Jardin, Colombia: Jaime Marin, Fair Trade Coffee Farmer

An abrupt knock on my hotel room door as I was polishing off my makeshift dinner. “Senor,” says the receptionist, “there is someone waiting for you downstairs.” Jaime Marin had arrived early. He was keen to meet me, though I saw over the next day or two how he likes to meet and talk to just about anyone. Warm and friendly, red-eyed but with young-looking features, he’s also loud and lively.

And so began my adventures with Jaime. We ventured out into the beautiful cobbled square in the centre of Jardin, where he wanted me to meet an American couple whom he’d been guiding that day. I had no idea who they were, but Jaime was enthusiastic. Eventually, Floridians David and Marivel ambled over, and we shared an evening together with rum as I listened to their adventures of the day with Jaime in the local surrounding stunning countryside. I got a sense of what I was letting myself in for on the following day, as Jaime and I made arrangements to visit his finca.

Jardin (The Garden), is more than an apt name for this delightful town, located in the Andean foothills within a beautiful, lush and deeply green valley, south of Medellin. Almost immediately I sensed the languid and restful aura; this is a place worth spending time in. And if, like me, you seem too busy to ever sit, watch the world go by and ‘people watch’, spending a little time here will convert you without even knowing. The beautiful town square is made for lounging in, whether at 6am or 6pm. Many locals sit and drink coffee all day, and the ambience of the town compels visitors to do the same.

The backdrop was a bonus. I was here to visit coffee growers, and one man in particular: Jaime. Jaime Marin is a farmer here who supplies his hill-grown coffee for the Canadian company Level Ground (one of several in this and surrounding regions who do so). I’d met Hugo Ciro from Level Ground while I was at Fruandes in Bogota and he suggested I come here to visit Jaime. My three days here turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Next morning, I met Jaime early and we climbed into the back of the local pick-up ‘taxi’ that would pass close to Jaime’s finca, high up in the surrounding hills. It was a popular journey; the small truck was full as we headed up the dirt roads that criss-cross the area. After half an hour we jumped off and reached the finca a short walk away. Immediately I took in the stunning views. Lush green hills drop away from the finca. A deep valley stretches away and the hills rise higher on the far side of the valley. Jaime supplements his income with tours for visitors, and it was obvious what would bring them here.

I met some of his animals – horses, a donkey, goats, chickens. It’s a working farm, but small enough that Jaime needs only a little help, through a local labourer he hires. The finca itself is well kept and tidy. Jaime grew up here. I spotted an old photograph showing him at the finca in his youth and it looked almost identical today.

Jaime runs this small finca, around five hectares. He’s part of a large family (17 brothers and sisters!) but several have left the area. Only two of his brothers have coffee farms locally. He comes every morning to tend the coffee, animals and many other subsistence crops he grows here.

Jaime has a long-established family connection with Level Ground and Hugo. Through a partnership with the local beneficio (Cooperativa Andes), Jaime is able to store his washed coffee (processing it at the finca) in the village, ready for shipping. As well as coffee, Jaime grows tomatoes, bananas, corn, and ‘lulo’. It took me a long time to understand what people talked about when they mentioned this fruit, with its exotic, crazy name. It resembles a ‘little orange’ and most people make juice from it. Everything here except the tomatoes are organic. The animals provide fertiliser for the plants on the farm. He told me he was the only organic producer in this area. Jaime sells his coffee directly to Level Ground, so there is no middle-man commonly found in most coffee importing transactions. It means Level Ground can pay Jaime a higher price for his coffee and they have helped Jaime and his family in several other ways. Level Ground helped to bring one of his daughters to spend six months in Victoria, BC to learn English. Another of his daughters, Veronica, who comes back home every weekend from university in Medellin, had very kindly made us lunch when Jaime and I returned from our tour.

Many other farmers have started to replant their coffee due to devastation caused by the ‘roja’ disease of the previous year. Farmers can’t replant everything at once, but it was easy to spot all the new bushes that lined many hillsides. Jaime grows 5,000 coffee plants, including some recent planting. Despite the increased revenue from coffee with the Level Ground partnership, he still needs an income from other sources. He’s diversified into tourism through his horse tours, but he would like more opportunities, and tourists, to show people this magical area.

The local surroundings where Jaime’s finca is located is not ‘poor’, as was typical in many other places I visited in Central America. I wondered why that was so. Most people kept their homes in good condition and looked after their gardens. Jaime’s apartment was pleasant and modern.

I thought that was the last I’d see of Jaime, as I was due to leave early the next morning. But he was clearly intrigued by my cycling adventure. Later that evening, resting in my hotel room, I got an abrupt knock on the door. Not bothering to get the hotel staff to call my room, he showed up unannounced with his friend Carlos Carvajal. Typical Jaime. Carlos was a real adventure cyclist, having completed a 25,000 km bike ride around South America. Carlos and I chatted for a few minutes, but I wanted to spend a little time enjoying the evening in Jardin for myself. I walked out to the large hotel balcony that overlooks the village square. Families and friends sat outside the cafes, chatting and drinking. It was busy yet calm and serene. I sat, watched, listened, and allowed the magic of this little coffee town keep me warm as the evening slowly cooled into clear, crisp darkness.

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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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