

 

Meet and two veg: Discovery Organics tell us about the produce we eat

As I’ve cycled through Mexico I’ve managed to find a lot of interesting, locally-produced fruit (and the odd vegetable too). Easily available fruit that I’ve been enjoying – mangoes, guava, bananas, melon, oranges, grapefruit, tomatoes, pineapple, coconut…exotic stuff! Even though I have missed out on the summer Vancouver produce I feel I’m getting a pretty good deal here.

But those of us back in Vancouver, US and Europe have to go to a bit more trouble to sample these kinds of fruit. We’ve got used to seeing most of those on our shelves for at least a good part of the year and pretty much take it for granted nowadays.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to step back a bit and think about how this all gets to your local shop.

The other day I read a blog post from Discovery Organics, a Vancouver-based produce importer/distributor that promotes organic, Fair Trade and local produce through developing long-term relationships with small-scale farmers. It’s owned by Randy and Annie, two passionate advocates for good quality food and fair working conditions. They do a fantastic job bringing organic, and especially Fair Trade, produce to Vancouver and western Canada.

I read a blog piece by Randy about a visit he made to Peru just over a week ago. It really brought home to me how connected we are to the places our food comes from, even if we pay little attention to that fact.

You can read the piece below, and for more info about Discovery Organics, check them out on the link below.

http://www.discoveryorganics.ca/blog

Randy’s produce update: climate change and produce supply

I was in Peru last week, and was lucky enough to be involved in a rather impromptu get-together with produce importers from the U.S., England, France and Italy.  Our conversation turned quickly to climate change, and the impact on agriculture.  This was after I had been talking to our three different co-ops of mango producers, all wondering how they are going to survive.  Pollination is down 80% in some areas, and one variety of mangos is ripening 2 weeks ahead of schedule, while the other, normally shipping in early November, won’t be ready until after Christmas, potentially overlapping with the Mexican crop, instead of falling in a perfect window.  This year, Chile lost a huge amount of their avocado crop, with the coldest, most brutal winter on record – including snow and hard frost in areas that have never seen them. 

Interestingly, the biggest impact the Europeans are seeing is the dramatically different quality in citrus, with rapid ripening, quick ‘re-greening’ and low juice content.  Juice content in limes from parts of Mexico have lowered 10% over the last 2 years.  Warming in certain areas is allowing tropical diseases to migrate farther and farther from the Equator, where growers have been caught off guard.  The Veracruz area on the Bay of Campeche in South Central Mexico has lost 70,000 hectares of citrus production this year to a new disease. In New Zealand, kiwi growers took a hit with production expected to drop 20% next season. 

As suppliers, we are going to have to watch, very closely, as many crops, including some vegetables are going to do weird things, both in the tree, as well as in storage and on the shelf, and adapt quickly to these changing times.  Even wheat harvests, even in a good growing year like this one, have been reduced 20% because of the largest ozone hole ever recorded over the Arctic stretched across Russia, and scorching the plants with excessive UVB levels. 

This past growing season locally may also be a warning sign of tough times ahead, and B.C. growers will also have to adapt to different planting times, and innovative strategies, to move forward profitably.   

Not a great Thanksgiving message, as we celebrate the hard work of all farmers out there at the end of harvest-time. 

Once we become part of this huge global food system, whether as a farmer or a retailer, we become enrolled in the love of feeding people – especially healthy, organic food.  The entire Discovery team wishes you all a great Thanksgiving weekend, and eternal thanks for what you do!