K’antu fair trade shop, Puno, Peru

Tucked away in an old courtyard, the centuries-old casa del corregidor (the mayor’s house) now serves as a little courtyard housing some of Puno’s socially-minded businesses.

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Casa del Corregidor: for socially-minded businesses

A couple of travel agents and a fantastic cafe can be reached via the peaceful courtyard.

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If only I had this in my neighbourhood

But tucked to the right of the main entrance was the surprising find, k’antu. It was, as the sign proudly displays, a fair trade shop.

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K’antu: a fair trade shop

K’antu is a retail part of the organisation CIAP (Central Interregional de Artisanos) that for more than 20 years has tried to assist the more vulnerable people (women in particular) in various parts of Peru, particularly around Puno and Lima, the capital. Individual members of CIAP are organised into associations that typically comprise around 15-20 members. Nearly three-quarters of CIAP members are female. In the Puno region there are about eight different associations.

William Flores is the manager at k’antu and when he wasn’t chatting to one of his local artisan members, he gave me an insight into k’antu’s origins.

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William, the manager, talking with a local artisan

Puno is a relatively poor region. The idea of the k’antu shop was to try to take advantage of the tourism in the area and create a space to sell the products made by local artisans.

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Bertha prices up some local crafts

It’s membership of the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) ensures that all the producers are paid a fair price for the products they create.

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K’antu shop entrance, proudly showing its WFTO membership

Using local materials, the biggest sellers here are clothing (made from alpaca and llama wool), jewellery and handicrafts. Each product carries a WFTO label, the name of the artisan who made it and the association name they belong to. In our virtually-connected world it felt more appropriate that I was able to connect to a real person by buying an item from k’antu and supporting fairly the livelihoods of people who’ve lived here for generations.

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A map of the area shows where the local artisans live
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A sign outside the shop explains what the organisation is

And what better way to finish up a hard afternoon’s shopping than with a cup of local fair trade coffee sat outside in the sunshine.

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Good cafe. Good coffee
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Enjoying a cup of fair trade coffee at the cafe next door

 

 

 

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Floating Islands, Lake Titicaca, Peru

While in Puno I took the chance to do some sightseeing for a day. And the main attraction is on the lake itself, Lake Titicaca.

It is one of the most famous local attractions for tourists – a visit to the see the Uru people (los uros) who inhabit a multitude of floating islands just a few kilometres by boat from Puno. It is certainly another world. The indigenous people here pre-date the Incas, living on islands of reeds they made themselves. Even today they still make their homes and their boats from the reeds.

Tourism helps to keep these communities going, but much of it felt staged. From the welcoming sing-a-long to the information talk and the hard-sell of the local crafts I hoped the communities maintained their sense of identity, and not just a tourist facsimile. When the tourists aren’t around, the people here still have to maintain their way of life.

As well as a visit to Los Uros, Puno has a few other attractions, including a ship built in the 19th century (MN Yavari) that took six years to be hauled up over the Andes from the coast and then reassembled on the lake. As well as checking its seaworthiness I climbed up the local hill overlooking Puno (Condor hill) and later relaxed in a fine cafe with a cup of local fair trade coffee.

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Update – Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

Thank you to everyone who helped this community with a donation! Out of this sad event the news is good – they hit the fundraising target of $5,000. Here’s an update from early January from co-ordinating fundraiser Katie Barnes:

We’re so excited that we’ve reached our goal! Thank you so much to everyone who helped. Remember, just because we’ve hit $5,000 doesn’t mean that you can’t still contribute — La Florida can still absolutely appreciate and make use of all donations!

Hopefully the community will be able to salvage some of its coffee harvest this year. Thanks again to everyone who contributed. You can continue to find more info below, which I hope will give updates on their rebuilding process.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

Earthquake in Guatemala: Finca la Florida community needs help

It is with sad news that I write about a community I visited almost a year ago, Finca la Florida in southwest Guatemala. The recent earthquake that hit the country on 8th November has had a major impact on this community and its livelihood. I spent three days with the people here and it was one of the highlights of my trip. Although they are poor, they try to be self-sufficient. However, in a situation like this, there is little, if any, federal help to get them on their feet again.

I was contacted a few days ago by Katie Barnes, who has visited La Florida twice. So both of us have seen this wonderful community for ourselves and how, even in the best of times, they struggle to make a life for themselves above the poverty line. Within the community are around 50 families. Ten homes have been badly damaged along with the Casa Grande (the old house that had been converted for their eco-tourist project). Young coffee trees in their nursery have been hurt; honey-making equipment too. Most importantly, water pipes required for coffee processing is broken. The timing is particularly bad as it is harvest time; without the means to process organic, fair trade coffee, their income will be severely impacted.

Katie has established a ‘crowd sourcing’ fundraising website. If you are able, please make a donation to help this community get back on its feet. Katie has detailed the exact damage and cost to make the repairs. You can see exactly where your money will go. For example, $1,500 is required to buy and install new water pipes.

http://www.indiegogo.com/guatemala-earthquake-recovery/

http://fincalaflorida.com/index.html

I posted last Christmas about my time there, and here’s a video too. If you are able, consider making a donation. It will all help!

https://fairtradebikeride.wordpress.com/2011/12/25/finca-la-florida-eco-tourist-fair-trade-community-colomba-quetzaltenango/

Chajul (II): Village life

In all I spent 24 hours in the village of Chajul. Although the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out as I hoped, I found the village a fascinating place and got a little insight into how people here live.

Of all the places I’ve been to, this one felt the most isolated. I hardly heard Spanish being spoken. The indigenous population are Ixil. The women and girls all dressed in traditional clothing; each region has a distinctive design. To an outsider such as myself it looked as though their customs and traditions have carried through into the 21st century. However, this region carries more tragic circumstances. It is the heart of the Ixil region, and during the civil war (1960s to the mid-90s) around half the Ixil population disappeared or were killed. The Asociacion is one organisation working hard to help rebuild the local populations and their local customs.

A good education continues to be difficult to achieve, and most children still do not get much beyond a few years at the primary level. Given that children under 15 make up a large percentage of the population it is an uphill struggle. I saw lots of youngsters out in the streets and few looked like they attended any kind of school. As youngsters go, they looked happy, and I laughed at how they can so easily make themselves happy with the most basic ‘toys’ to entertain themselves. I saw some kids ‘sliding’ down the street sitting on an upturned bottle crate, whilst others had made a kite out of a plastic bag. They were very friendly though and shouted out at me, often in some funny English word they’d picked up from television.

It looked to me that poverty was a problem in the village. Aside from lacking the ‘luxuries’ of television and hot water, many dwellings looked basic and shabby. People would crowd at a local store to watch television, though mobile phones were everywhere. A typical ‘house’ is a single room dwelling made of wood or concrete. There is little light or ventilation so the smoke from the stove/fire inside has little escape. Even for me, walking the streets I found the smell and pollution quite overpowering.

The local market was pretty crazy, particularly when goods show up ‘fresh’. Second-hand clothes were hugely popular and so are bananas, as I could hardly find any anywhere! And tortillas were proving tricky too. Eventually I tracked down a woman at one of the ‘comedor’ places. They’re hand-made and she had some spare so I got some pretty fresh ones. Hands-down (sorry, bad joke) they’re better than the machine-made ones…I even went back there the following morning, made to order!

I felt like I’d visited a place that few outsiders would see, and I was happy to have the experience of seeing the village; just sampling all the tiny things that made it different. Beyond the town there are many even more remote communities, but I was happy just to spend a short time there. At times I felt uncomfortable, being so obviously an outsider in this very traditional village. I sensed this most particularly when taking pictures in the village. It was pretty clear that most people were uncomfortable if they saw the camera pointed at them. It’s always a challenge to record and document places and people but also respecting their privacy.

And even though the Fair Trade visit didn’t work out this time, my time in the village made the trip worth while.

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Resting in San Cristobal

I decided I would take a bit of time to relax in San Cristobal, and it was a good place to do so. Decent food (for me, plenty of vegan options), excellent coffee (mucho organic, local and some ‘fair trade’ options too) and an attractive centre that makes for some easy-going, meandering walks around and about the distinct colonial architecture of the town.

It’s been a great way to unwind a bit and though I haven’t explored much outside of town I did get to see a good few things here. As well as my Fair Trade visits, Dan suggested I visit one or two of the several NGOs that are based here. Most of them are geared towards helping the indigenous populations in Chiapas. I met up with Faustino & Gilberto at Desmi and popped into the office of Frayba. As Dan had explained to me on our visit to Acteal, the local indigenous populations have suffered heavily over the years and organisations like these two try do what they can to help.

Desmi promotes the interests and rights of mixed and indigenous communities in Chiapas. They work to promote economic solidarity through means of justice, equality, dialogue and environmental respect, all geared towrds creating autonomy within these communities.

Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (Frayba) Center for Human Rights is an independent non-profit Civil Organization. Frayba was founded in 1989 through the initiative of Samuel Ruiz García, Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas. They work in defense and promotion of human rights, especially for the indigenous villages and communities here in Chiapas.

Changing tack…my time here coincided with an annual culture festival (Cervantino Barroco) so I got to sample some local music in different venues around the town. There is normally some music to be had here if you wander the plaza or some of the pedestrianised streets

I also took the chance (and I would certainly describe this as ‘taking a chance’) to send a couple of things back home. I’d tried to do so from La Paz and was confronted by the impressively convoluted way of using the Mexican postal system. When I was there, any package must first be inspected by customs, which was conveniently located about 3km away from the post office. So I expected more hassle here in San Cristobal, but firstly I had to find an envelope…

After trawling around town trying to find a large packet envelope (Mexican post offices haven’t got around to selling the kind of things you might need to send a package. Just stamps), I went back to the post office to await the fun. Amazingly enough it was not only straightforward but I got a lot of help getting it sent. The guy behind the counter found an old box that I could use; he packed it up (firstly having to check what I was sending) and conveniently ignored the extra few grams that took the package into a higher price band. I expected nothing but more hassle and so I’ve had to revise my view a little. The other strange thing was seeing the row of staff busy typing away on typewriters, though one lady looked particularly bored as she plodded her finger on the space bar to get to the end of the line…

I stayed at a nicely-run B&B called Gite del Sol. It was inexpensive and friendly, on the lower scale but suited my needs (apart from getting used to the cool evenings and crispy mornings). It’s run by a Mexican-Canadian couple so I kept hearing French and English as well as Spanish, as welll as the odd spattering of German too. As for food and coffee, I found some great places here. The best vegetarian (where I went repeatedly) was Arcoiris, which does a vegetarian buffet. It’s very homely and low-key and they do some ‘interesting’ combinations when using up the previous day’s food, particularly the bread…but it’s generally fresh and it was easy to find vegan options there. My top recommendation! There are a couple of really good bakeries (Madre Tierra and Casa del Pan Papalotl, which is also organic) too where I ate enough bread to make up for all the tortillas I’d been eating for the previous two months. For coffee I had too much choice…from the Cafe Museo, Casa del Pan, Madre Tierra, Cafe La Selva, Cafe Yik…all organic, some Fair Trade, all local Chiapas coffee.

Leaving San Cristobal was hard to do…but Guatemala soon awaits!

Fair Trade Co-op Visit (II): Maya Vinic, Acteal

The day after my visit to the Maya Vinic office, Dan organised a trip for us to see their warehouse in the village of Acteal. Located north of San Cristobal, up and over a couple of scenic valleys, it’s a 1.5 hour drive that took us winding through some pretty bumpy roads. This is a constant hazard in these kind of areas but an accepted part of everyday life here.

Dan has worked in this area for around ten years and has been based here for over a year. He regularly makes trips to visit the different communities and was happy to bring me along to see a couple of them for myself as well. As we travelled, Dan tried to explain the complexities of the relationships between these indigenous people. He explained things pretty well but even by the end of my visit that day I was struggling to understand the whole situation. In fairness, Dan says even he is still working to understand it too.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there has been a long history of oppression of the indigenous populations in Chiapas. So…I will try to keep this as clear as I can!

About a quarter of the 4.3m inhabitants of Chiapas are indigenous. Language is the main ethnic identifier. In this area the most common are Tzotzil and Tzeltal. Acteal is a Tzotzil community and the inhabitants are commonly known as “Las Abejas” (The Bees). In common with indigenous peoples worldwide, here they have been treated as 2nd-class citizens and have long been marginalised and forced to live in areas with the least productive land, and lacking government support. The Zapatista uprising that created headlines in 1994 was supported by many indigenous people of different backgrounds. In 1996 the Zapatistas tried to negotiate indigenous rights and autonomy, but it was never ratified and tensions escalated between the two sets of supporters. The ultimate tragedy played out on 22nd December 1997 in Acteal when 49 villagers were massacred. The victims were men, women and children who were praying and fasting in the local chapel.

The government since then has jailed a number of people they deemed to be responsible. Many were from the same area around Acteal, former friends and neighbours. However, the local community believes that there are many others locally who have not been held to account and this has continued to foster distrust and suspicion. Many people have left Acteal to move to a neighbouring community and some even set up a new one less than 10 years ago.

In Acteal a Danish sculpturist created the “Columna de la Infamia” (Pillar of Shame) as a memorial to those who died. It is located next the road above the hill where these events took place. Down a series of steps, Dan and I walked to the main heart of the village – the administrative office of “the bees”, an open meeting area (which when we visited was holding a memorial service for those who died. It happens on the 22nd of every month), health centre and the chapel where those who died were praying. At the front of the open meeting area are draped a series of banners proclaiming the names of the dead and the names of those who the community believes took part in or authorised the massacre.

The response of this pacifist community culminated in 1999 with the formation of the Maya Vinic co-operative. Since then the co-operative have successfully created a community-minded enterprise that now benefits many producers within the surrounding area. A number of achievements followed: Fair Trade coffee certification, Fair Trade benefits for the productores (e.g. “social premium” funds, micro-loans, training), a new warehouse, purchase of vehicles, a new office in San Cristobal, diversifying into honey production and to open a cafe in San Cristobal in 2012. In 2001 France awarded Maya Vinic with a Human Rights award for their response to the tragedy.

On my tour at Maya Vinic I got to see a range of their operations. Their warehouse is the coffee delivery point for the producers. This is also where the coffee gets sorted and graded according to quality. It passes through a range of different machines, and due to my limited Spanish I was only able to understand that the green beans that are left at the end are the best quality and they are the ones that get exported abroad, mostly to the USA.

Then I got to see their garden/eco-project. It contains the main meeting room, dormitories for co-op members to stay in if needed, and a nursery of coffee plants. I took them on trust when they said the bee hives were further up the slopes! And one other quite unique feature is that they produce mushrooms that they sell to the producers. The mushrooms are cultivated using discarded corn stalks, that are bagged up and left to ferment in a couple of special climate-controlled rooms. The mushrooms grow on the outside of the plastic bags and are picked off as and when they’re ready. Unconventional it certainly was!

Pablo (the President) was also in the village so Dan and I stopped for a few minutes to chat. Afterwards, we stopped by at a neighbouring community. On the way there, we drove through other villages and along dirt roads. The streets were filled with people walking along on their way to market. All the women (and most girls) were traditionally dressed. Each community has its own unique way of dressing and together they create a very colourful, bright and fascinating insight into centuries-old traditions. We gave three ladies a lift along the dirt roads and I remarked to Dan how dodgy we must look – two white guys in the front and the three indigenous ladies in the back…

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