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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.